Friday, February 19, 2021

Mission Statement

Because of the weather in Houston there was no way for me to prepare for my stint with the wonderful Eyebeam organization. So I sent this mission statement instead:
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Sunday, February 7, 2021

Storming the Capitol: The Predictable Efficacy of (Hyper)Mimesis

Nidesh Lawtoo is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at KU Leuven, PI of an ERC project titled Homo Mimeticus, and author of, most recently, (New) Fascism: Contagion, Community, Myth.

The storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021 was a harrowing moment in U.S. political history that cast a shadow on democracy more generally. It confirmed what a minor tradition in political theory had been warning against for some time in theory yet left dominant institutions surprisingly unprepared in practice. In the wake of Donald Trump’s election in 2016, a number of dissenting theoretical voices had been consistently warning that Donald Trump should not simply be dismissed as populist, conservative, or right-wing. He should rather be seen as a leader inclined toward “tyranny,” “neo-fascism,” “aspirational fascism,” or “(new) fascism,” with all the differences from historical fascism these concepts entail.
If Trump’s “fascist aspirations” (Connolly’s phrase) were made manifest on January 6, his contagious, mimetic, or as I call them, hypermimetic powers on his crowd of supporters had been operative all along his presidency. It is in fact becoming increasingly clear that (new) fascist leaders in the digital age rely on new media and the simulations they entail not only to blur the distinction between truth and lies, facts and alternative facts—though they do that repeatedly. (New) fascist simulations are hypermimetic for they operate on digital users’ affective, embodied, and immanent actions and reactions that are most manifest in a violent mob but are equally at play in conspiracy theories that go viral online before triggering contagious insurrections offline.
The conspiracy theory of “election fraud” that went viral on social media asserting that Joseph R. Biden “stole the election” was not based on the simple logic of mimesis understood as realistic “representation” or mirror of reality (Plato). And yet, this conspiracy should neither be dismissed as a “hyperreal simulation” that has nothing to do with imitation (Baudrillard). Rather, a recent mimetic turn, or re-turn of attention to mimesis in political theory strongly suggests that conspiracies retroact performatively on the immanent materiality political life, generating contagious actions and intoxicating reactions that emerge from the interplay between hyperreal simulations online and all-too-real mimetic behavior offline. I call this spiraling process, hypermimesis.
Following Donald Trump’s electoral defeat and refusal to concede to Joseph Biden as the 46th president-elect of the United States, the mob assault on the U. S. Capitol concluded

four years of Trump’s catastrophic presidency amplified by a global pandemic with a violent insurrection qua domestic terrorist attack that led to five casualties including a police officer.
Unexpected by politicians and police alike who left the Capitol disarmingly open to the assault, the insurrection did not surprise political theorists attentive to the contagious powers of (hyper)mimesis. The efficacy of these powers can be schematically diagnosed on the shoulders of a Janus-faced genealogy of collective intoxications that looks back to crowd behavior in the past century to better diagnose hypermimetic behavior in the present century. I consider four points.


First, the insurrection required the organized assemblage of a crowd of supporters at a rally primarily composted of white supremacists and right-wing extremists whose unconditional adherence to the outgoing president and refusal to accept the nominated president-elect provided a shared consensus (con-sensus, feeling with) injected with violent anti-democratic potential. Promoted under the dramatic hypernationalist banner of “Save America March” with the explicit intent of gathering a highly mimetic, suggestible, and potentially violent crowd that could be put to (new) fascist use contra the Capitol and the democratic process it symbolizes, the organizers of the rally demonstrated good insights in the contagious and mimetic dynamic of what a marginalized tradition in the social sciences called “crowd psychology.”
Despite their differences, figures like Sigmund Freud, Gustave Le Bon, Gabriel Tarde, and Elias Canetti agreed that individuals behave radically differently in a crowd than individually. In particular, they are prone to fall under the irrational spell or suggestive authority of a charismatic leader (meneur is Le Bon’s term, which Freud translates as Führer) who can use a theatrical rhetoric to trigger contagious and violent emotions that spread unconsciously from self to others, turning the I, or ego, into another, more powerful and collective ego. Le Bon, anticipating Freud, puts it as follows:

