The Contemporary Condition

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The End of Boehner

Thomas Dumm
Amherst College
“Some in Congress and the White House hold out hope that Mr. Boehner’s departure and the election of a new speaker will break the fever among conservatives, who have been plotting his downfall for over a year, and grant his replacement a grace period . . . But more prevalent is a sense of dread that an already bitter and divisive political atmosphere is about to get even worse.” New York Times, Sunday, September 28, 2015. 
A recent poll of American voters asked respondents if they could imagine circumstances under which they could support a military coup in the United States. 43% of Republican respondents said yes, while only 32% said no. Overall, 29% of Americans could support a coup, while 41% could not. As frightening as this poll result is, it is embedded in a survey of attitudes toward major American institutions. In response to a question asking if the military wants what is best for the country, 70% said yes, while 12% said no. Asked if Congress wants what is best for the country, the numbers were practically the reverse: 12%, yes, 71%, no.
If the rise of Donald Trump is evidence of degraded fascism coming into the mainstream of American politics, then this poll is but another sign of how at least one major American political party is coming to be synonymous with the authoritarian impulse underlying this fascism. Let us think about what the resignation of John Boehner as Speaker of the House of Representatives means in this context.
John Boehner wanted the same policies enacted that his opponents within the “Freedom Caucus” – those far right members of Congress who mainly came into the House in the 2010 election – wanted. The difference is that these members believe that by failing to prevent bills on budget allocations and extension of debt from being passed without the amendments they insist upon, Boehner was betraying the cause of true conservatism. It appears that he quietly hoped that his resignation would at least protect those members of the GOP caucus who would still have supported him in a leadership vote, but also who, by publicly voting to retain him, would have risked a primary challenge from the far right in the next electoral cycle. 
What this means at the level of legislative tactics is that the faction that wants to shut down the government in the name of budgetary responsibility and the protection of fetuses, is doing so knowing that this move is but a barely disguised means for further marginalizing the increasingly non-white population of the United States, a minority which threatens to become a majority within the next decade. Destroying the remnants of the social safety net is by design a way to make those people suffer. For some of the members of the coalition imposing such suffering is an end in itself, what they perceive to be an appropriate punishment imposed on those who they believe are parasites. In that sense Planned Parenthood is but an example of the outsourcing of health services to a private entity: the real meat cleaver is to be major budget cuts that are to be taken exclusively from social welfare programs, which were demonized by Mitt Romney in 2012 as the government giving things to people, a sentiment echoed this past weekend by Jeb Bush. 
Posted by the Oklahoma Federation for Republican Women
In this way, because of its timeliness a tactic of political positioning morphs into the substance of policy. The austerity politics that have been a part and parcel of an explicit effort at neoliberal governance over the past thirty years now has a more brutal and blunt political effect. Here is where it is also necessary to ask whether and when conditions could develop which would contribute to a new reliance on “our most trusted institution,” because shutting down the government is a path toward creating the conditions of unrest that would serve as an excuse for the further repression of the poor, the marginalized and those who would dissent, both within and without the institutions of the media and academia. Black Lives Matter is currently being demonized as responsible for shootings of police throughout the country, even though there is no evidence that police shootings have been occurring at a rate any higher than before the rise of this new civil rights movement. A new group called Blue Lives Matter is growing rapidly, and Donald Trump himself has weighed in, not with the insipid response “All lives matter!” but by denouncing Black Lives Matter, and the residents of Ferguson, Missouri, as being a bunch of gang members, many of them, of course, illegal immigrants from Mexico and central America.
The price any new speaker of the House must pay in order to assume office will be to follow the script of the Freedom Caucus. Already threats of a similar fate to Boehner are being made in regard Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority leader who has behaved in a similar manner, looking in the end for a way to pass the legislation that would keep government running without the trauma of shutdown. 
    This leveraging of power by a minority has its historical precedents in the fracturing of the Second International shortly before the Russian Revolution, when the minority Bolsheviks outmaneuvered the majority Mensheviks at the Party Congress. 
Border Vigilantes, Arizona
   Perhaps a closer parallel would be the historical situation of the early 1930s in Germany, when the Nazi Party, damning the austerity policies of the Centre Party, which ruled through the emergency decrees of President von Hindenburg, succeeded in winning over the industrialists who held the balance of political power at the time. Hitler lost the 1932 election to Hindenburg. But by the end of 1933 his party became the only legal party after his ascent to the Chancellorship, at a moment when the German military, in its wisdom, decided that it needed to throw in its hand with the fascists, believing it could control them, because they, the military, were the most trusted and beloved institution in the country, you know, above politics. The Potsdam meeting of von Hindenburg and Hitler, a sign of the unity of military and political power, led to the establishment of the Reich by the end of that year, with Hitler, of course, as the Fuhrer. 
Fox News Analyst, Monica Crowley
 But the most relevant historical parallel may be the overthrow of Salvador Allende by Augusto Pinochet on September 11, 1973. After the austerity economics introduced into the Chilean economy by Chicago school economics in the late 1960s, Allende was the head of the socialist government elected to end this experiment in neo-liberal economics. In a US backed coup, Allende committed suicide and Pinochet established a dictatorship, presuming to rule in the name of the people, completely ignoring the electoral results, with the help of Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon in order to impose this non-electoral will.
To invoke these historical examples is always to risk hyperbole, and so to risk dismissal. But at this point, that is a risk that must be run by those who want to resist the direction the politics of the United States is headed in. That every new iteration of fascism looks and sounds differently than prior iterations doesn’t mean that there is no reason to compare the past to present, and the present to the future.
Of course no one can predict the specific way in which democracy in the United States, already hollowed out and degraded by neoliberal governmentality – see Wendy Brown’s Undoing the Demos for the detailed indictment – might fall. But the way the current political cycle is being run, especially the race for the presidential nomination among the Republican candidates, gives rise to deep concerns. Whether engaging in bald-faced lies that while continually refuted are nonetheless repeatedly told without being called what they are, lies, by the press (see Carli Fiorina’s fictionalized version of beating hearts and brain harvesting by Planned Parenthood ghouls, an accusation cynically made simply to enlist extremists as supporters), or the continued argument for more austerity in the face of all evidence indicating its failure as a means of economic growth, or the continued demonization of undocumented immigrants as criminals when they are among the most law-abiding of residents in the country, the Republicans continue to be a mainstream presence in political discourse. These examples can be multiplied, and they all point toward a level of willful ignorance based in fear that lies at the heart of all fascist movements. The margin moves to the center, and only in retrospect do people wonder why such radically bad political actors were able to take power. It can happen here, and to a large extent it has already begun.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Democracy's Dark Side

