The Contemporary Condition

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Reality TV Trumps Politics




Lynne Joyrich,
Professor and Chair, Department of Modern Culture and Media, Brown University



Since the early morning of November 9, 2016, when, against almost all expectations and seemingly all logic, Donald Trump was declared the winner of the U.S. presidential election, it has been repeatedly said that the media "failed" the American public.[i] It is true that the great majority of news reporters and political analysts did not predict this result, and thus the more than 71 million television viewers who witnessed Trump's surprising win had good reason to be stunned and shocked.


As not only a television studies scholar but an avid television viewer, I was among those stunned viewers—but while, in a sense, I was shocked, I was not surprised. That is because this election was not at all operating within the logic of previous ones or with what we typically think of as political discourse: a discourse presumably centered on platforms, policy, and arguments for how to achieve certain goals. Instead, it operated fully through a media logic—through, precisely, the "reality televisualization" of political formations[ii]


In that sense, then, the media did not "fail." Rather, the media fully succeeded in producing a particular effect, even if those working in the media didn't quite realize this (and perhaps still haven't). This was not a simple instrumental effect (as in a "hypodermic needle" model of media impact). Instead, it is a kind of televisual epistemology and a televisual affect intertwined, a meshing of modes of thinking and modes of feeling, which has become the "medium" in which our politics now exist (with "medium" here not only referring to a media technology but also used in the scientific sense of the substance in which something lives and is "cultured" and even gesturing toward the occult reference to emanating and auratic sensations and communications).


Within this medium logic of reality televisualization, arguments and proofs don't matter, policy positions and reasoned discourse don't matter, a sense of division between truth and fantasy, real and unreal, and action and appearance doesn't matter. What matters for a candidate is what matters for a "contestant" on reality TV: constructing oneself as a strongly profiled persona—a kind of branded, celebrified image ("Winner!")—while also communicating clearly defined personae for one's opponents ("Lyin' Ted" or "Crooked Hillary"). What works in this reality TV formation, in other words, is the production and enactment of a particular type of personality: a media personality or brand that is able to "survive" on the island or avoid getting "fired," one that can "make it work," to come back and perform the next night instead of getting voted off. This is precisely the staple reality televisual personality, who shows that he or she is able to manage risks and rewards, to balance alliances and betrayals, to "lip-sync for your life," to act out in ways that read as both strategic and authentic—or, as Trump himself put it: to engage in "truthful hyperbole."[iii] By presenting just such a persona, Trump established himself as "the idol," "the voice," "the sole survivor," making it to the end of the "amazing race,"[iv] and garnering votes from an audience used to being asked to make its choice. 



This particular kind of construction of media personality is what, in performance and star studies, is called "personification."[v] Personification involves projecting a persona (both performing the self and "realizing" the performance) in which subject and role, private person and public image, ordinary individual and extraordinary representative become, paradoxically, both equated and equivocated: each acts as alibi for the another or maybe, more accurately, as mutual guarantees (like a product guarantee). The reality television celebrity can thus stand, all at once, for him/herself as subject, for the brand image, and for all the people invited to identify with and "feel" that brand; the persona becomes effective and affective (marked as authentic despite, or even because of, the artifice of invention) through the attachments that connect the personality to his/her public.



A focus on this enhanced persona yields, in other words, a kind of tribal individualism and an individualist tribalism. The loaded term "tribal" comes from reality television itself (where it has been used to divide contestants into and designate teams, with which we, as viewers, are encouraged to affiliate, much like by claiming ourselves on, say, "Team Bethenny" or "Team Kelly" [Real Housewives of New York], "Team Ronnie or Team Situation" [Jersey Shore], Team Jon or Team Kate [Jon & Kate Plus 8]). But the notion of a "tribal individualism"/"individualist tribalism" also perfectly describes Trump's populist nationalism, in which perceived individual success binds his affiliated group together rather than separating them (even with the enormous "real" differences between Trump and his constituents). This is a televisual logic, as television is located at exactly the borders of public and private, individual and social, sameness and strangeness, the everyday and the exceptional, the popular and the particular, the banal and the noteworthy, the fantastic and the real.[vi]