He [the man of the crowd] possesses the spontaneity, the violence, the ferocity, and also the enthusiasm and heroism of primitive beings, whom he further tends to resemble by the facility with which he allows himself to be impressed by words and images—which would be entirely without action on each of the isolated individuals composing the crowd—and to be induced to commit acts contrary to his most obvious interests and his best-known habits. (8)Crowds under the spell of fascist leaders have indeed been known to commit violent acts contrary to their own interests in the past century; there is no reason to believe that such spells are not effective among (new) fascist leaders in the present century. Violent affects are suggested directly by the leader’s inflammatory rhetoric itself that operates vertically, from the top down, and whose mimetic efficacy is amplified horizontally, from within the crowd, as the violent intoxicating pathos becomes a shared pathos. Tied both horizontally and vertically in this mimetic double bind, the man of the crowd no longer feels lonely and isolated but heroic and empowered, delegates conscious responsibility to the leader, and turns into a phantom ego ready to commit irresponsible political actions against his/her own “obvious interests.”
This also means that the crowd is vulnerable to what a pre-Freudian psychological tradition that had mimesis more than dreams as a via regia to the unconscious called, “imitation,” “contagion” or “suggestion”—the latter being a concept that specifically designated the hypnotic power to turn an idea into an action, including violent actions. 


Second, the insurrection was catalyzed by the presence of a presidential leader who relied on theatrical strategies to cast a suggestive spell on the crowd. The crowd’s affective identification with the meneur was already established due to Trump’s double role as media personality and political leader who, throughout his presidency, consistently relied on a violent rhetoric to continuously generate mass-contagion in the collective soul of his base. This rhetoric should not be derided for its linguistic simplicity but studied for its contagious efficacy. Its distinctive characteristics are well-known to crowd psychology and include aggressive affirmations rather than rational explanations, repetitions rather than arguments, use of images rather than thought, and a general awareness that violent emotions (anger, fear, resentment, etc.) work best to galvanize a crowd.
In the speech that incited the crowd to storm the Capitol, Trump’s implementation of the strategies of crowd psychology were obvious and manifold. In particular, he relied on the repetition of the Big Lie constitutive of his conspiracy theory (“rigged election”), an unproven and hyperbolic affirmation of victory (“we won by a landslide”), an emotional appeal to patriotism and love (“American patriots”), the direction of violence against scapegoats (“the weak Republicans,” the “fake media”), a stubborn refusal of facts (“we will never concede”), among other well-tested strategies constitutive of his rhetoric.
Strong of this affective support and of the resentment that animated it, Trump and his closest associates whipped up the crowd to the culminating point of suggesting a violent anti-democratic action contra the U.S. Capitol. They did so explicitly by inciting the mob not to be “zeros but heroes” (Donald Trump Jr.), promise “trial by combat” (Rudolph Giuliani), and suggest a violent insurrection that had performative effects: “We fight like hell, and if you don’t fight like hell you’re not going to have a country anymore” (Donald Trump)
The crowd of white supremacists driven by real material deprivations, grievances, and resentment amplified by an ongoing pandemic crisis was at this point galvanized and ready to turn the leader’s suggestion into a (new) fascist action. Members of the mob, which in addition to white supremacists, included far-right extremists (Proud Boys), followers of online cults (QAnon), as well as armed veterans, including former federal agents (FBI), were also ready to put themselves on the line by physically fighting for Trump—against themselves.


Third, this paradoxical turn of events cannot be dissociated from the proliferation of recordings of the storming that redoubled the event online, where the galvanization had initially started in the first place. Trump’s speech, riot, and subsequent insurrection was in fact planned and announced well in advance via new media like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram that effectively disseminated the conspiracy theory about “election fraud” by relying on what “conspiracism” does best: namely, promoting the idea that especially when it comes to big historical events (say, an election) but not only, official explanations inevitably hide a more occult, false, yet truly-believed plot that posits the conspiracy believer as a victim of an evil plan. Summarizing the main features of conspiracy theories under the heading of “nothing happens by accident; nothing is at it seems; and everything is connected,” in their informed overview of this growing heterogeneous phenomenon, Michael Butter and Pieter Knight confirm historically what we have all seen on January 6, 2021: namely, that “the leaders of populist parties and movements frequently draw on conspiracy tropes, and their followers appear to be particularly receptive to them,” specifying that “extremist violence” often ensues.
If this lesson applies to populist leaders is the dangers of insurrections are amplified by (new) fascist leaders. Gaining momentum by the proliferation of new platforms of dissemination online, conspiracy theories can no longer be considered a marginal phenomenon confined to few pathological cases, for they play an increasingly important role in influencing public opinion in the digital age, amplifying the hypermimetic powers of authoritarian figures.