John Buell is a columnist for The Progressive Populist and a faculty adjunct at Cochise College. His most recent book is Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age.

When liberals, progressives, or leftists of any stripe criticize our contemporary economic order, they are accused of class war. They are rebuked with the claim that gaps in income and wealth reflect the operations of the market and are therefore fair. Both of these contentions are false. Unfortunately American democracy has failed to address these falsehoods and in fact contributes mightily to inequities it is committed to address.  Our democracy’s failings and the classic and modern theoretical perspectives that might mitigate these are the subject of a provocative new book by Steven Johnston, American Dionysia: Violence, Tragedy, and Democratic Politics.

If there is a class war, it is one being waged on behalf of the wealthy. Its vehicles are law, federal and state courts, administrative agencies, state and federal legislatures, and the corporate media. The ideology governing this class war is called neoliberalism. Perhaps the most obvious instance of this neoliberal agenda is the Trans Pacific Partnership. Though purportedly a “market friendly” instrument, one of its central goals is to achieve protected status for patents and trademarks. Nations that strive to make medication more affordable by providing generic drugs would be subject to countervailing suits and huge damage judgments. Similarly, banking regulations, more strict in many of our foreign competitors, would be reduced to the lowest common denominator. As for labor unions, even though the agreement purportedly contains some language about the right to organize, there is no enforcement means parallel to those regarding patents and copyrights. So much for the argument that these agreements should not interfere with domestic politics. Such interference is acceptable, even to be encouraged, when “intellectual property” is involved.

These legal and political structures lie at the heart of income and wealth inequality. Yet even these phrases sugar coat the state’s real impact. Johnston avoids the cool euphemisms. Neolliberalism maims and kills. It takes citizens in both the developed and especially the developing world. When financial markets collapse, houses are foreclosed on and families risk homelessness, especially as rental costs escalate. Healthcare denied leaves citizens to die.

Though a variety of liberals, socialists, social democrats may with good reason blame corporate capitalists, their think tanks, and their massive and self-reinforcing political contributions for neoliberalism’s casualties, democratic majorities both today and from our very founding should not be exempted from responsibility.

For starters, the market in land that bolstered a middle class society was founded in violence against Native Americans, takings that have never been adequately compensated. Even the Constitution stood as no barrier to exploitation of Native peoples. As Andrew Jackson replied to a Supreme Court decision supporting Native American land claims: “John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.” These takings represented more than a redistribution of property. The settlers eradicated native systems of land use and tenure. These were not recognized as legitimate because they did not conform to emerging bourgeois notions of land as a commodity that could be exploited, bought and sold. Then, as Johnston puts it, “the nation to be secured its freedom thanks, at least in part, to weapons purchased by the wealth slavery generated.”

To Johnston’s analysis I would add that further economic reforms, including general laws of incorporation, and limited liability helped turn a society that used markets into a market society, one in which land, labor, and money itself were treated as speculative commodities.

Johnston suggests US citizens need not only reforms that would challenge these market consolidations but more broadly a new counter-class war. History provides some potent examples—such as the Roman Tribunate, an institution giving Rome’s poorer citizens the ability to block legislation that would harm them. Finally we need a new democratic ethos, one informed by a tragic vision that recognizes democracy’s limits.

Democracy is caught in several related paradoxes. It promises much but given its exacting standards it cannot deliver. It thus produces periodically inordinate resentments.

Given its commitments to mutual self-rule, equality, it suggests a brand new day in politics. Democracy seems content to allow patriotism free reign insofar as patriotism obscures the tragic dynamics that bedevil it. Democracies see themselves as uniquely vulnerable and resort to tactics worthy of their enemies. Abuses are considered incidental, regrettable, and correctible, thanks in part to democracy’s reigning principles, especially procedural norms. Can theorists and activists fashion an ethos and practice that will address these systematic injustices?

Recasting Democracy

With its overarching confidence in itself, democracies often produce dubious outcomes in emergency situations. Often these emergencies are consequences of policies pursued by elites and then subsequently inflated in the mainstream corporate media. Or they are manufactured by elites in support of the reigning ideology. Think: the Gulf of Tonkin.

Steven Johnston, author of American Dionysia, provides a powerful reminder of democracy’s systematic faults, but he is no anti-democrat. His goal is to articulate and defend a tragic sensibility that might enable a more sustainable and mature democracy, one that would inflict less harm on its own citizens as well as the world. Democratic life involves taking on the burdens of success. Success mandates the continuation of politics because victory is made possible by those who suffer defeat, loss, injury and death. Injury is inevitable and unavoidable. It does not necessarily result from evil intentions. It “flows from the incompatibility of equally worthy goals… from the injustice that justice often entails, the unpredictable character of action in concert, and the stubborn nature of things.”

Such a sensibility engenders and is engendered by a view of the nature of the cosmos. The world is a “difficult, forbidding, uncertain, volatile, resistant, dangerous, and lethal” place. He adds: “A world so composed must be navigated with care and concern.”

Tragedy properly understood does not foster resignation but rather new bursts of creative energy. We act knowing that success and failure await us, but failure itself creates new options and possibilities.