Given Trump's remarkable televisual instincts in manipulating those categories and the media persona he created for himself, his success was not that surprising from a Television Studies perspective. Deciding how to respond to the election is harder. Should those who oppose Trump simply and equally move toward reality televisualization? Should we give up on other modes of political discourse, on critical thinking, and on civic engagement, instead only to operate via the processes of branded and celebrified entertainment? This is not a trend we should embrace, and yet we need to realize that politics aren't operating according to old logics any more. We thus need to engage with media epistemologies and affects, with what Walter Benjamin called "aura" (here, the kind of media-produced aura that he linked to commodity and celebrity culture).[vii] While we certainly can't cede political debate, we can no longer just make arguments. We need also to make felt connections—even ones that may start off feeling forced or "fake" (like, arguably, all reality TV does) but that become, through our involvement itself, a new kind of "real" (real affinity, real participation). In that way, we might at least begin to produce a different kind of "mediation"— an intercession and intervention—in our media-defined politics and culture.

____________________

[i] As just some examples, see Eric Boehlert, "The Media Failed Americans This Election Season," The Huffington Post (November 7, 2016); Rachel Oldroyd, "Donald Trump and the media's 'epic fail,'" The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (November 9, 2016); Matthew Ingram, "Donald Trump: Why the Media Failed to Predict a Trump Victory," Fortune (November 9, 2016); Steve Chapman, "Trump and the media 'failure,'" Chicago Tribune (November 11, 2016); Brian Stelter, "How the Media Failed During the Election" CNN (November 13, 2016); Michael Massing, "How the media failed—again," Los Angeles Times‎ (November 18, 2016); Jeffrey M. McCall, "News media failed the public in 2016 election," The Banner-Graphic (November 17, 2016); and Shellie Karabell, "How and Why the Media Failed the Public," Forbes (November 20, 2016).

[ii] This is a logic that his been building in influence since the presidency of John F. Kennedy (often called the first "television president"), through Ronald Reagan (who, of course, was a film and television actor before becoming president), up to the media-savvy Barack Obama, and now beyond. And, of course, it is not just television that is influential. While my focus in this piece is on the relation between politics and TV, to account fully for the impact of the media on this election and on political discourse more broadly, one would certainly also need to analyze the key role played by digital and social media (in everything from the prevalence of "viral" "fake news" on social media sites to Trump's own use of Twitter) as these converged with television in producing a particular media/political formation.

[iii] "The final key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people's fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That's why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It's an innocent form of exaggeration—and a very effective form of promotion." Donald Trump and Tony Schwartz, Trump: The Art of the Deal (New York: Random House, 1987), p. 58. The fact (as claimed by Schwartz) that the notion of "truthful hyperbole" was developed by Tony Schwartz, not Trump himself, only furthers my argument about the mediatized construction of a persona in which the opposition between "artifice" and "authenticity" no longer holds. See Janet Mayer, "Donald Trump's Ghostwriter Tells All," The New Yorker, July 25, 2016, .

[iv] Reality shows referenced above include Survivor, The Apprentice, Project Runway, American Idol, RuPaul's Drag Race, The Voice, and The Amazing Race, among many other similarly structured programs.

[v] I take this term from Barry King, who differentiates between the work of a "star" and the work of an "actor" on the basis of what he calls "personification" vs. "impersonation." See Barry King, "Stardom as an Occupation," in The Hollywood Film Industry, ed. Paul Kerr (London: Routledge, 1986): 154-84 and Barry King,"Articulating Stardom," in Stardom: Industry of Desire, ed. Christine Gledhill (London: Routledge, 1991), 167–82.

[vi] The various implications of TV operating at these intersections has been the focus of much of my work. See, for example, Lynne Joyrich, "Epistemology of the Console," Queer TV: Theories, Histories, Politics, ed. Glyn Davis and Gary Needham (New York: Routledge, 2009), 15-47; Lynne Joyrich, "The Magic of Television: Thinking Through Magical Realism in Recent TV," Transformative Works and Culture 3 (2009), http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2009.0165; Lynne Joyrich, "Queer Television Studies: Currents, Flows, and (Main)Streams," Cinema Journal 53.2 (Winter 2014), 133-139; and Lynne Joyrich, "Tubular Vision: The Ins and Outs of Television Studies," New Media, Old Media: A History and Theory Reader, second edition, ed. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Anna Watkins Fisher, and Thomas Keenan (New York: Routledge, 2015), 649-664.