Last but not least: the powers of conspiracy theories to erode the epistemic foundations of longstanding democratic practices are complex and manifold, but the assault on the Capitol could not have succeeded without a simpler, yet not less violent, racist supplement. While the U. S. police force is traditionally overprepared to violently counter peaceful protests among ethnic minorities (from Civil Rights to Black Lives Matter),
in a mirroring inversion of perspectives, it underestimated an announced violent insurrection among white majorities (from White supremacists to far-right extremists). For reasons that are still emerging and are currently revealing Republican officials’ complicity with the assault, although the Capitol police force was warned of the danger of insurrection in advance, it remained understaffed, and unprepared, allowing an intoxicated mob to invade the Capitol, loot parts of the building, and take possession of the Senate chamber. In an eerie confirmation of the genealogy we have been tracing, a figure dressed as a shaman and member of the far-right conspiracy cult QAnon, only made visible the underlying link between ancient ritual cults and contemporary conspiracy cults.
Importantly, the feedback loop between online and offline violence continued during the storming of the Capitol itself as the insurrectionists not only filmed Trump’s speech but also their own terrorist attack, re-doubling the event in the digital world. This digitized recording of a (new) fascist suggestion turned into terrorist action generated a parallel reality that, once again, did not simply represent reality according to the laws of imitation; it also generated performative hypermimetic effects that cut both ways, both with and contra democracy: on the democratic side, the recordings online were instrumental in helping the police identify insurrectionists, track them down, and inflict severe penalties; on the insurrectionist side, these videos went viral and contributed to disseminating violent anti-democratic feelings that are not limited to the U.S. but are operative transnationally via a growing cosmopolitan network that connects (new) fascist movements across the world. To be sure, the insurrection eventually failed, and a lawful (though heavily policed) transition of power ensued. And yet, as the Biden Administration is currently restoring basic democratic accords (Paris Accord, WHO membership etc.) disrupted by the previous Administration, let us not forget that (new) fascist sentiments will not magically disappear as the crowd momentarily disperses offline to reconnect online. The example of how conspiracy theories can easily lead to a violent insurrection that reveals the fragility of democratic institutions will leave lasting traces in the history of democracy, both in the U.S. and around the world. Conspiracies are also leaving lasting traces online that can serve as possible models for future insurrections to imitate offline, in an hypermimetic spiral of endless regress.
In the end, the assault on the Capitol left many politicians shocked, caught security forces unprepared, and was considered unprecedented within the sphere of U. S. politics; and yet, a minor tradition in mimetic theory consistently showed that its contagious dynamic has a long genealogy that should be taken seriously in political theory. It has been my contention that looking back to the powers of mimesis in the past century is a necessary step to foresee and counter (new) fascist insurrections to come in the present century.

*This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program (grant agreement No 716181: HOM):
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Tuesday, February 2, 2021


Hyperobjects is included in the College Art Association virtual exhibit display and sale. The annual conference begins Wednesday, February 10 and goes through Saturday, February 13 with pre-conference activities beginning in late January. With the transition to virtual conferences and exhibits, the overall success is amplified when authors participate in promoting to their audiences in concert with the efforts from our marketing department. CAA collection website: 40% discount code for CAA titles: MN87380 On Twitter: #CAA2021, @UMinnPress, @caavisual
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Thursday, January 21, 2021