Democracy must be forced to reflect on itself, which can be done though both through new memorials and rituals. Several imaginative examples, inspired by both classical tragedy and contemporary culture are presented. Thus, following from some of Rousseau’s institutional suggestions, Johnston advocates an annual reparations assembly mandated by law. This assembly would be duty-bound to hear the grievances of citizens who have been harmed by politics. Though such as assembly might well become an occasion for wealthy landowners, real estate developers, and financial tycoons to trumpet the harms of redistribution, even the most thoughtful reforms can be carried out with needless cruelty and have unintended consequences. In any case such an assembly today is hardly likely to strengthen resistance to egalitarian redistribution, and since many income disparities today are the result of state action rather than pure free markets it will give the voices of egalitarianism more opportunities.

Desmond Tutu
Reparations assemblies might have changed some of our troubled history. I am led to ponder the fate of those who once engaged in what are now almost universally recognized as evil pursuits.  Reparations assemblies might have serve as a kind of truth and reconciliation commission. Following the Civil War, union soldiers received pensions. Those who fought for the Confederacy received no such benefits, and their taxes helped fund these pensions. This benefit of course was denied to slaveholders, but most of the Confederate soldiers were not slave owners and often suffered in competition with slave labor. What might our history have been like if at some point such an assembly had awarded generous pension to former slaves and at least modest amounts, to poor and working class veterans of the Confederacy. Would these citizens been so easily recruited for Kevin Phillips' southern strategy?

Democracies need to curb their foreign abuses as well. Democracies must make the effort to see themselves though the eyes of the enemy. He suggests placing a commemorative plaque including the names of the perpetrators at the site of 9/11. When Americans look up at the site of the rubble they may have more of a sense of what others see when they think of us.

In what is likely to be at least as controversial, Johnston argues for a reassessment of the relation between violence and democracy. Violence and democracy are usually seen as antithetical. Yet contemporary democracy practices violence on a daily basis. Equally our democracy, which purports to be the world’s example, was founded in violence against both property and people. What were the original Tea Partyers but precursors of today’s much- reviled “looters” and “takers?” Though nonviolence is often portrayed as the key to the success of the Civil Rights movement, the threat of violence helped create an incentive to deal with these protests, just as the threat of violence encouraged Roman patricians to accept the institution of the Tribunate. Johnston is not advocating any shoot out with highly militarized police, but there may be situations in which strategic violence, violence that would not spiral out of control, could avert even far greater death.

I would add two points. Even nonviolence is not as pure as it purports. Reinhold Niebuhr pointed out in Moral Man and Immoral Society that even such nonviolent actions as blocking a train could deny needed food to those at the end of the line. He also added that the success of nonviolence depended on the moral ideals of those on the receiving end.

In today's continuing rush to foreclosure on delinquent mortgages the Occupy movement in cities as diverse as Atlanta and Detroit has engaged in actions designed to prevent foreclosures. In escalating rental markets, these actions might evolve into citizen patrols that would forcefully resist evictions.  Violence might flow from such encounters, but the public attitude would not necessarily treat these patrols as disreputable lawbreakers. And how would local governments react? One who has imbibed a tragic view of politics realizes there is no certain answer. We can thank Steven Johnston for making these questions clearer and more pressing.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Degraded Fascism, Nihilism, and Donald Trump

 Thomas Dumm
 Amherst College
“Nihilists! Fuck me. I mean, say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it's an ethos.”
The Coen brothers, in lines for Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski (1998)
So declaims Walter Sobchak, when told by Jeff Lebowski, AKA, the Dude, that he is being harassed by some ex-members of a German band called Autobahn, who claim to be nihilists. Regardless of whether these fictional miscreants actually meet the definition of nihilist, I think Walter may have been on to something, if not about the nihilists, then about the Nazis in comparison. 

What makes me think of this passage from that film these days? Nothing else than the remarkable candidacy of Donald Trump for the Republican nomination for president of the United States. Mr. Trump has been subject to enormous scrutiny since he announced his candidacy in a hate-filled rambling speech given after descending the lobby escalator of his eponymously named tower in Manhattan a couple of months ago now. This is the speech in which he made his now infamous remarks about Mexicans being rapists and murderers, and some of them being good people, he guessed. Since then, there have been repeated prophecies concerning when Trump would “jump the shark,” as the show business phrase has it. As of yet, he has not suffered any decline in ratings (oops, I mean public opinion), even after his repeated insults of other candidates, his denigration of the Vietnam era hero and former presidential candidate John McCain, after his vitriolic attacks on Megan Kelly of Fox News following her critical questioning of him during the first Republican presidential debate, after issuing his first “policy paper,” which called for building a wall at the Mexican border using slave labor, after having proposed an end to  the 14th Amendment guarantee of citizenship to those born in the United States, after having Jorge Ramos, the most prominent Latino journalist in the United States, thrown out of one of his press conferences, telling him “Go back to Univision!”, after  hurling insult upon insult at his competitors for the nomination, the slurring of various minorities and their representatives (Black Lives Matter is a hate group, according to him, and Ferguson, Missouri is filled with gangs who had their origins in Mexico), Trump continues to gain.

 As has now been noted by everybody, every time he does something conventionally called outrageous, Trump moves further up in the polls among Republican candidates for president. He berates Jeb! Bush for speaking in Spanish in his public appearances, and his poll numbers among Republicans increase. (I am reminded of the woman in Texas long ago who, insisting that everyone ought to speak only English, remarked, “If English was good enough for Jesus, it should be good enough for everyone.”)
Many of the explanations given for Trump’s enduring appeal as a candidate are convincing: he is expressing the frustrations of the right-wing white male nationalists and racists that now compose the core constituency of the Republican Party, doing so without any subtlety, subtlety being yet another sign of weakness for that subsection of the electorate; he is skilled at self-presentation, a natural on television as only someone long practiced in the free-form art of “reality” television can be, and hence is not thrown off message by challenges to the truth of what he says; his enormous wealth and decades of building the Trump brand have made him both familiar and widely admired among the Ayn Randians who compose so much of the core constituency of the GOP; his cheerful hatred, on display in every public appearance, mocking his competitors, denigrating anyone who disagrees with him, demonizing those he knows are hated by racists who seek someone to represent them in their hatred—all this provides psychic pleasure to those who love him and those who do not, stimulating a Lacanian jouissance as a core response to his persona by both those who hate the capital O Other and those who hate him. 