[vii] Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," translated by Harry Zohn from the 1935 essay, in Illuminations,
 ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 217-51.Harry Zohn from the 1935 essay, in Illuminations,
 ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 217-51.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Fascism at the Door

Adam Culver, Makerere University

Studying the fascist exercise of power, therefore, is not simply a matter of laying out the dictator’s will… It means examining the never-ending tensions within fascist regimes among the leader, his party, the state, and traditional holders of social, economic, political, or cultural power. This reality has produced an influential interpretation of fascist governance as “polyocracy,” or rule by multiple relatively autonomous power centers, in unending rivalry and tension with each other. In polyocracy the famous “leadership principle” cascades down through the social and political pyramid, creating a host of petty Führers and Duces in a state of Hobbesian war of all against all.


—Robert Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism (126-7)

Last Friday afternoon (Nov.11th), still reeling from the outcome of the election, I did what many of my friends and colleagues did in the days following the election: I went to class and had a somber conversation with my students about Donald Trump and the rise of white nationalism, xenophobia, and authoritarian populism in the United States. The tone and tenor of the conversation were shaped by a mixture of desperation and defiance as my students grappled with the various causal factors at work in Trump’s electoral victory—economic displacement, misogyny, alienation, xenophobia, nihilism, and, yes, racism—and how to best respond to these reactive forces. In what ways have white liberals been complicit in the ascendance of Trumpism? How should we respond to public acts of intimidation, harassment, and violence directed at those who have been vilified by Trump and his accomplices? How can those of us who are not yet under immediate threat support and stand in solidarity with the increasingly large number of those who are? What kinds of work must white people undertake to challenge racism and hatred in their own families and communities? How might we begin imagining alternative futures and forging new solidarities? 




These questions are of course extremely difficult, as was our conversation, which necessarily forced us to confront much we would rather avoid. Although they probably already knew as much, I warned my students that things are likely to get much worse and that they must resist the temptation to normalize Trump, oppose appeals for accommodation, and refuse to seek common ground with white supremacy in the misguided belief that in doing so they might mitigate the evil it represents. We spoke about the importance of community involvement, collective action (including protest), and political advocacy. Above all I urged them to love each other, to read, to organize, and to continue making art. I believe fascism is at the door, but I left the room that day fortified with what Du Bois once called “a hope not hopeless but unhopeful.” My students seem determined to confront the fascist lurking both within and without, and to do so with passion, resolve, and courage—not because success on a macro-political level is likely to follow but because this is the only way of remaining human, of being able to live with themselves and find one another in the dark times that await. 



Contrary to my normal practice, I did not prepare much material for class that day. For me, at least, the speed and magnitude of events, combined with the visceral revulsion I experience every time I hear or see Trump speak, has made these days disorienting, inducing a kind of vertigo as I try to keep track of events without being pulled apart by them. Besides, I knew that once we began talking, whatever notes I had prepared would not receive even a moment’s glance. But sometime during the early morning hours of Friday I happened to recall an old handout—“The Anatomy of Fascism,” which I had prepared nearly a decade prior as a TA for Race and Racism in Comparative Perspective—and decided to use it again. I pulled up the file, made one change—adding the United States to the list of countries where fascist movements had come to power—and printed enough copies for my students. 





The handout is relatively simple and straightforward; drawing from Robert Paxton’s The Anatomy of Fascism, it outlines 7 key characteristics of fascist regimes and rule:

1) Mobilization of segments of working class populations not affiliated with organized labor unions or political parties. Militarization of daily life and valorization of violence.

2) The development of parallel institutions and organizations that engage in activities of state, particularly paramilitary and police services. The creation of the ‘dual state.’

3) Coalitions between conservative, far right and in several cases, center right political parties and tendencies.

4) Forcible removal of sources of political opposition, particularly amongst left and far left tendencies, and eventually liberal/centrist political tendencies and parties.

5) Central role of ideology as an instrument of rule and mass mobilization. The aesthetization of violence. See, for example, the films of Leni Riefenstahl, such as Olympia and Triumph of the Will

6) Calls for the “renewal” of society, which often entails identifying an “enemy within” (e.g. the Jew, the Muslim, the immigrant, the non-Aryan, the black, and other marginalized populations). The enemy within is often further marginalized, in concert with a program of expulsion, liquidation and terrorism. Renewal often involves a project of racial/ethnic cleansing, attached to a romantic nostalgia for a supposedly pure past. Renewal also often attached to a program of imperial expansion.