Counting to 400,000: Mourning on the National Mall

Thomas Dumm
Amherst College

Joseph Stalin once infamously observed, “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” Knowing the consequences that may follow from the reduction of many lives to a number – trivialization, and in the worst cases, a forgetfulness that encourages the suppression of otherwise overwhelming truths concerning the terrible things we human beings are capable of doing -- we want to resist thinking in such reductive terms. But when we try to imagine how to grieve mass death as a public, how can we otherwise memorialize, how can we remember, how can we grieve?
As the number of deaths in the United States from the Covid-19 virus have mounted at an accelerating pace, following the merciless laws of multiplication that accompany uncontrolled contagions, a common measure of comparison has been used by many members of the commentariat. To whit, the daily toll from the pandemic has now exceeded the total number of deaths suffered on 9/11. Another comparison has been to deaths suffered in American wars. (Indeed, in his inaugural address, President Biden himself noted that more Americans have now died from this plague than died in World War II.) But for some reason, perhaps because war itself involves volition and deliberation, if not always explicit declaration, we do not immediately think of casualties of war as being victims, but as being heroes.
The vacillation between hero and victim is but one expression of the many simplifying dualisms in the American lexicon of power. In this case, heroes are powerful; victims are powerless. (Of course, another dualism pits the hero against the villain, the enemy of the good. The villain too is reducible to the binary logic of absolutism, judged regardless of context, without any attempt to learn of the circumstances that created their villainy, to absolute condemnation.) But dualisms of power only work when there is a conscious refusal to acknowledge the imperfections of all, to imagine that there a conclusion to our grief, a psychic closure that gives one permission to move on, move away, from the site of such difficult pain.
But many of us who have directly experienced grief – and who hasn’t? -- know that there is no certain end to it, and that when we attempt to evade the pain of loss through suppression or distraction, or conversion of pain into anger, we do damage to ourselves and to those around us. Judith Butler has noted the destructiveness of blocked grief, especially in her meditation on 9/11, Precarious Life. There she suggested that all grief has a public dimension, and she realized that as a consequence of that public dimension of grief, it is inevitably politicized. When there are mass deaths, especially, the politics of grief becomes more visible to all.
The public life of grief didn’t have any noteworthy face during the Trump Administration, Trumpism being the quintessential dualistic ideology. (Simple binaries have supported the rule of tyrants throughout history, but they are especially well fitted to modern fascistic regimes.) By political imperative, but also by personality, it is abundantly clear that Trump was unfit to lead the country in grieving. In fact, his actions throughout 2020 and into this year were largely based on his denial of the seriousness of the pandemic, as has been extensively documented.
Every milestone in this plague – whether the initial explosion of cases in the states of New York and Washington, through the ongoing documentation of 100,000, 200,000 300,000, and now 400,000 deaths as the virus has spread throughout the country in a second wave – has passed, not only without meaningful comment by the Trump Administration, but with ridiculous lies and an absurd politicization of such basic precautions as wearing masks in the name of a freedom of choice, a freedom akin to that of choosing to drive on whatever side of the road one might prefer. (The significant failure of Trump to act as head of state and chief executive should be one more reason for a general rethinking of the present constitutional system of governance. But that is a subject for another time.)
And so it came to pass that the citizens and denizens of the United States, following the catastrophe of an insurrection incited by Trump and the Republicans in Congress in support of the Big Lie of a stolen election, came to the nation’s capital, virtually if not in person, on the eve of Joe Biden’s inauguration, at dusk, to witness the first national ritual of grief for those deaths approximately one year after the first recorded mortality from Covid-19 in the United States.
    The event was staged at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool on the National Mall. Four hundred obelisks of light lined the sides of the Pool, one for every thousand deaths, counting to 400,000, stretching from the Memorial to the Washington Monument, devoid of people, not only because of the ongoing pandemic but because of the lockdown of the capital following the attempted putsch on the 6th of January.
There were brief comments by the by the president and vice-president elects, and the singing of two songs. The first was “Amazing Grace” (the lyrics written by a reformed slave owner in 1788 (the melody adapted from the song “New Britain” in 1835), a song deeply familiar to all, a song of hope that was sung by President Obama at a memorial service for one of the nine murder victims of a white nationalist in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015.
   The second song was, to me anyway, a more surprising choice. Although famous in its own right, Leonard Cohen’s 1984 sorrowful love song, sung in the voice of a person broken by his lover, now has entered the pantheon of national recognition for a reason far different than its origin might suggest. “Hallelujah” has been transformed into an anthem of mourning and resolution, with the use of its title word serving as the chorus, both ironic and beyond irony, in its singing.
A key lyric in that song, one Yolanda Adams chose not to sing that evening – it is a long song when fully performed – was this: 

And I've seen your flag on the marble arch

and love is not a victory march

It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah

I wish she had. It would have been fitting. Cold and broken, flag still flying, no victory march: what better describes that which we still may call the national mood?

This country’s national grieving has begun. What we might make of that fact I do not know. But as our morning progresses, we may begin to see glimmers of hope.

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Sunday, December 6, 2020

America's Obituary

Steven Johnston is Neal A. Maxwell Chair in Political Theory, Public Policy, and Public Service, University of Utah and is the author of, most recently, Wonder and Cruelty: Ontological War in 'It's a Wonderful Life' and Lincoln: The Ambiguous Icon.

Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump in a close election. While he won a record number of votes, the electoral college results were not clear until four days after the voting stopped. Biden will win, eventually, by roughly six million, but Trump garnered over 70 million votes himself, adding over 10 million to his 2016 total—despite a manifestly failed presidency, except in terms of white supremacy, that is.