Trump appeals to those who believe that the decline of the US is a consequence of foreign power and betrayal (sound familiar?) Consider for just a moment the opinions of those who currently support him. 66% of them believe Obama is Muslin, 12% that he is Christian.  61% believe Obama was not born in the US, 21% that he was. 63% want a Constitutional amendment to end birthright citizenship, 20% do not. But also consider this: these views are not unreflective of the overall GOP primary electorate. 51% of Republican voters say eliminate birthright citizenship, 54% say Obama is a Muslim, and only 29% affirm that he was born in the US (while 40% inaccurately believe that Ted Cruz was born in the US.) (Figures taken from Digby Parsons’ blog post on Salon, September 3). In other words, Trumpism resonates because the GOP has become a far right racist nationalist political party.
 Any and all of these factors contribute to a sense of the power of Trump. But even as I list these factors, I feel a sense of unease. This is all too easy, in a sense. There are too many explanations here, and all of them make sense. Trump, we might say, is the over-determined presidential candidate.      
But that isn’t quite it. In thinking about how to understand Trump, I returned first to a book that has, perhaps, not received the attention it may deserve, Diane Rubinstein’s This Is not a President. Deeply devoted to both Jacques Lacan and Jean Baudrillard, Rubinstein presents the American presidency as a sort of psychic sinkhole into which we collectively-- by way of popular culture, press, television, and increasingly social media--whisper our deepest and least respectable desires. The presidency thus is a screen onto which we project our affective responses to what we perceive to be our culture at large. In this sense, Trump is a figment of the collective imagination; he makes our secret desires acceptable; he has a way, like many other fascists, of making obscenity respectable. That is the first point concerning his art.

But I want to focus my comments elsewhere. For me, a deeper answer to the appeal of Trump can be found in how he operationalizes fascism in an American context composed of universal and highly fragmented media of mass communication and social media composed of increasing isolated affinity groups. My ur-text here is “The Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproducibility.” In that classic essay Walter Benjamin described the pre-conditions for the rise of fascism in Europe in 1939, namely, the proletarianization of modern man and the concomitant development of mass society. For Benjamin, fascism attempts to give the masses a way of expression while leaving property relations intact. He writes, “It sees its salvation in granting expression to the masses – but on no account granting them rights . . . The logical outcome of fascism is an aestheticizing of political life.” 

 Benjamin goes on to cite Italian futurists, whose manifesto for the colonial war on Ethiopia celebrates the aesthetics of war. “War is beautiful because – thanks to its gas masks, its terrifying megaphones, its flame throwers, and light tanks – it establishes man’s dominion over the subjugated machine. War is beautiful because it inaugurates the dream of metallization of the human body. War is beautiful because it combines gunfire, barrages, cease-fires, scents, and the fragrance of putrefaction into a symphony. War is beautiful because it creates new architectures, like those of armored tanks, geometric squadrons of aircraft, spirals of smoke from burning villages, and much more.” 
Benjamin adds an interesting footnote to this observation, in which he notes that the newsreel is incredibly significant as a propaganda tool in the context of war, and that it works especially well in presenting the masses to themselves, in “recording” images, especially of mass movements that cannot really be comprehended by the naked eye. “This is to say that mass movements, including war, are a form of human behavior especially suited to the camera.” Hence, for Benjamin, war itself becomes the quintessential fascist event in the 20th century.
I would suggest that the European fascism of the first part of the twentieth century has its degraded counterpart in the form of an American fascism suited to the twenty-first. Trumpism is the current incarnation of this degraded fascism, in which the newsreel in the movie theatre is replaced by the resonating power of Fox News – William Connolly’s seminal essay on right-wing resonance machines is apropos here -- and the impotent admiration of the MSNBC resonance machine, especially as embodied by Chris Matthews, he who felt a thrill up his leg when he heard Obama speak at the 2004 Democratic National convention. In the month of August MSNBC devoted as much if not more time to coverage of Trump than did Fox News, in part to chase ratings, but also, I would suggest, in a new quest to find that leg thrill. If it is not the thrill of the beauty of war in the Futurists’ vision, it is nonetheless a thrill provoked by a thought of violence and vengeance. 
It is here, on screens tuned in to the remaining shards of televised news, not in the rallies and demonstrations that accompanied 20th century fascism, that we find reflected the demonizing hatred that is widely celebrated by those who think of themselves as white (to borrow from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me), as patriotism, the ferocious protectionism of the nation by the building of walls (paid for by the blood and money of the once again newly conquered), and the eternal Manichean choice between us and them is brought into vivid focus by the shifting demographics of an imperial power in decline.
The apotheosis of this powerful movement here in the United States has been the staging of what are being called, with no irony, presidential nominating debates. These strange gatherings, in which real debate in the form of exchanges between candidates holding differing views is practically prohibited, now constitute the number one prime time special events programming for the United States. Twenty-three million viewers tuned into the first Republican debates. So now the medium for a fascist political spectacle is not the Nuremburg rally but a collective gathering before digital screens.