7) A love-hate relationship to capitalism and industrialization. Creation of an agrarian myth while emphasizing industrial production. See, for example, Werner Sombart’s The Jews and Modern Capitalism (1911)

Reading through this list with my students, it did not take long for us to conclude that almost all of these characteristics are either already in evidence (e.g., promises of national renewal, identification of internal enemies, the valorization of violence, etc.) or discernable on the not-too-distant horizon (as seems to be the case, for example, with the forcible removal of sources of political opposition, calls for which now extend beyond the vitriolic chants of “lock her up”). The essential kernel of Trumpism is its promise to reassert the supremacy of a white, Christian identity at the spiritual-political center of the nation, and much of its affective force and appeal derives from the ferocity with which it promotes an all-too-fragile whiteness through the denigration of various racialized others. Indeed, Trump’s electoral victory was followed by a dramatic increase in incidents of racist and xenophobic harassment and intimidation across the country—the Southern Poverty Law Center collected 437 reports of such incidents between Wednesday November 9th, the day after the election, and the morning of Monday, November 14th. Such incidents are likely to increase and intensify as the affective flows that connect Trump and his supporters reverberate with other exclusionary social formations and practices in a generalized spirit of bellicosity and will to revenge against vulnerable and marginalized constituencies who are blamed for depriving white Americans of “their historic role to ‘make America great again.’”



To date, Trumpism has demonstrated a commitment to propagating the exclusionary nationalism, militarism, white supremacy, romantic nostalgia for a mythic past, and contempt for constitutional democracy that are the hallmarks of fascist movements past and present. Until it assumes power in January, however, we cannot be sure if it will pursue other characteristic features and practices of fascist rule, particularly the creation of “parallel institutions” and the “dual state” (see #2 above). But the early signs do not look good. The existence of a pro-Trump faction within the FBI is deeply disconcerting, as are key developments in Trump’s presidential transition—especially the appointment of Steve Bannon as Trump’s chief strategist and senior counselor. Bannon is an anti-Semitic, Islamaphobic, misogynistic, white nationalist, bigot who presided over the alt-right white supremacist online cesspool Breitbart News before taking a leave from the company in August to become the C.E.O. of Trump’s presidential campaign. Bannon’s selection further indicates (as if more evidence were needed) that a virulent white supremacist ideology will play a central role in shaping Trump’s presidency. But it also indicates that Trump may seek to exercise power through a set of semi-formalized arrangements with characteristics that are analogous to the parallel institutions and dual-state structures that have been crucial to many a fascist regime and totalitarian state. The conjunction of these spiritual, ideological, and political elements and their coronation in a Trump presidency signals that fascism is at the door. 



This claim may perhaps sound implausible to those who simply don’t (or can’t) believe that Trump really means what he says when he calls Mexicans rapists, promises to build a Wall between the U.S. and Mexico, proposes temporarily banning all Muslims from entering the country, pledges to forcibly expel millions of undocumented immigrants, advocates ending birth-right citizenship, threatens to have his political opponents imprisoned, rejects the need for a free press and the right to protest, and so on. But we have no reason whatsoever to presume that these do not represent his political intentions, whatever his personal views may be. Americans (and not just Americans) have been perhaps too well trained in a school of political cynicism that says: all politicians lie and so we shouldn’t take what they say too seriously. “But campaigns offer a surprisingly accurate preview of Presidencies,” and I am not aware of many historical examples of autocratic populists becoming more democratic and tolerant of dissent after coming to power. The point is not that Trump will actually build a Big Wall—even many of his supporters doubt that he will do so—but rather that Trump will continue to harness a white supremacist ideal to dangerous ends. 



Nor would it be wise to place our faith in America’s political institutions to successfully neutralize Trump’s authoritarian tendencies. Yes, democratic institutions in the U.S. are stronger and have deeper roots than in countries like the Poland, Turkey, and Russia where autocratic leaders have centralized power and systematically undermined or dismantled constitutional rights and democratic institutions. But most congressional Republicans have already shown that they are not up to task of “checking” President Trump, as witnessed by their response to the Bannon appointment, which was met with little more than a collective shrug. (A recent article in Slate captures the danger quite well: “Republicans Rolled Over for Steve Bannon. They’ll Roll Over When He Comes for You, Too”). On the whole, congressional Republicans and party leaders seem perfectly willing to accept the appointment of a white nationalist who peddles in anti-Semitic, misogynistic, and Islamaphobic rhetoric as Trump’s top adviser so long as Trump plays nice. One shudders to think what else they will be willing to accept once their legislative agenda is on the line. In any case, this points to a perhaps more fundamental issue at hand, which “is that many of these institutions are enshrined in political culture rather than in law, and all of them—including the ones enshrined in law—depend on the good faith of all actors to fulfill their purpose and uphold the Constitution.” Democracy is far more fragile than many Americans believe, and we should not let the longevity of democratic institutions and the unbroken tradition of the peaceful transfer of power in this country delude us into thinking that our institutions alone will safeguard our liberty. On the contrary, we will need to defend our democratic institutions against the onslaughts and abuses of power that are likely to come their way. 



