Sunday, September 13, 2020

Two Characters at the Bookends of Modernity

Thomas Dumm 
William H. Hastie Professor of Political Ethics
Amherst College

Does this sound familiar?

A person relentlessly seeks wealth as his primary goal in life. That same person sees the reputation for having wealth and acquiring more of it to signify the only meaningful measure of his value, a sign from God of His blessing, an indicator of his superiority to all others. Acquiring wealth is an end in itself for him. Relentlessly he seeks more and more. He sees the world around him in absolute terms, using superlatives to describe everything he sees and experiences through the exclusive lens of his pregiven assumptions. Things are either the best or the worst. He fails to understand nuance, ambiguity, or even the possibility of anything not being subject to his pregiven knowledge, his always-already-in-place determination of what is. He argues from the authority he believes he has been given as a gift from God. Experience will never modify his understanding. All things outside of his own consciousness of the world are no more than objects to be interpreted in such ways as to confirm his pregiven sense of what they are. He knows what he will find in advance of finding it and will insist on its reality whether it exists or not. (Indeed, he will, when possible, punish those who suggest that he may be mistaken in his claims.)
    He names things, places and people according to his understanding of their attributes. Things, places and people must be given names that correspond to their attributes, and they all are equally subject to this naming, because for him they exist only insofar as he can name them. He understands his own name to be the absolute and clear definition of who he is. Proper names of other people serve only as denotations. (He does not understand what connotation is.) All that is other than him is reduced to the same.
   He has no interest in languages other than his own, because he knows that there are no other languages than his. If he accepts someone into his circle it is because they speak his language, and hence they are the same as he is, only less so. If he believes someone does not speak his language, he determines that they are different.
    He understands that anyone who is different from him is inferior to him, in fact, does not exist for him except as a thing. (In the end, this will mean that everything is a thing to him.) Because he knows in advance who is the same as he is and who is different, he assimilates those who are the same into his world, and casts the others aside, going so far as to reject their very existence as a blot upon his world.