This is fascism; it is a new means for giving expression to the masses, while ensuring that the underlying economic arrangements remain intact. But I want to suggest something more -- that this is nihilism as well. Why? Fascism, as a totalitarian political force, insists upon an intense organization of its masses. That is a part of its aesthetic. Trumpism -- for lack of a better term – is not nearly so organized. In his presidential campaign Trump is closer to the character of the Joker in the second of Chris Nolan’s Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight, the man who, as Alfred the butler puts it, simply likes to watch the world burn. Like the Joker, for Trump there are no guarded moments, no forethought in his improvisations. His policy pronouncements are closer to being automatic writing than coherent attempts to demonstrate solutions to problems, sketches on the back of envelopes that are then farmed out to hack consultants to puff up in to white papers.  I think that this is because at the heart of Trumpism is the branding of Trump.  I suspect that a President Trump would be a new Peron without the military uniform. In short, as an ideology it would lack the courage of its lack of conviction. 
But the core danger of Trumpism can be found if we continue with the Joker analogy, because what the Joker’s nihilism does in that film is provoke a vigilante response by both the District Attorney of Gotham and, eventually, in The Dark Knight Rises, the Batman himself. (See Steve Johnston’s 2012 post on that film.) In other words, even should Trump’s own campaign implode, he is already inspiring others to take up the racist cudgel and swing it. Hence Scott Walker’s call for a fence on the Canadian border; hence Jeb! Bush’s use of the term “anchor baby”; hence Mike Huckabee’s paranoid insistence that there is now a war against Christians being waged by the Supreme Court; hence . . . well, every day seems to provide yet another example.  
The technological advances that have destroyed the middle class, the war against the commons that has precipitated educational decline, and the enormous demographic shift that has been taking place in the United States over the past thirty years, all of which can be traced back to the rise of neo-liberalism, from Reagan to Obama, provide fertile soil in which this degraded form of fascism can grow. It is actually possible that Trump’s campaign might succeed, especially if he doesn’t either get distracted by some other shiny object, or discovers that he might lose significant amounts of money if he actually assumes the presidency. Trumpism is a cartoon vision of fascism. 
 It is a black comedic expression of a nihilism that is very much like the nihilism Cornel West decried over a decade ago in reference to young African American men, a what the hell attitude that is really a product of despair. This time, though, it is the despair of the old, the people who call themselves white, the racist, the men who were once in charge but are no longer, and the young white men who see no future for themselves, still dreamers of the dream of an America in which they won’t have to be confronted by the Other in all of its terrifying Otherness.
  Trump pours gasoline on this fire, but does so in such a way as to defy others to challenge him for doing so. He pokes fun at his competitors for the presidency, especially the men who pretend to be in charge, especially poor Jeb! Bush, because they are, in fact, more pretend than he is, hiding their hatred under dog whistle code words. They fail to admit that they hate, and even worse, fail to enjoy their pretense of not hating. Trump isn’t like that. He embodies those resentments of the privileged and powerful, he hates those who get in his way, but he hates cheerfully, and in the end he doesn’t care. He is actually having fun, again, very much like the Joker. His shrug, his facial grimace as he dismisses those who attack him as losers, his entire shtick, is devoted to fun, and to not caring. To have him as the American president would be to have someone who, not so much wouldn’t know what he was doing, as much as someone who didn’t care what he did, just so long as he continued to gather attention to himself. That is nihilism, American style, a new name for an old narcissism of those who still think of themselves as white. 

(The initial incentive for writing this essay was an invitation to participate on a panel on the Art of Elections at the APSA Annual Meeting in September, 2015. Thanks to Nancy S. Love for the invitation.)

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Calling in Sanders: Black Lives Matter, Public Disruptions, and the Antiblackness of Progressive Optimism

Chad Shomura
Johns Hopkins University
One day short of a year since the murder of Michael Brown, Bernie Sanders was to speak at a public event in Seattle, Washington. After he thanked Seattle for “being one of the most progressive cities” in the US, Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford, two black women, took to the stage and demanded to be heard. Before yielding the stage, a white male organizer said, “We are trying to be reasonable... We are going to give you the mic—after Senator Sanders.” Those remarks continue the long-standing racist and sexist dismissal of dissent by black women. They signal a progressivist version of liberal colonialist attempts to confine blacks to what Dipesh Chakrabarty calls the “waiting rooms of history."
  Refusing to be made to wait, Johnson passionately denounced colonial settlement, gentrification, racial profiling, Seattle's proclivity to punish blacks from a young age, and the fact that she had to fight her way through a crowd to insist that her life matters. She was met by cries of support and a flood of angry boos. By denouncing white supremacy before a largely hostile white audience of supposedly progressive allies, Johnson and Willaford demonstrated a bravery that beneficiaries of white privilege largely do not understand.
It is important for black protestors to change the distribution of speakers, issues, and affects of public spaces. Along with Martin O'Malley, Sanders was first interrupted in July at the Netroots Nation conference in Phoenix, Arizona, by Black Lives Matter activists Tia Oso, Ashley Yates, and BLM co-founder Patrisse Cullors. They emphasized the importance of “holding the space” to address the state of emergency in which blacks have been relegated for centuries. BLM has rattled the intimate public of the Left, which has found in Sanders the best chance to pursue the unfinished business of progress that has fallen flat during Barack Obama's tenure.
 To protect that optimism, Sanders has been defended across social media and news outlets, oftentimes through criticisms of BLM. Some defenses have been thoughtful; others have ranged from dismissive to explicitly racist. The most common have included: (1) Sanders is the best ally of minorities, as evidenced by his legislation and participation in the Civil Rights Movement; (2) BLM has not shut down events held by Clinton or any of the Republican candidates, who would make better targets; (3) BLM has not supplemented disruption with positive proposals; (4) BLM activists are being disrespectful, selfish, childish, and even opportunistic (one comment on a Facebook thread accused BLM protestors of harboring careerist motives. Though the author retracted that remark after it was challenged, the “likes” it received still stand); (5) Johnson and Willaford have been damaging to BLM and the pursuit of racial justice more broadly; and (6) BLM is an episode in the Left defeating itself through division or identity politics, which amounts to a win for bourgeois, conservative power.
   These responses to BLM—a movement founded and led predominantly by black women—have been advanced overwhelmingly by whites (more often by men than women) and less frequently by blacks and non-black people of color—a fact that is reason for greater reflection. This pattern repeats the trend of whites championing non-whites who agree with their positions and enable them to deflect accusations of racism. That non-whites iterate the same criticisms as whites, however, does not necessarily prove the validity of those criticisms. It suggests that respectability politics is one of their common frames—a frame that props up whiteness by abjecting black voices and radical actions, of BLM and of black women in particular. That abjection is happily supported by the Right.
  It is wrong to say that criticisms of BLM are necessarily racist and patriarchal. It is also wrong to say that defenders of Sanders must be racist, sexist, or playing white. Nonetheless, the pattern above is striking. More alarming still is when defenders of Sanders decry BLM with a similar vehemence to that of the Right. One could easily imagine a game in which criticisms of BLM are shuffled and players guess whether a comment is from a defender of Sanders or from the figureheads and viewership of Fox News. Players might be surprised half of the time.
  For that reason and others, there is an antiblack strand within the most progressive zone of presidential politics today. If there is a history lesson here, it might be that hierarchies of race and gender have been employed to protect optimism in shots for a better world.
Wangechi Mutu, A Shady Promise, 2006.
To be clear: I am unsettled by how quickly, how self-assuredly, and how aggressively defenders of Sanders—especially when they are white men—have blamed BLM protestors—especially when they are black women—for “disrupting” and “shutting down” Sanders's events, for not thinking or acting strategically, and for diminishing the ostensibly best possibility for social and political progress. Because there are many counter-arguments to defenses of Sanders, one might expect greater forbearance and thoughtful reflection, especially from those who are not black. I am writing this piece as someone who supports both Black Lives Matter and Sanders and whose body is not marked for poverty, intense surveillance, incarceration, brutality, and premature death. I hope that supporters of Sanders who are similarly privileged will consider the following points and that those who do not share that privilege will correct me where I am wrong: 