The polls predicting a decisive Biden victory were wrong. Badly wrong. The Senate is likely to stay in Republican hands, where Mitch McConnell can obstruct Biden’s initiatives, and Supreme Court conservatives, activist Republicans all, hold a 6 to 3 majority. Democrats flipped zero statehouses, which bodes ill for redistricting. Trump has been defeated, but Trumpism lives, and the lame duck president may well run again as a victim of the greatest fraud in American political history in 2024. In the meantime, there is no reason to believe he will disappear from the political scene and preside over his (failing) businesses. Rather, he is likely to wage a running war against Biden and the Democrats from his Twitter account, and may even continue to hold periodic rallies given how dependent he is on the adulation of crowds for validation. He will also need to nurture the wounds he is forging now as he refuses to face the reality of defeat. 

After being declared the winner, Joe Biden delivered the kind of speech everyone knew he would: an Obamaesque call for reconciliation and unity. Biden insisted it is time to end the demonization characteristic of American politics and insisted that our opponents are not enemies but fellow Americans. Biden believes that he can work with Republicans to get things done, and given the dire circumstances the country faces (lethal pandemic, economic collapse, climate change, etc.), there is no shortage of things that need to get done. Biden will start his first day in office with a blitz of executive orders, but this tactic can achieve only so much. 

What do the nation’s prospects look like? Stalemate is one likely outcome. When Barack Obama assumed office in 2013, Republicans made it their mission to destroy his presidency and make him a one-term president. He never seemed to figure out that he could not rise above the partisan fray and bring Republicans along with him in a joint patriotic commitment to the nation. Remember, America was also in crisis when he took office. Republicans did not care. They do not show any evidence of caring now. Trump and Trumpism, despite the jubilant nationwide parties in the streets following Biden’s official victory, have not been defeated, let alone repudiated. They are both alive and well. America’s polarized division will be with us for years, perhaps decades, to come. The country’s electoral system exaggerates and empowers their otherwise minority status. 

Is this the indefinite reality with which America’s democratic citizens have to live? Can we reasonably be expected to live in a polity in which tyrannical minority rule embodied by Donald Trump, his GOP allies in the House and Senate, much of the federal judiciary, and a majority of Republican statehouses and governorships routinely prevails—or even enjoys the possibility of prevailing. Or is there an alternative, a long-term alternative, that it would be wise to start discussing? What if we were to put Trump and Trumpism on notice?

Regardless of November 3’s results, then, given the damage Trump and Republicans have inflicted on this country over the last 50 years, given, furthermore, their very identity as a political party committed to white supremacy and racial resentment, what if the United States took the first steps in a process of self-dissolution? This is an idea with roots in the founding of the country when (some) anti-Federalists preferred to form several small republics in the aftermath of independence from Great Britain. Hamilton’s dreams of national power and global empire defeated democratic aspirations then. The latter can be recovered and redeemed now in the name of a multiracial America that already exists on the east and west coasts and many parts of the American interior, including several large cities in the sunbelt. 

Remember, we already live in a country broken geographically by two oceans (yes, I am counting Puerto Rico) and Canada. Is there any reason we cannot (try to) become a more perfect non-contiguous union? And largely leave the red states to themselves? Imagine a long blue and purple arc starting in the Midwest with Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Illinois extending east to Pennsylvania, New York and New England. Trace it down the east coast from the Mid-Atlantic states to Florida (South Carolina will have a decision to make) and then jump to Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Finish it off with the west coast of the continental United States, and then Nevada, Colorado, and Hawai’i. The deep red states, concentrated largely in the continent’s interior but including the rural parts of much of coastal America, would be “liberated.”

When Trump was elected president in 2016 he lacked democratic legitimacy. Hillary Clinton, despite a deeply flawed campaign in which she somehow decided not to appear in key battleground states, secured nearly 3 million more votes than Trump, who averted well-deserved defeat thanks to the democratically indefensible electoral college. Three years later, following acquittal by the Senate after House impeachment, Trump ran for reelection lacking constitutional legitimacy as well. After all, Mitch McConnell announced prior to Trump’s trial that the president would be acquitted no matter the evidence, an act not only of institutional betrayal but arguably of treason. America’s vaunted and much-celebrated system of check and balances seemed officially dead. From a democratic perspective, Donald Trump should never have assumed office. From a Constitutional perspective, Donald Trump should never have remained in office. Each points to the failure of America’s purportedly democratic system of government to sustain itself and keep faith with its values. How long do democratic citizen owe allegiance to such a system? 