You may be thinking that this is a slightly eccentric but quite recognizable characterization of the persona of Donald Trump. All of the attributes of this person line up with the qualities of that man so many of us have come to recognize over these past (endless) five years if not before. His obsession with wealth and the reputation for having wealth (even when he may not be as wealthy as he insists that he is) is one of his most famous attributes. Less well known is that he thinks he enjoys a special relationship to God, a conclusion based on his embrace of the relentlessly magical thinking of the pastor of the church he attended as a child, Norman Vincent Peale, whose doctrine is summed up in the title of his most famous book, The Power of Positive Thinking. He was raised in a deeply dysfunctional family, by a billionaire father, Fred, whose own secular Manicheanism led him to reject any deviation from a doctrine of absolute success versus absolute failure, of winners and losers in a zero-sum game. Trump learned from early on in life to deny any possibility that he might not succeed, contrasting his reputed genius in business (and eventually in all other matters) with the failure of anyone of those with whom he would be competing, including his own older brother, playing a zero-sum game where one’s success means the other’s failure.
What has often been described as Trump’s insulation from or even his attack on reality may more appropriately be termed his ongoing construction of an alternative reality. During the 2016 campaign it was on display all the time, and false equivalences were made by the press and promoted by Trump’s propaganda outlet, Fox News, a phenomenon many noted, but still were puzzled by.
    On his second day in office this alternative reality attracted enormous attention when Sean Spicer, his first press secretary, berated reporters in the White House press room for underestimating the size of the crowd who attended Trump’s inaugural speech, saying it was "the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period – both in person and around the globe." In defense of Spicer, Trump’s final campaign manager for the 2016 election, and his recently appointed senior advisor, Kellyanne Conway, infamously claimed that Spicer was presenting “alternative truths.”
    Constant resort to this performative speech act is now a permanent feature of the Trump presidency. Not only he, but his minions, practice it. Those who refused are now gone. And of late he has been resorting more and more to this activity. Some commentators believe his recent turn toward accusing Joe Biden of being a front for radical socialists or black costumed antifa members descending on the suburbs from packed planes, or any one of many outrageous claims is the flailing of a desperate buffoon, simply attempting to distract from his own failings. (I have previously posted on The Contemporary Condition about Trump’s buffoonery as a common feature of fascist leaders – they are clowns, but clowns as Stephen King understands clown.) They are mistaken. For Trump reality is what he says it is, and he will say whatever it takes to make the non-conforming outside world bend to his reality.
These commentators are repeating their earlier failure to understand the importance of lies in the creation of political reality. They seem to have forgotten the power of the lies told by members of the Bush administration in the post 9/11 years. They failed then to grasp the importance of a statement by Bush’s senior advisor, Karl Rove, who asserted, “We’re an empire now, and we create our own reality.” (That Bush had nicknames for people, even the fond and yet nasty nickname for Rove, “Turd Blossom,” placed him in the vestibule of the fascism that Trump has now embraced explicitly. Trump, of course, love nicknames for his enemies.) Now, in the approach to the 2020 election, the stakes seem to be even higher, as some of his white nationalist supporters are calling for civil war as a response to the imagined forces of antifa.
A finalism of knowledge based upon a pregiven sense of what must be real requires of its subject a certain kind of rigor, an enormous negative energy devoted to a denial of the evidence of a common reality that floats before one’s eyes. The exhilaration of Trump’s followers is that of true believers, who see him fighting against fake news and lying liberals, yes, but also who understand that his extraordinary exaggerations bespeak of a power they admire and crave. The exhaustion so many others, non-believers, have experienced during Trump’s years in the American presidency is not surprising in this sense. In the face of such a persistent construction of a reality at odds with what were once called “facts on the ground,” it becomes increasingly difficult for most citizens to reassert a common sense of reality. They are exhausted by the deliberate use of cognitive dissonance as a political weapon.
This is, of course, an updating of the strategy of the Big Lie deployed so effectively in Nazi Germany by Hitler’s propaganda machine. The constant repetition, then by radio, now by Twitter, make those opposed to the regime exhausted and vulnerable to attack, and correspondingly energizes those who are already inclined to believe the substance of it. The drastic simplification of language which underwrites the establishment of naming languages not only aids Trump in presenting his alternative reality: it explains his derisive naming of his opponent.
   The simplification of language also explains his desire to label everything he can with the name TRUMP. It informs his contempt for those who speak foreign languages. “This is a country where we speak English, not Spanish,” he said during the 2016 presidential campaign. For Trump there really is only one language, American English, the language he hears on Fox News, not even the language he reads, when and if he does. (Any time I hear protests from monolingual Americans about people failing to speak English, I think of what a woman in Texas said some decades ago: “If English was good enough for Jesus, it ought to be good enough for them.”)
Those who speak other languages are not fully human for him. They are inferior, they live in “shithole countries,” or effete and weak ones. Unless they are ruled by tyrants whom he identifies as strong, like him, other countries are evil threats to America. Even those who have come to the United States and are citizens need to go back to where they came from. Even if they were born in the United States they are foreign. They cannot be truly American.
    While the word “America” is a synecdoche for the United States, as it has been for politicians for centuries, for Trump, America is an absolute reality. Therefore, any perceived threat to his America is absolute. Any phenomenon that deviates from the final reality of that glorious place, his Imago Mundi, his earthly paradise, represents yet another threat by those forces of evil that would invade it, snakes in the Trumpian Garden of Eden.
Binaries are everywhere for Trump. Men over women. White over Black. Rich over poor. Straight over queer. Suburb over city. Republican over Democrat. Evangelical over secular. America over the rest of the world. Frozen in place, MAGA is the sign extolling the supremacy of rich, white, straight, suburban, evangelical Christian men, those who constitute the true America, the America that supports Trump, and Trump alone.
While I do not disagree with analyses that present Trump as a psychologically damaged man, most importantly and systematically explained by his psychoanalyst niece Mary Trump, he is more than that by far. Many commentators have properly argued that Trump and Trumpism is the culmination of a long process in the transformation of the Republican Party from being a neoliberal bastion of free markets into a white nationalist party. But others, such as Wendy Brown and William Connolly, have properly noted that neoliberalism itself is at the root of this turn to a neo-fascist program dependent on fear of the other. They see the linkages between the economic inequality fostered by neoliberalism and the many social inequalities of our time as deep, undoubtedly understanding that it is more than an economic doctrine at play. As Nancy MacLean documents in her history of modern neoliberalism, Democracy in Chains, such doctrines have been explicitly embraced in the United States as far back as their promotion by John Calhoun, who argued in the 1820s and 30s from South Carolina (then the wealthiest state in the country) that the freedom to own property unfettered by the state, including chattel slaves, is the most important freedom that the United States was founded to preserve. We are the inheritors of Calhoun, and structural racism is one of his most important legacies.
Trump makes similar claims, minus the defense of slavery, to advance his electoral chances. In this election, as has become increasingly clear over the past month especially, he has divided the nation into the superior and the inferior – indeed, his embrace of white supremacists (what better name for those who are superior?) has become more explicit as they have begun to show up in protesting cities to incite violence. They are often embraced by those police, a sign of an increasingly explicit racist police culture. Recently, Trump Tweeted that a caravan of 600 cars of white supremacists who descended on Portland, Oregon on the 29th of August are true American patriots. (This is a statement that goes far beyond his “good people on both sides” comment on the infamous Charlottesville alt-right tiki-torch march.) His “visit” to another troubled city, Kenosha, Wisconsin where a young white supremist from Illinois shot and killed two protesters and wounded a third included his defense of that young killer. He knows this will foment further violence. As she leaves his administration Kellyanne Conway not only admits this is his electoral strategy, she praises it, as do many other Republican politicians.
Trump would seem to fit the very definition of the demagogue. But I would also suggest that Trump is perhaps even more than that – that he is, to borrow from Emerson, a “representative man” living in our present who may be ushering in a new form of medievalism, which would signal an end to the modern age. Of course, I am keenly aware that making such a claim, even with a host of qualifications, is arguing from the edge of night. For this to be the case we would need to imagine that modern civilization is on the brink of an historical catastrophe, largely a consequence of the cascading follies that have led the world to our entry into the Anthropocene. In this sense, Trump and Trumpism, as well as his companion neo-fascists throughout the world, could be signaling the end of the epoch of modernity, an ironically fitting bookend to the events that began many centuries ago.