Trump’s selection of Bannon, who recently boasted of turning Breitbart Media into the platform for the alt-right white supremacist movement, as his chief strategist and senior advisor is one of the latest and most troubling indicators that Trump’s presidency will be anything but ordinary. Indeed, a man who only a few years ago described himself as a “Leninist” whose goal was to “destroy the state” and “bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment,” now finds himself at the center of the state-apparatus, jockeying with the establishment for power! In 2014 Bannon boasted of a “global tea party movement,” by which he means a global populist-nationalist movement, and lauded Great Britain’s UKIP and France’s National Front for being at its forefront. Given his essential role in championing an “anti-establishment” ethno-nationalist chauvinism, it is unsurprising that his selection was met by unanimous praise from leading voices on the far-right, including Rocky Suhayda, chairman of the American Nazi Party, and David Duke, who enthusiastically praised Trump’s decision as “excellent” and suggested that Bannon might occupy the most important position in the White House staff: “You have an individual, Mr. Bannon, who's basically creating the ideological aspects of where we're going. And ideology ultimately is the most important aspect of any government.” Let that sink in for a moment… 



“The elevation of Bannon to a powerful position in the White House is an epochal event in American politics, one that has been condemned by the N.A.A.C.P., the A.D.L., and many Democratic leaders, including Harry Reid,” who through his spokesman warned that Bannon’s appointment “signals that White Supremacists will be represented at the highest levels in Trump’s White House.” And yet if you glanced at a major newspaper on Monday morning after Sunday’s announcement, chances are you would not get the impression that there is a serious crisis in the republic. The joint selection of Bannon as the president’s top advisor and Reince Priebus, chairman of the RNC and consummate Washington Insider, as Trump’s chief of staff, was initially depicted as an ordinary political event by many media outlets. Priebus was portrayed as “a reassuring presence to establishment Republicans,” while a whole host of euphemisms were deployed to describe Bannon—“ally” and “loyalist” (USA Today), “outsider” (Washington Post, Wall Street Journal), and “firebrand” (New York Times, which at least at least also identified him as an “extremist”). Such evasions contribute to the normalization of white supremacist ideology and foster an environment in which Trump can continue to appoint extremists to important position of power in the White House, a process that has continued apace as I write this with the selections of Sessions, Pompeo, and Flynn.



In previous administrations, all presidential staff, including all political advisors, reported to the chief of staff. But this will no longer be the case: according to Trump’s transition team, Priebus and Bannon will be “equal partners,” an unusual arrangement almost certain to create “rival centers of power in the Trump White House.” This could very well have serious implications for how Trump exercises power from the White House/Trump Tower. Bannon will report directly to the president and presumably oversee a set of operations that function in parallel to the structures overseen by Priebus, with each managing and cultivating very different Trumpism constituencies. Will Priebus be a moderating force capable of limiting the influence of Bannon’s white nationalist ideology on Trump’s presidency? Perhaps. But it is already clear that one of Priebus’s duties will be to defend and provide ideological cover for Bannon, as he has been doing this past week. Moreover, every fascist regime has its Priebuses—i.e., traditional conservative politicians who try to preserve parts of the status quo and limit the dynamism of the fascist movement, but who usually get swept up in its currents themselves. Fascism always depends on “traditional leaders to open the gate,” Paxton explains, and thus presupposes “some degree, at least, of obligatory power sharing with the preexisting conservative establishment… Consequently, we have never known an ideologically pure fascist regime” (119). Within fascist regimes, conservatives urge a more cautious approach and advocate for more traditional forms of authoritarianism, while “fascists pull forward toward dynamic, leveling, populist dictatorship…” (120). Often this tension is resolved when party zealots “bypass the conservative power bases with ‘parallel structures’” (120-121). Something analogous to this seems to be underway in the organization of Trump’s White House staff. 