For nearly four years, Donald Trump has posed a variety of existential threats to the country. Is this overstating the case? To answer the question, let’s take a quick inventory of Trump’s presidency (and thus Trumpism), which might then point to a new way forward.

Donald Trump conspired and attempted to conspire with foreign governments, first with Russia and then with Ukraine, to subvert America’s democratic system and obstruct any and all efforts to uncover these schemes. He has also called on China to interfere in America’s electoral process and come to his aid. Trump’s lawlessness pertains not just to his efforts to secure and maintain his position of power, which is critical to his family’s financial fortunes. It relates to all areas of government: Trump refuses to recognize the very idea of Congressional oversight of his administration. He believes that he is accountable to no one and no thing. The Constitution, on his “reading,” allows him to do whatever he wants to do. This is the definition of tyranny. Athens and Rome, our spiritual and practical forebears, knew how to handle tyrants. America’s founders thought they could learn from and improve on their ancient predecessors and lessen violence in politics. They appear to have been wrong. Only one Republican Senator, Mitt Romney, voted to convict Trump at his impeachment trial. Lawlessness is not just a Trump problem. It is a Republican Party value (at least when they have power). 

Donald Trump presided—and continues to preside even as I write this—over Republican efforts, which have included the federal judiciary and state and local governments, to suppress the vote on a massive scale and disqualify Democratic votes after they have been cast, especially of people of color. Republicans long ago concluded that they cannot win elections without rigging their outcome, as Brain Kemp did in Georgia in 2018. This electoral violence is consonant with Trump’s refusal to renounce White supremacy when given the opportunity during the first presidential debate. He refused for one simple reason: he is a White supremacist and it is the key to his electoral and Republican Party fortunes. Race and racism account for the deep devotion of his base, even as he poses a threat to their livelihoods and their lives by ignoring a lethal pandemic and its economic fallout. 

Donald Trump refused, when asked repeatedly, to say whether he would respect the results of the 2020 election, and thus the will of the American people, and commit to the peaceful transfer of power, a tradition that traces back to the origins of the country and George Washington. Rather, insisting that he cannot by definition lose, Trump believes that any defeat is inherently illegitimate, which is one reason he won’t concede the election now, despite the threat to national, including health, security. Combine these assaults on American democracy with voter suppression efforts and Trump and the GOP have effectively placed themselves in harm’s way should the need arise to remove him from office. This should be unthinkable in American democracy. It is no longer. 

Biden is not worried. His campaign reassured the country that “the United States government is perfectly capable of escorting trespassers out of the White House.” Trump’s supporters, in and out of government, might not be as sanguine about removal. Here it is worth noting that when British colonists revolted in the 1770s and pursued a course of violent revolution to establish an independent nation-state, they did so with much weaker cause and provocation than America’s democratic citizens possess today.

Donald Trump, despite the known dangers, has lied over and over (again) about the Covid-19 global pandemic, making an effective national response impossible. He has refused to advocate the most basic precautions to stop the spread of the virus and protect American citizens, instead encouraging his base to believe, wrongly, that their freedom was at stake if they wore a mask. In an all out effort to secure s second term, through reelection or otherwise, Trump has insisted on reopening the economy without adequate precautions and sponsored superspreader events at the White House and in numerous states on the campaign trail, resulting in the dissemination of the virus. It can be argued that his boundless narcissism, breathtaking incompetence, and criminal neglect of this deadly disease have needlessly cost tens of thousands of Americans, perhaps more, their lives, rendering Trump a uniquely political serial killer. Can any democratic citizen can be expected to subject themselves to his rule? 

Donald Trump has told nearly twenty-five thousand lies, tracked by The Washington Post, while in office. These lies, from inauguration crowds to Covid-19 to his defeat by Joe Biden, make democratic politics nearly impossible by deliberately confusing an alternative fictional reality with truth. Trump’s lies serve a number of political purposes. Perhaps the primary effect is to render accountability impossible and obscure the threat that Trump and Trumpism’s far right agenda poses to American democracy. Insofar as the media try to hold him accountable, which is one of their critical functions, he labels them the “enemy of the people.” Trump’s ambition is to undermine trust in the media, to disempower it, enabling him to pursue the party’s right wing program with as little effective opposition as possible. The media are not Trump’s only enemy, of course. Trump and Trump’s America are defined by their enemies, which they constantly and endlessly create, all of whom are actual or would-be targets of violence, both state and state-solicited.