This is the thing. Part I of this post was not a description of Donald Trump at all. It was a summary of insights provided by Tzvetan Todorov in the first chapter of his major work on the beginning of the European encounter with what many of us still call the Western hemisphere, The Conquest of America. Todorov was a literary theorist, critic, semiotician, cultural analyst and historian. (First published in 1982 in France, appearing in English in 1984, Todorov’s book challenged the conventional narratives of the Columbian and post-Columbian encounter with the natives of what they would call the New World, providing a carefully documented study of the early encounters of the Spanish with natives of the Caribbean and especially with the Aztec civilization of Mexico.
   Todorov is interested in Columbus because he believes that European modernity began with Columbus’s “discovery.” He writes, “Even if every date that permits us to separate any two periods is arbitrary, none is more suitable, in order to mark the beginning of the modern era, than 1492.” Through a careful reading of the journals Columbus kept while on his voyages, and documents of other contemporaries that attempt to describe him and his understanding of the world, Todorov reconstructs Columbus’s world view in the way I described in Part I of this posting.
But Todorov also argues that Columbus’s entire gestalt was that of a medieval man. His chapter on Columbus explains how it is that this medieval man ushed in the modern age. And that is because Columbus was able, through his flattened understanding of language, his finalist epistemology, and his ruthless pursuit of gold, to set the groundwork for what Todorov describes as the greatest genocide in the history of the world.
   Just one example of Columbus’s finalism rehearsed by Todorov may suffice to show how tenacious he was. On the first voyage, Columbus writes in his journal of seeing signs of land – birds, seaweed associated with shores, shallowing of water – even though he is still over a thousand miles from his destination. And there is a penalty for any sailor who dared contradict him, either to be whipped severely or have their tongue cut out.
    Writing in the 1980s, Todorov seems to intuit, rather than understand explicitly, the ominous shadow haunting European modernity. When he writes of “our” modernity, he is clear that he is referring, not to an understanding more or less shared by all of the inhabitants of the globalized world, but only to the European fragment and its offshoots. A self-conscious beneficiary of that world, he was someone whose conscience was deep enough to dedicate The Conquest of America to a Mayan woman in the sixteenth century who was devoured by dogs set upon her by conquistadors. His insight depended as much on that conscience as on his deep intellectual capacities. Empathy matters.
    Scale matters, too, when thinking about such matters. If Trump is reelected it will very likely be too late to prevent, or even mitigate, what might be an even larger catastrophe than the genocidal early years of the Columbian conquest. The turn toward authoritarian rule will likely intensify. White supremacists are close to linking arms with police throughout the United States even as I write these words. Refugees continue to die at borders throughout the world. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to afflict humans throughout the world (itself likely an indirect consequence of climate change). Hurricanes, while not increasing in numbers, are becoming much more powerful and intense, destroying cities and shorelines throughout the world. The seas continue to rise. The world continues to warm. Just as the age of modernity -- should we also call it the Age of Columbus? -- began with incredibly catastrophic consequences for so many, will it also end in catastrophe?

Stay tuned.



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