-A view of BLM as “disruptive” might marginalize black voices by implying them to be outside of and even threatening to Sanders's campaign rather than as integral contributors from within.
-It might be appropriate to say that BLM has “interrupted” Sanders's speeches but inaccurate to say they “shut them down.” As Cullors said at the Netroots event, “It's not like we like shutting shit down but we have to.” When non-blacks say that BLM shuts down Sanders's speeches, it is not because they recognize the agency of black protestors; they are playing a blame game that overlooks the fact that Sanders could have listened and responded to specific concerns on the spot.
-A view of BLM as only interruptive overlooks its demands, which include demilitarization of law enforcement, publication of the names of officers involved in the deaths of black people, and redirection of funds from law enforcement to housing, education, and employment for impoverished black communities.
-It is not enough to say that Sanders has now incorporated BLM demands into his racial justice platform. Defenders of Sanders have to acknowledge that the direct action of black protestors played a significant role—even if they (the defenders) felt deeply upset by the interruptions in Phoenix and Seattle. Non-black defenders should further acknowledge that the pursuit of racial justice will make them uncomfortable and that bad feelings are not sufficient reasons for shouting down black voices and challenging black tactics.
-One could view Sanders and many of his defenders as slow to respond to the rich and powerful BLM protests across the nation. Couldn't Sanders have proactively reached out to BLM to shape his racial justice platform so that it would not have to interrupt him? When those interruptions have happened, why has he not listened and respond to BLM's concerns on the spot? Why did he threaten to leave in Phoenix? Why did he leave in Seattle? Wouldn't reaching out, listening, and responding to BLM on the spot have given Sanders enormous political capital—something desired by his defenders? Why haven't defenders been supporters by holding Sanders accountable, not for purposes of political capital but for racial justice? Is this deficit of accountability shaped by race?
-When they refer to his record, defenders of Sanders seem to believe that blacks can be absorbed into the category of “people of color” while they lump together differently racialized, gendered, and sexualized groups under the conveniently flat label of “minorities.” This presumption, as scholars such as Frank Wilderson and Jared Sexton have pointed out, denies the specificity of antiblack racism—something that could be more greatly acknowledged by Sanders and his supporters.
-It is possible that some in BLM have been targeting Sanders because they view him as their greatest ally and thus hope that he'll address their concerns.
-It can be patronizing for non-blacks to proclaim which presidential candidate will best serve black lives. The complexity and diversity of black needs cannot be encapsulated by presidential platforms nor can they be determined by non-blacks even when some blacks agree.
-To demand that BLM comport with presidential politics is to determine its function and thus deny its agency. That demand is incompatible with the movement's recent announcement that it will not endorse any political party.
-To say that BLM is threatening the nomination of Sanders or the possibility of a unified Left is to subordinate black voices to those of non-blacks. If so, then the progressivist optimism of Sanders's defenders relies on the extension of antiblackness.
-Claims that Johnson and Willaford have damaged the push for racial justice: (1) presume that non-blacks or some blacks know what is good for all black lives; (2) subordinates the pursuit of racial justice to terms that would be acceptable to non-blacks; (3) perpetuates the minoritization of blacks by turning challenges into appeals; (4) maintains the whiteness of public space by marginalizing black outrage to preserve non-black comfort; and (5) conceals these power plays through seemingly innocent terms like “strategies.”
-Dismissals of BLM as “identity politics” presume that police brutality, mass incarceration, and other offshoots of what Saidiya Hartman has called the “afterlife of slavery” are “black issues” that do not implicate everyone in the US. The label of “identity politics” is not only misguided; it absolves non-blacks of the responsibility to dismantle the systems of power that privilege them.
-Why not believe that the Left splinters itself when it does not proactively address antiblack racism? Who defined the core of the Left, centered it around Bernie, and made fights against antiblack racism a peripheral concern anyway? One suspect is “whiteness.”
-Finally, most appalling has been paternalistic claims that BLM needs to educate itself on Sanders's record and on how to organize, strategize, and effect change. Part of that criticism shifts the definition of political action into the hands of whiteness, with men as determiners and women and “respectable” people of color and blacks as supporters. Condemnations of the tactics of BLM presume that black protestors have not already been planning in ongoing, rich, and productive ways—a presumption that is particularly condescending given the magnitude and widespread success of BLM that is due to the wits and resilience of black activists today and to long histories of black resistance and radicalism that have literally changed the world.
Given this array of points (which is not at all exhaustive), my stomach turns when defenders of Sanders hastily close the disagreements that they arguably opened by not holding Sanders accountable for building a platform shaped at the outset by the demands of BLM. Some of the points raised by defenders are indeed important, such as the need for positive proposals and to think about the broader political field. Those points, which had already been made by blacks, are not untrue, just contestable—as are a number of the points I have made. We could go back and forth on numerous issues because objective standards of evaluation are unavailable.
   I am not saying that non-blacks cannot challenge BLM. That might be permissible if those of us who are not black exercise extreme caution because even well-meaning challenges can disqualify black voices through feats of speaker privilege. Antiblackness rears its head not only in explicit remarks and harsh tones but in quick assertions as well. We might wait for the emergence of black reactions to events, commit to an ethos of generous listening, identify the black voices with which we agree, and explicitly acknowledge the validity of black voices that disagree. These and other actions of patience and care might lead us to raise questions and suggestions rather than proclamations and judgments.
    Many defenders of Sanders have not acted in these ways. They have proceeded as if their arguments lie on solid ground and have presumed that BLM has not given thought to their issues, either properly or at all. Given the rapidity with which BLM has been criticized, I am worried that defenders of Sanders will begin to use the “We stand together” chant, which was designed by the Sanders campaign for the purpose of drowning out disruptions by black protestors.
 I am not wishing to call out Sanders and his defenders so much as to call them in, as Ngọc Loan Trần has put it. Sanders has indeed been more responsive to BLM than other candidates have been. Since the Netroots event, he has rolled out racial justice goals that accord with BLM's demands, responded to #SayTheirNames in his speeches, and hired the black criminal justice advocate Symone Sanders as his press secretary after she pressed him on issues raised by BLM. These shifts are genuine reasons for hope. They are not, however, reasons for an unchecked optimism that can be a vector of antiblack racism and sexism when it discredits blacks, speaks over them, shouts them down, and confines them to the waiting rooms of US history, whether progressivist or otherwise.
   To close this article and send off this call in, I offer the words of Sanders—not Bernie, but Symone: “Do I think everyone in the movement agrees with the way the protestors commanded the stage today? No. Am I going to condemn the protestors for standing up and expressing themselves? No. Because their voices matter.”