It is evident that Trump and the Republican Party aspire to create what amounts to a second Confederacy, as reactionary and racist as the first. Through their actions and rhetoric they have made it clear they do not believe in democracy and will not—they cannot—share a polity with those unlike and opposed to them. How, then, can democratic citizens be reasonably expected to live alongside them, let alone allow them to impose minority rule over them? Democracy itself, I would argue, is not and should not be a legitimate subject of American elections. But that is what the latter, in part, have become, which is tantamount to asking the country’s democratic citizens, should they lose, to acquiesce in their own political domination. The next round of this dynamic is now scheduled for 2024.

Perhaps the United States of America, thanks to would-be destruction of its basic institutions, practices, and norms from one side of the political divide marking it, is an idea whose time has cone and gone. But from the ashes of Trump’s America, a new nation might be born. Fortunately, it already exists, if inchoately. Among other things, this new nation needs to divorce its revanchist other half and redraw its boundaries. Given how the two Americas feel about each other, why can’t such a separation proceed amicably? Or, if this proposal, projecting the loss of the country they claim to love, were to serve as a shocking wake-up call to so-called Red State America(ns), perhaps, as Biden hopes, their better angels might prevail over their darker impulses. Either way, Biden is right about one thing: democracy has to defend itself.

November 15, 2020

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Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Rethinking White Supremacy on the Mall


 Steven Johnston is Neal A. Maxwell Chair in Political Theory, Public Policy, and Public Service, University of Utah and is the author of, most recently, Wonder and Cruelty: Ontological War in 'It's a Wonderful Life' and Lincoln: The Ambiguous Icon.

Donald Trump is running for reelection on a fear campaign. He has concluded that he cannot secure a second term unless he stokes racial fears and animosities in both his base and certain undecided groups of voters. Trump’s conclusion is no surprise given that his record of “accomplishments” amounts to wasteful, destructive tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, inflating by tens of billions of dollars an already bloated defense budget, and deliberately reckless deregulatory schemes many of which are animated by racial hatred of Barack Obama. The latter, among other things, pose grave threats to not just the country’s environment but also to the planet. In more ways than one, then, Trump constitutes a global menace.

There are multiple dimensions to Trump’s fear-driven stratagems. One involves dispatching federal storm troopers to American cities to attack racial justice activists and foment violent conflict between citizens and the state. He exacerbates scenes of disruption that he then insists only he can stabilize.

Another involves suggesting to white suburban housewives that their safe, comfortable racial enclaves will soon be overrun by poor people in low cost housing (Trump’s racist code), a threat only he can preempt.

A third involves the celebration and protection of reactionary relics in civic space, more specifically, racially-charged public monuments and memorials that work to efface ugly memories of the American past. Trump deplores the removal or destruction of Confederate statuary. Not only does he object to removing  tributes to notorious racists and traitors such as Robert E. Lee. He also insinuates that those “radicals” who target this aspect of American history (or “heritage,” now another racist code word) will set their sights next on the beloved Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial. Trump’s fear peddling even provoked Joe Biden into defending them, however weak the defense.

While there is no threat to either structure, Trump’s mock hysteria provides a timely opportunity to rethink the Mall in Washington, D.C, the nation’s most sacred symbolic ground, especially its contributions to and celebrations of white supremacy. Let’s assume, then, that Trump’s reaction was warranted, pretending that these iconic structures are in danger. What, if anything, is problematic about eliminating the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial from the Mall in Washington, D.C.?

Historians often object to the removal of civic architecture from public space. Washington and Jefferson, we are told, played significant roles in the nation’s founding, suggesting that it is better to contextualize their historical contributions than deny them, which removal would supposedly represent. Locate an informational plaque in the vicinity of their memorials, explaining America’s fraught origins and the morally compromised lives of these towering figures. In this self-critical way, new generations of citizens can learn more about the country’s birth and its founders. The same purpose could be achieved by building counter-memorials, if space allows, alongside those already in place, pointing to the modes of supremacy they efface and thereby subjecting them to monumental contestation.

If maintaining a statue in place is deemed unacceptable, as with Confederate memorials, which are nothing more than brazen symbols of white supremacy erected well after the Civil War to express the triumphal return of white power in the South, the next best option is to relocate them to a remote destination or museum. Under no circumstances, however, should they be destroyed. This would be tantamount to erasing history, an act purportedly antithetical to the open spirit of democracy.