Paxton suggests that we can begin to grasp the basic dynamics at work in the creation of parallel institutions in fascist regimes by drawing upon Ernst Fraenkel’s description of Nazi Germany as a “dual state” containing a “normative state” based on constitutional authority, the rule of law, and the traditional civil service, which competed for power with a “prerogative state” formed by the party’s parallel organizations.

According to Fraenkel’s model of Nazi governance, the “normative” segment of a fascist regime continued to apply the law according to due process, and officials in that sector were recruited and promoted according to bureaucratic norms of competence and seniority. In the “prerogative” sector, by contrast, no rules applied except the whim of the ruler, the gratification of party militants, and the supposed “destiny” of the Volk, the razza, or other “chosen people.” The normative state and the prerogative state coexisted in conflict-ridden but more or less workmanlike cooperation, giving the regime its bizarre mixture of legalism and arbitrary violence. (121)




For Paxton the dual state image is incomplete because it is not sufficiently attuned to the importance of conflict between the fascist leader (Trump) and his party (the alt-right white supremacist movement), and it does not account for “elements outside the state” that “also participate in the tug-of-war for power within fascist regimes” (122). We might also add that it does not attend to the components of a fascist personality or to the spiritual dimensions of fascist assemblages



But Fraenkel’s account was also a “fruitful one” (121), one that helps us see how fascist regimes seek to manage the tensions between extremism and conservatism—promoting exclusionary sentiments and far-right policies while preserving public order and the allegiance of their conservative allies—through the duplication of traditional power centers by parallel party organizations and how the struggle for power between the ‘normative’ and ‘prerogative’ segments within each fascist regime conditions its character and their effects. This is what makes the establishment in the White House/Trump Tower of a duplicate power center dedicated to advancing the agenda of the alt-right white supremacy so dangerous. The National Review recently wished to remind its readers that “Steve Bannon is not Josef Goebbels.” Fine, but he doesn’t have to be: Steve Bannon is terrifying enough as himself. 



The greatest political danger a Trump presidency represents is therefore not the rollback of Obama’s legacy and the progressive policy agenda—though this is certainly something to struggle fiercely against. The greatest danger involves the reorganization of state power itself—regime change. We must do everything in our power to oppose not only the fascist policies of a Trump presidency but also the emergence of a fascist regime itself. Such an outcome may seem outlandish to some, but we live in outlandish times. 




Monday, November 21, 2016

Trump’s Enemies List


Steven Johnston, University of Utah
Char Miller, George Mason University













On November 8, 2016, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. Trump is manifestly unfit to hold this—or any other public—office. He ran a campaign characterized by racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, misogyny, ignorance, narcissism, violence, cruelty, and utter contempt for democratic institutions, norms, practices, and procedures. An American national government dominated by the likes of Trump, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, and John Roberts is poised to inflict unprecedented damage to the country, the world, and the planet. It is imperative that this axis of white nationalist ressentiment be opposed at every point. Anticipating that they are going to face determined resistance, one of Trump’s most valued advisers, Newt Gingrich, has called for a resurrection of the House un-American Activities Committee to prosecute their ambitions. This measure, whether an actual proposal or a bluff, is nothing less than the first institutional move to create a domestic enemies list. Tens of thousands of students who have struck and walked out of classes, Nevada Senator Harry Reid, and the cast of Hamilton, among others, have already placed themselves in the crosshairs by voicing opposition to Trump’s election. We refuse to be intimidated or silenced and will speak out against and oppose any and all measures the Trump regime, the GOP controlled House and Senate, and the activist Roberts Court pursue designed to further their virulent neoliberal, nationalist agenda. Therefore, as democratic citizens we volunteer to have our names placed on Gingrich’s—and by implication Trump’s—enemies list. We welcome Contemporary Condition readers, friends, colleagues, and fellow citizens to join us. If you’re willing to have your name added to the list, please let us know.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Trump's Upside Down

Bonnie Honig
Brown University, Antigone Interrupted
We have not lately – not until this election season -- seen or heard the dog whistle politics of racism, sexism, Nativism, and homophobia so eagerly thrust aside by a Presidential candidate and, with such glee: traded for openly racist invective, division, misogyny, nativism, and more…
  It is no accident, as the historians love to say, that this past television season, the breakout show was Stranger Things, which I watched and loved, along with many of you, I am sure. Stranger Things is a romp through 80’s nostalgia, from Steven Spielberg’s E.T. to Alien and more.