*Many thanks to Diana Leong and Jairus Grove for their helpful suggestions on an earlier version of this piece.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Meet the Death Party

Steven Johnston
is author of American Dionysia: Violence, Tragedy, and Democratic Politics.

Scott Walker’s July 13 announcement that he is running for president brings the number of candidates for the 2016 Republican nomination to fifteen. This is not a sign of party division but an expression of its unity. There are no moderate or reasonable and thus suspect Republicans in the field. The GOP is an extremist party. While Republicans insist that they stand for cherished American ideals of limited government, balanced budgets, individual freedom, energy independence, safe streets, small business, job creation, and states’ rights, they also cherish violence and death. The GOP is a minority party that attacks the conditions of possibility of economic, social, and political life for the majority of American citizens—as a matter of principle. It does not accept the legitimacy of alternative perspectives or parties and will paralyze or shut down government to prevent others from ruling. It thinks that it alone represents the nation and should act on its behalf. It will take actions that effectively cordon, marginalize, silence, subordinate, disempower, immiserate, and kill (sometimes spiritually, sometimes more literally) those it believes oppose or imperil its domain and dominion. The GOP cannot abide having to share a democratic country with others. It’s not that the Democratic Party does not seek to govern on its own terms, but Democratic terms allow for the lives of others to flourish. For the GOP, its terms are the only terms possible or tolerable. Its success is to be measured by its casualties.

When it comes to economics, labor, health care, immigration, education, criminal justice, environmental regulation, voting, and the democratic process itself, the Republican Party is governed by a militarized neoliberal ethos that devours the means of its enactment and threatens to destroy the ends of its ambition. 1) It favors a plethora of violent austerity measures that exacerbate unemployment and reduce or eliminate assistance to those in need, aggravate home foreclosures, worsen hunger and homelessness, all targeting the lower orders and designed to keep them in their impotent, impoverished place. 2) It would dismantle public (and private) unions and roll back the hard-won achievements of generations of workers because they had the audacity to rise above their appointed station and make a better life for themselves and their children. 3) Because it loathes the very idea of a government initiative that might succeed, it works obsessively (and will tell any lie) to deny insurance for basic life-sustaining health care to millions who suffer unnecessary ills and premature death without it. 4) It would uproot and deport millions of hardworking honorable people who come to America seeking a better way of life and tear apart their families because the United States is and can no longer be a mirror of their racial reflection. 5) It starves, kills, and renders unaffordable the greatest public university system the world has ever produced because it is public and also because it teaches students to think critically about the very the country that produced it. It thereby saddles millions of students with inescapable debt thereby subverting their life prospects before they have fully begun. 6) It advocates the routine and gratuitous execution of death row inmates in whatever cruel fashion is available because it must kill them as an expression of its insatiable ressentiment at a world it can’t control. 7) Through its knee-jerk crusades for deregulation and energy extraction, it blithely degrades the earth and poisons the air and water in the name of unbridled capital accumulation and unsustainable consumer appetites, compromising the planet beyond repair and dooming generations to come to unknown hardships and hells. 8) To cement these necrotic ambitions into place, Republicans would deny millions of voters the right to exercise the franchise with bogus claims and hysterical fears of voter fraud that would return many so denied to a condition of democratic racial inferiority. 9) As for elections, Republicans, aided and abetted by an angrily aggressive and activist Roberts Court, would reduce democracy to nothing more than a private check-writing exercise by contending plutocrats who think their arbitrary economic position entitles them to political hegemony.

