Liberal Democracy in Question

On Trump and Trumpism

8 posts in 1

I am devastated. All of my public commitments are under attack. I thought there had been progress during my lifetime. Democracy and the positive developments of democratic culture, free speech and expression, social justice and the fight against racism, sexism, class exploitation, xenophobia, and much more, all seemed to advance, even if too slowly and far from completely. Now, I am not sure whether the progress will endure. It feels as if it were the 1930s all over again.

I am bewildered, torn between withdrawal and hyper commitment. I want to write about my concerns, but my concerns overwhelm me, causing a strange case of writer’s block. I have started writing many pieces, but have become distracted by my work helping others share their views and planning a teach-in, along with my regular responsibilities to students, as chair and professor in the Department of Sociology, and responding to the death of my dear friend and colleague, Vera Zolberg. I usually manage successfully a variety of different projects at once. But not now.

I am stifled by my despair. But I want to push through. I need to write something because that is the way I know exactly what I think. And I need to think, even though thinking hurts, once again. The same feeling I had after 9/11, which led to my book The Politics of Small Things. Can anything good come of this?

I have to figure out how to get going again. I have started to formulate my response to the election of a sociopath, who happens also to be a racist, misogynist, sexist, xenophobic, self-proclaimed “blue collar billionaire,” but I keep on stumbling. He has tapped into the illegitimate, along with the legitimate, concerns of many Americans, and has promised them anything and everything. They are not all in a basket full of deplorables, but there are a lot of deplorables in the basket.

And there is no way to know what he will do since there seems to be no patterned relationship between his words and his actions, and the words are constantly changing, often in mid-sentence.

I have been looking at our situation from a variety of different angles, thinking about it with a host of concerns, suggesting a series of posts. I don’t have the time or the energy to complete them. So here are fragments, some of the titles of the posts that I have started, but haven’t been able to complete, with brief explanations of what I would have liked to have explored more fully:

  1. Why was this election different than all other elections? It was a democratic election that had a profoundly anti-democratic result. Not unknown in world history, think, for example, of Germany in the thirties, or Poland and Turkey in recent years. But it is the first time in American history (at least since 1860) that a vote for one candidate was a vote for democracy, a vote for the other candidate, a vote against democracy: a democratic election with an anti-democratic result. This poses a fundamental dilemma, one could reject the results, declaring them as somehow illegitimate: “Not My President!” I deeply feel this. But to act on the feeling is to undermine democratic procedure. I think this. Yet, to accept the procedure is to accept the anti-democratic result. In my terms, this is a tragic instance of the social condition. An alternative title for this post might be “The American Elections, Democracy and the Social Condition.”
  1. America Joins the Anti-Democratic International: Putin, Duterte, Kaczynski, Orban, and Trump. In this piece I would explore more fully the emerging tragic relationship between the social condition and democracy, particularly illiberal democracy, as a global phenomenon and as this is personified by a new kind of global figure. It almost seems that narcissistic leaders are naturally emerging all over the world, a global cancer that doesn’t have an apparent cure. The leader identifies his person with the nation, and the nation is the primary principle. Twenty First Century nationalism gone wild. The new tyrants apparently speak the same way, with rambling non sequiturs attached to deadly deeds. They have an intimate relationship with their supporters, who trust them absolutely, even when they make no sense. What does it mean when Trump declares that we are going to build a wall and Mexico is going to pay for it? What actions will follow? I wonder whether anyone actually believes that Mexico is ever going to pay for the wall or even that it ever will be built. What do Trump’s tweets mean? How are we to respond to them? Does he really think that he would have won the popular vote if it weren’t for millions of votes Clinton received through massive voter fraud? On what grounds? Such questions are going to appear daily. Makes me think that we ought to have daily reports on Trumpspeak, our new newspeak. Another post, perhaps.
  1. It Can Happen Here. Not only can it happen here: it has happened here. H.L. Mencken was prescient: “As democracy is perfected, the office of the President represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be occupied by a downright fool and a complete narcissistic moron.” (H.L. Mencken, The Baltimore Evening Sun, July 26, 1920). The legitimized racism, sexism, anti-intellectualism and xenophobia reveal how fascism looks in America. We certainly don’t yet live in a fascist state, but what fascism in America would look like is becoming ever more clear. I am concerned about how blue lives matter will now Trump black lives, how “fair and balanced” media may replace a commitment to truth, how right-wing extremism has been normalized, indeed, how “extremism in the defense of liberty” has now become no vice, to paraphrase Barry Goldwater.
  1. The System was Rigged: From the Electoral College to Voter Suppression to James Comey. The majority of Americans voted for Democrats in the federal election in the presidential contest, and also in the contests for the Senate, though not in the House. Nonetheless, we will be living under a complete Republican regime for at least the next two years, and a Republican President for at least four years. This is a result of malicious anti-democratic intent on the part of hyper-partisan individuals, who must be steadfastly opposed, and also because of tragic historic unintended consequences. This argument, if I could work it out, would be my response to Michael Weinman’s recent contributions to PS, see here,  here and here. I appreciate Michael’s defense of federalism, but the defense of the rights of rural voters in small states seems to be the least of our problems given their outsized power to define the country in monochromatic tones. Making America great again doesn’t seem to include many of the great Americans I know and love. The drawing of Congressional districts, the equality of all the states in the Senate (with the complete exclusion of the residents of Washington, D.C.) and much else insures that the poor, people of color, of diverse racial, religious, sexual and gender identities, and all who live in cities and big states have radically diminished political power. And the Electoral College, an antique political invention, meant to insure that common folk choose their leader from among their betters is a kind of historical nail in the democratic coffin. Now leading to the “election” of two profoundly unqualified individuals as President of the United States in recent years. The exact result the American founders hoped to avoid.
  1. Conservatives, Liberals and Radicals: Toward a Democratic Dialogue. I am convinced that the answer to Trump must involve a broad popular response, using the power of social resistance and of established political parties and institutions. I hope that my friends and colleagues on the democratic left, right and center, resist what is now on the near horizon. It is imperative that people get involved and don’t end with expressing dismay and despair. It is imperative that the left doesn’t descend into sectarianism. There is now a clear and present danger, and democrats of the world and particularly of the U.S. must unite. The greatest book I read during my adventures in Poland was Adam Michnik’s The Church and the Left.  In it, Michnik argued that those of the secular democratic left and the religious but anti-totalitarian right had to work together despite their fundamental differences. The book anticipated and in some sense helped create the broad democratic movement Solidarność. Michnik’s key point: traditional enemies had to recognize their common central concerns and fight together despite their differences, which they should by all means continue to discuss. They needed to develop a capacity to act together against dictatorship, without one side or the other dictating the terms of their common action, but finding those terms in dialogue. This post would have been a variation on his Polish theme, a theme by the way that Poland also needs to develop right now, as the authoritarian right, closely aligned with the Polish hierarchy, is moving Poland from a fledgling democracy to dictatorship.
  1. Political Correctness. Trump and his supporters are quick to dismiss all concern about racism, sexism, homophobia, trans-phobia, misogyny, anti-Semitism, police brutality, etc. as politically correct. The term provides license for aggressive, vulgar, uncivil expression. No need for distinctions. No concern about the possible harm the dominant can do with their words. And according to Trump, it is President Obama’s political correctness that explains his reluctance to denounce “Radical Islamic Terrorism.” And by implication, he suggests that with loud and proud denunciation, the words will solve the problem. Because of his forthright expression of this position, Rudy Giuliani is apparently a serious candidate to be Secretary of State. I would like to write more about this, particularly how the conflation of power with truth creates what is the real danger of politically correctness, as a serious kind of challenge to both the pursuit of truth and the exercise of democratic power. I need to write a piece on the incredible importance of Hannah Arendt’s essay on “Truth and Politics,” perhaps her most important short essay. I worry about this problem as it appears in our present media environment, as it facilitates post truth politics. Trump is a master of this, and seems to be extending it as he tweets his heart away in a fact-free zone of his imagination, an imagination that will not get us closer to truth, but is tragically playing an outsized role in defining our political reality.
  1. Neo-liberalism? I think that this term conceals a great deal and reveals little. I think it is used by academics and leftists in the United States to present overly simplified explanations to many complex problems. Problem in the world, blame neoliberalism. Trump is a market fundamentalist when it comes to cultural values, politics, education and much more. But Clinton is the neoliberal? I don’t understand this and believe it has to be rethought. Crucially it is based on a confusion that sees no difference between Reagan and Thatcher, on the one hand, and Clinton (Bill, that is) and Blair on the other. I think the term magically makes it vividly clear that there was a huge gulf that separated Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, when the policies they advocated were strikingly more similar than different. I wanted to write a post asking my many friends and colleagues who use the term neoliberalism to explain what it means and why they use it. I think confronting this issue is necessary for building a broad coalition against Trump and Trumpism.
  1. The Postmodern Political Spectacle. As I am finishing this summary of posts that might have been, I conclude with a most important post that I have been thinking about for a long time. We are now experiencing a kind of postmodern tyranny based upon mass fear and supported by new kinds of media spectacles, small and large. Donald Trump is a tweet master and a student of Joseph Goebbels. It is through his repetitive tweeting of lies that he entered the political arena, gaining attention as a political actor and not only as a reality TV star. While his wealth is based on the ostentatious branding of anything and everything with his name, his entrance into the political arena was established by repeatedly tweeting and declaring on cable TV news the ridiculous lie that Barack Hussein Obama was not born in the United States and wasn’t legitimately president. Trump demanded the birth certificate and was never satisfied. A major challenge is to understand how this led to power and realize that he will use this as a way to dominant, not govern, when he is in office. Earlier today as I was completing this text, he is at it again at it, creating a controversy to divide his enemies from his allies. Burn the flag: go to jail or lose your citizenship. Those informed by Supreme Court decisions, famously including one supported by Trump’s hero Anthony Scalia, are outraged. But Trump’s supporters, those who are steadfastly against political correctness, are comforted. They have a President who is not afraid of telling it like it is. And tomorrow he is off to a mass rally. Tweets and rallies, and President Donald Trump: this is what we are up against.

On Thursday, December 1, Public Seminar is holding a teach-in at The New School. I look forward to working together to understand present crisis with my colleagues, students and friends, and to plan together our response, which I hope includes a broad democratic popular front. The teach in will also appear in the coming days on Public Seminar. The best antidote to despair is political action, speaking with each other as equals, getting to know each other in our differences, and developing a capacity to act in concert.

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Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

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