  Aspects of the 80’s for which I myself am less nostalgic were also peddled by the show – in particular the Reaganist antipathy to government, as such. Reagan was famous for his witticisms, which he kept on index cards in his desk, piles of them. One of his most famous lines was this:
"The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I'm from the government and I'm here to help.’" This sentiment, also a piece of 80’s nostalgia, is central to the show, Stranger Things.

   In the show, the bad guys are from the government and their “help” is a nightmare. The local sheriff, by contrast, is a flawed hero whose intelligence and courage will save the day, more or less. Himself presumably on the public payroll, he does not code “government” because he is local. Government means Washington in 1980’s Reaganism. It is notably only for white communities that the local sheriff is the better representative of justice by contrast with the federal government. Noticeably there are very few minorities in Stranger Things.
  Stranger Things is importantly prescient in this moment, our moment, because it explores the distinction, newly permeable, between what is out in the open, and the secretly subterranean crap that underwrites it and lies beneath it.
In Stranger Things, the world we know and love is underwritten by a place called “the upside down” – in which what is normally unseen – the repugnant --is regnant.
In the Upside Down, a yucky carnivorous gelatinous monster feasts on people and impregnates them with its own progeny. What is that yucky gelatinous stuff? It could be anything; or many things …


Racism? Sexism? Homophobia?
What opens the door to it? What lets it in?
In the show, the monster gains access to the normal world by dint of the rogue and irresponsible science of government technocrats whose ambition knows no bounds and who do not hesitate to engage in torture to get what they want. And then of course they get more than what they want. Things go awry, as Mary Shelley could have told them they would.
   The gelatinous monster lives down below the earth on which we walk, lurking there, normally unseen and unsuspected. But the divide between our world and the monster’s is breached, and the gelatinous monster breaks in, grabbing people, eating and impregnating them. This keeps happening because of technocrats who think they know what they are doing and, confident they are right, are arrogant in their use of power and surveillance, willing even to torture to achieve their aims. They use a water tank that references water boarding. The screams of the child whose telekinetic powers they want to harness will not be easily forgotten by those who watch the show. 


   These people – scientists, technocrats, lawless, self-proclaimed knowing representatives of the public’s good – let’s call them for a moment the Democratic Party – open the door to forces that are unspeakable and are normally more contained. Because of their actions, the gross evils of the world can now get in. As the Observer reported on Nov 10, 2016: the Clinton campaign decided early on that “it was in the best interest of Clinton, and therefore the Democratic Party, that Trump was the Republican presidential nominee. Polls indicated Sen. Rubio, Gov. Kasich, or almost any other establishment Republican would likely beat Clinton in a general election. Even Cruz, who is reviled by most Republicans, would still maintain the ability to rally the Republican Party—especially its wealthy donors—around his candidacy. Clinton and Democrats expected the FBI investigation into her private email server would serve as a major obstacle to Clinton’s candidacy, and the public’s familiarity with her scandals and flip-flopping political record put her at a disadvantage against a newcomer. Donald Trump solved these problems.”[1]

 But, in fairness, the villains of Stranger Things, the people – scientists, technocrats, lawless, and self-proclaimed knowing representatives of the public’s good who open the door to forces that are unspeakable and are normally more contained -- could also be called the Republican Party: the government scientists are clearly interested in awakening, fostering and then nurturing and maintaining the terrible forces of the Upside Down. (think: Tea Party). The government agents clearly think there is here a powerful weapon they can leash to their politics. They clearly hope to control and instrumentalize it, just as they believe they can control and instrumentalize a girl, named 11, whose telekinetic powers prove forceful enough finally to break through.
  In other words, the Upside Down and our regular world are finally connected through the unwitting agency of an innocent child whose body is taken by others as a vehicle for their own projects; what the government agents do, then, is not that different from how the monster makes some people’s bodies into the vehicles of its own wants and desires. Forced impregnation codes Republican (pro-life). The liberty-abrogating enlistment of some for the purposes of others? That codes Democratic, from a Republican perspective. Call it taxation. 
  How then do we code the young girl’s rage at the takeover of her body and her life by others for purposes that are not her own? It is her explosive rage (think Carrie), that punctures the firewall between our world and the Upside Down. Perhaps this is anarchy or populism, raw, emotional REFUSAL.
  Thus the argument for federal oversight on human rights, voting rights, redistribution, social welfare, environmental protection, has no language, no traction, no reality in the world of Stranger Things – which I now recognize as an even guiltier pleasure than I thought it was while I was watching it.
Others will tell the story of how the US media – which made MILLIONS of dollars on this election, what a windfall -- made Trump possible: the free airtime, the legitimating coverage (“they are both flawed”…), and so on.
But, it is notable that print media was better, sometimes MASSIVELY better. The Washington Post in particular wrote expose after expose. But in the world of the Upside Down all that matters are the appetites, not facts. There is no traction for truth in that gelatinous world.