When it comes to gay marriage, reproductive freedom, religious privilege, and foreign policy, the Republican Party is governed by moralizing reactionary imperatives that require others to conform to its manner of living and codes of conduct regardless of their compatibility with an egalitarian democratic sensibility rooted in mutual dignity and respect. 1) It endeavors to exclude citizens unlike themselves from the enjoyment of life-defining and meaning-giving institutions such as marriage, even vowing to change the Constitution to legitimize discrimination. If you’re like Scott Walker, you’ll wrap this apartheid in professions of love, professions that conceal their anger at the formation of a world that runs counter to your system of values. 2) In its unyielding determination to eliminate abortion and force pregnancy on women, it would deny them access to health clinics for proper medical procedures and care, despite the lethal dangers such denial entails as women are forced to seek other options, where they can exercise fundamental rights to control their bodies and lives. 3) It believes that Christian fundamentalists should be able to indulge any creedal whim they entertain, in any area of life, give it the force of law, and require its intended targets to accept second-class civic treatment and status. 4) It believes the American war on terror across the globe grants it exceptional license to unleash its apocalyptic military power wherever and whenever it pleases regardless of the consequences, whether to regional stability, innocent civilians, or American citizens. Those captured instead of killed on behalf of a new Pax Americana would find themselves rendered to Guantanamo, the inmate population of which should be increased, and possibly subjected to farcical judicial proceedings in kangaroo courts or just left to rot behind bars.

Republican predations involve more than presidential campaign posturing in an election season. In the spring House and Senate Republicans presented budget plans featuring drastic spending cuts coupled with no new taxes in the name of balancing the budget by the middle of the next decade. As Paul Krugman argues, the American right would happily see Greece-style devastation unleashed on the nation they claim to love if it furthers their economic, social, and political goals. They would also, ideally, privatize Medicare as part of their ideologically-driven mission to destroy a successful Federal social program precisely because it is successful. Social Security remains a target of choice for privatization. Hatred of public things is a deadly disease with them, which is also why they refuse to invest in public infrastructure projects and public education. Unless, of course, the spending increases the defense budget, which both enriches American defense contractors and enables America to maintain its imperial will-to-power in a recalcitrant world. And also kill. Republicans seethe at a nuclear arms deal and they very idea of diplomacy with Iran because it takes the military option off the table.

Republican commitment to violence and death expresses itself best not perhaps in austerity measures or its culture wars but in its will-to-kill in the criminal justice system where it enjoys freer rein (though here there is some neoliberal pushback given the absurd costs of capital trials). Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts denounced the Unicameral’s abolition of the death penalty, insisting, against all evidence, that it was a deterrent and necessary for public safety. He seemed to believe that since Nebraska has only 10 people on death row, the legislature had no real reason to act. This supposedly judicious use of the death penalty (it’s only ten lives), a perverse calculation indeed, obviated the need for legislative action of any kind. Despite this clear democratic expression of popular will, Rickets insists that he will kill the ten men who still sit on death row and try to force a referendum on the issue. Ricketts can’t not kill.

Dale Cox, a Louisiana prosecutor in Caddo Parrish, articulates the Republican ethos even better than Ricketts when he argues that “retribution is a valid societal interest.” Society can rejuvenate itself through precision killing. Not content to let this kind of ressentiment speak for itself, Cox does his best to stoke irrational fears, citing an alleged “increase in savagery” in American life that leads logically to, yes, cannibalism (killing and eating babies). Because the death penalty is principally and properly about revenge, the state must “kill more people.” Republicans not only seek to impose their ways of life on others without apology. They also act as if the casualties they leave in their wake are proof positive of the truth of their vision as well as their commitment to it.

Republicans, of course, do not understand themselves as the party of violence and death, but the signs and evidence proliferate. When the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act in United States v. Windsor, Antonin Scalia issued a bitter dissent. It is a remarkable piece of writing—not for its legal acumen but for Scalia’s sense of personal insult. To defend traditional marriage, Scalia complains, is to be deemed an “unhinged member of a wild-eyed lynch mob,” an “enemy of human decency,” and even an “[enemy] of the human race.” Scalia’s complaints amount to an inadvertent projection-cum-confession about how he views his political opponents. Accusing others of hate and of deeming their adversaries “monsters,” Scalia betrays the broader Republican mindset perfectly. In trying to deny, exclude, remove, restrict, impoverish, disappear, and disempower their enemies, they reveal the hatefulness that is at the core of their philosophies. No wonder, then, that compromise in unthinkable and defeat is unbearable. Peaceful coexistence is a condition to be overcome. The very real damage they can inflict on others thus appeals to their constituents. It shows that they are serious and to be taken seriously. The defense of principles, for them, must have consequences—especially for others. They come to life by denying it to them. The melodramatic style in which Republicans advance their causes and pursue their political agendas, positing irreparable world-historical harm to their sacred identities and identifications, to their moral values and their religious freedom, to their Constitution, and their American way of life confirms the dastardly, even monstrous nature of those who won’t let conservatives be and who seek to change the world for their own narcissistic ends. Conservatives must not only protect themselves from the claims (read: assaults) of those who invoke basic rights or equality. In the interim they must find new ways to reverse losses that cannot be allowed to stand. Believing their way of life is in danger; they do not hesitate to place others in like (or worse) danger. The GOP is in a rage. It cannot live any other way. The rest of us, if we’re not determined, will pay a steep price for their deadly ressentiment, as Nietzsche warned.