But is this actually the case? What if we think along more democratic political lines? What if we think of the space of a monument or memorial as site of democratic contestation? In this regard, we might take a lesson, however inadvertently, from Jefferson himself, who late in his life insisted that each generation was sovereign and had the right to institute its own constitution and government. Contrary to much popular belief, Jefferson wrote, nothing that comes before is “too sacred to be to touched.” It would be optimal, he argued, if some kind of democratic reconstitution took place about every 19 or 20 years.

Why not treat public monuments and memorials in the same fashion? When a democracy proposes and builds a monument or memorial, why should it be automatically assumed that the resultant structure must live in perpetuity? Following the inspirational lead of (West) Germany’s counter-monument movement, why not fold a preset time limit into any national monument or memorial? If Jefferson’s 20 years seems too short, why not 30 or 40?

After all, we build monuments and memorials mostly for ourselves, not those they ostensibly honor. They are more political than historical artifacts. They commemorate, but the character of the commemoration exceeds the past it also recovers. Architectural subjects and designs reflect contemporary values, purposes, and understandings. If we no longer find the Washington or Jefferson reflective of those values, contributive to those purposes, or in harmony with those understandings, why not remove them? In their case, the replacement process itself would necessarily occasion a vibrant democratic conversation, even struggle, over the nature of the country’s founding creed and its basic ideals, perhaps contributing to a democratic revival as the country seeks desperately to realize and sometimes recreate those ideals.

Let it be remembered: Washington died in 1799; construction of the monument bearing his name did not begin until 1848; private funds had to be raised and there were never enough; the monument was not dedicated until 1885, a schedule that betrays little sense of urgency. What’s more, there was opposition to it from the beginning, along republican lines (among others). How, then, did this edifice acquire the near-sacred status it now seems to enjoy? How did it become “too sacred to be touched”?

The Washington Monument is an obelisk. Egyptian in origin, an obelisk stands for life, a ray of sunlight. On the Mall, however, the founding it represents came at horrific cost, especially along racial lines—actualities Trump’s demand for right-wing, know-nothing educational indoctrination cannot alter. Given the dispossession, enslavement, and destruction it entailed, the founding was an inherently ambiguous achievement, which the Washington Monument elides, in large part because the founding started well before the late eighteenth century. For that reason alone, a new memorial to the founding is apt. Otherwise, we continue to live—proudly, publicly—in denial rather than truth. If you want another reason, reducing anything as complex as a founding to one grandiose white father figure, whatever his prominence, is a historical, even childish absurdity unbefitting a self-governing democratic people.

While there’s plenty of room around the Washington Monument for informational supplements or even a counter-memorial, the former would lack the drama and excitement of a new memorial, and the latter might be rendered effectively invisible by the gargantuan obelisk. A new memorial could breathe life into a stale, pedestrian space, as it would be conceived and built by a multiracial coalition and could draw for inspiration on more recent architectural innovations that engage America’s terrible histories (such as Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama).

The same is true of the Jefferson Memorial, designed as a glorious testament to freedom and a vehement broadside against tyranny. While its inscriptions complicate the third president’s vexed relationship to slavery (the sentences on the northeast portico condemn the relationship between master and slave as despotism), they can’t overcome, for one, the ugly reality that Jefferson theorized plans to remove every Black person from the United States until the end of his life. This is hardly a figure to be enshrined on the Mall. Besides, Jefferson built two lasting monuments to himself, Monticello and the University of Virginia, which should more than suffice.

Why not a memorial to abolition(ists) and emancipation? Across the Tidal Basin from the Martin Luther King Memorial, a tribute to Frederick Douglass, author of arguably America’s greatest patriotic oration, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” might well replace Jefferson. Douglass’s famous July 5th, 1852, oration in Rochester, New York, models what it means to be a democratic citizen (to others, a critical patriot) committed to his country and shows that commitment by holding it to account and trying to compel it to realize its basic ideals. He is a forerunner of the Black Lives Matter movement and a monument to his life, work, and legacy would encompass America’s founding, the present rebellious moment, and beyond. It’s just one, rather traditional, architectural possibility.

Once the Washington and Jefferson were replaced with worthy “successors,” would anyone actually miss them? Whether the answer is yes or no, in another 30 or 40 years we would start this dynamic democratic process all over again. In the meantime, tearing them down could be the occasion for a bacchanalian celebration of (commemorative) democratic possibility. Think of the outpouring of joy that accompanied the fall—the destruction—of the Berlin wall. It signaled a new day, a new birth of freedom in Eastern Europe. To the extent that we might find such a reference, if not comparison, inappropriate and even insulting is the extent to which white supremacy reigns supreme on the Mall.

September 18, 2020       



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