  Which brings me to what happens after the breach, in our world, what we are seeing now: The media cannot legitimate this Presidency quickly enough. It is as if, if we were living in the world of Stranger Things, the media have decided the monster is not THAT gelatinous, and people are having its babies, so we may not like it, but he is the President-elect, after all, and he deserves a certain deference.
 The material result of that deference could be seen in People Magazine, whose own reporter was groped by the man they quickly moved to coronate: “starting the morning of November 9, the first morning Trump became the President-elect, [there was] a definitive shift: People began to cover Trump and his family in a noticeably more positive light. Their first tweeted-out story cheekily exclaimed “He’s hired!,” a reference to Trump’s “you’re fired” Apprentice catchphrase.
and then the magazine featured pictures of his family, noted the fashion savvy of his wife, and speculated about whether he would turn the White House to gold with his new decorating plans (watch out subcontractors …. better get big up front deposits for that job). No mention was made of what happened to Midas.

  On the same day, that very evening, thousands, tens of thousands of people, hit the streets in cities across the country, protesting the election of this man and rejecting everything he has stood for, has legitimated, and will now mainstream.
  The front page of the New York Times reported on all this, but – like People magazine – the New York Times made a choice. It covered the protests, but put the protest stories below the fold. Above the fold was their lead story: about Trump and his victory. 
  This division is not what democracy looks like.
But it is what the US looks like, always hasty to sweep things under the proverbial rug and get on with legitimate business, or the business of legitimation.

So, as citizens, we will all have a choice to make going forward:
  Do we allow ourselves to be absorbed in to the gelatinous    

  normalization of a Trump presidency? Or do we hold on to   
  our moral compasses? Notably, in Stranger Things, 
  compasses go haywire near the openings to the Upside 
  Down. Do we find ways to give the truth some traction? 
  How do we hold on to our outrage and give it purpose?
Trump Tower Protest Photo by Jeremy Liebman, Vice Magazine
 For starters, we have to turn the NYTIMES Upside Down. Read below the fold, not above. Reverse their priorities.
To do this, you need to nurture your moral compass. Hold on to what you KNOW. Don’t be talked out of what you heard in the Access Hollywood tape and do not forget what you saw at the rallies. You know what you know. 

 We also have to volunteer to work for organizations that will be under pressure, not only for the do-gooding (though, why not?) but also and even more importantly for the membership. Victims taken to the Upside Down by the ravenous gelatinous monster are – so far in the show – always alone, caught in solitude. Action in concert is the only protection against the gelatinous monster.
Trump Tower Jeremy Liebman, Vice Magazine
“The world turned upside down” is the refrain of a song from Hamilton, the words are said to come from a British drinking song of the time. English soldiers, processing the end of Empire, use the phrase that connotes revolution and, for them, loss. The phrase is sung mournfully by the English in the show, while those – like Hamilton -- who are working for the American Revolution rap it out by it’s name.
   We are now in the Upside Down. And it is up to us what to make of it. 

  I note that the kidnapped boy in Stranger Things, is a little bit gay, cast as a Mama’s boy, a darling child, who is – of course -- bullied at school. He is finally (SPOILER ALERT) rescued by his mother and the sheriff. They risk everything to go to the Upside Down and kidnap him back. He is almost dead when they get to him. He has managed to survive, barely to survive, alone with all his fears, by doing what needed doing. He found his way to a little clubhouse, a kind of holding environment, and he hung on. His mother and the sheriff get to him in time. Barely. And then they go home. They repair the breach that allowed the monster to get in. Will we have a happy ending? 
It won’t surprise many of us that, as he returns to health, the boy coughs up what seems to be a residue of the Upside Down, some sort of gelatinous thing, that washes down the drain. Within him, it seems, occupying his body, is the stuff against which he was trying to defend himself, and to which we are all vulnerable. The young boy – innocent and fey – is a Trojan Horse. What are we?