Thinking Politically in the Age of Trump
Introduction to #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One
A note from the author: This seems like a good time to follow up Jeffrey Goldfarb’s column of last week by posting the Introduction to my new Public Seminar book, #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One, which is available from Public Seminar as a free download here.
“I merely took the energy it takes to pout, and I wrote some blues.” -Duke Ellington
As the events of the past two years have unfolded, the ascendancy of Donald Trump has cast a dark and frightening shadow over our politics, and has demanded urgent responses—of which the reflections contained here constitute only one very personal response, as developed as it were “in real time.” The book is animated by my powerful revulsion at, and opposition to, both Trump and what he has unleashed upon us. But it is about much more than Trump, and its reflections are not simply about being against but about what is worth being for—liberal democracy, with all of its profound flaws, both remediable and irremediable.
As a collection of essays published between 2016 and 2018, it is obviously not literally a reflection on a single year though, following a now-widely respected historical convention, it is perhaps possible to think of the book in terms of the long duree, as a commentary on the “long year” of 2017—an interminable year!—in which Trump first became President. Yet while everything about this book is colored and shaped by Trump’s Presidency, many of the pieces deal with the 2016 primary battles and especially with the hopeful energies generated by the Democratic primary contest between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, during the period in which Trump was simply the most outrageous outlier in a field of seventeen Republican candidates. In fact Trump’s election was in no way inevitable, and whether or not in the broad sweep of history it looms large as a defining moment depends, in part, on what we think and do, now and in the coming weeks, months, and years. (Yes, of course there are also long-term structural tendencies that enable and constrain us . . . But within those limits, which can never be fully known in advance, what we think and what we do matter. And if they didn’t, what would be the point of political writing altogether?).
The book’s very title, in short, raises questions about the volume itself, questions that require some answer.
In this Introduction I propose to furnish some answers, introducing the essays that follow, and reflecting on the reasons for publishing this collection now, and under the rubric of reflections or “notes” on “The Age of Trump.”
1. The Age of Trump
The essays collected were written in the period between February 2016 and February 2018, a period of almost two years, extending from the middle of the Presidential primary campaigns of 2016 to the end of the first year of Donald Trump’s tenure as the 45th President of the United States. The act of collecting the essays together, and publishing them together, sandwiched between broader reflective essays, has been undertaken in early 2018, in the shadow of Trump’s first year.
Trump has long cast his shadow on American public life, as an authoritarian (and apparently entertaining) media personality who is a master of gaining media attention, and whose “brand” is linked to a particular kind of “mastery”—the mastery of others, and the enactment of a dictatorial personality well summed up by the phrase for which he is best known by most TV-watching Americans: “You’re fired.” And yet while Trump was able to segue seamlessly from his private sector bombastic self-aggrandizement (and self-enrichment) to the public stage of Presidential primary politics, and while from the start he garnered incredible amounts of what the experts call “unearned media attention,” it is worth recalling that when he announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination for President on June 16, 2015, he was himself something of a “celebrity apprentice” in the business of electoral politics. His victory in the Republican primary was no doubt overdetermined, in part a function of his ability to tap into and manipulate some widespread anxieties and resentments about “who governs” the U.S., and in part a function of the literal disarray of the Republican Party at the national level, which allowed him to rise to the top while the other more “mainstream” candidates refused to coalesce, cannibalizing each other before TV screens in ways that Trump, the P.T. Barnum of our time, worked to his advantage. But this victory was by no means assured. Almost every serious commentator, including me, believed for the first year of his candidacy that he could not win (indeed, the only person I know who confidently predicted Trump’s victory from the start was my musician-photographer-writer-amateur historian and real estate agent son Adam Kent-Isaac). His opponents believed he could not win. If there is any truth in Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury, it is possible that Trump himself did not believe he could win (it seems entirely believable that poor Melania held this belief, and has been in mourning ever since election day).
But win he did.
The period covered in the book, then, is a period that includes real contingencies and genuine surprises. The structure of the book is intended to mirror this shifting terrain, even if it culminates, in the now, at a dark moment indeed.
While the book proceeds chronologically, in my comments here I begin in the brief, shocking moment of what I would call a “Rude Awakening” that followed the Trump victory on election day, November 8, 2016. This moment was far from inevitable and, as Part I, “Trump Agonistes,” recounts, the entire period that preceded it, both the primary season and the general election contest, was highly contentious, with the stakes becoming increasingly high, and positions becoming increasingly hardened. And so when the final votes were tallied, and Trump was declared the winner, such hardened positions were immediately invoked as explanations. On the right ideologues exulted in the supposed “mandate” of a candidate who actually lost the popular vote. And on the left the bitter recriminations of the Hillary Clinton-Bernie Sanders primary fight came again to the surface, with many Clinton supporters casting blame on Sanders supporters for their failure to rally behind Hillary, and many Sanders supporters casting blame on the Democratic party, or Hillary or neoliberalism, or even “liberals” in general, for supposedly “handing” the election to Trump by refusing to support a more radical candidate. If on the right many exulted in the popularity of a man who lost the general election popular vote, on the left many chose strangely to regard the defeat of the woman who handily defeated the self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” to her left in the Democratic primaries, as proof that only a left candidate can viably defeat a conservative.
The piece I wrote on November 9, “The Day After,” proceeds from genuine exhaustion and shock (at that point I could not even imagine how exhausting and shocking the year to come would be), and appeals to both liberals and radicals to avoid moralistic blaming, and to step back and ask hard questions about why Trump was able to win and how it might be possible to join together to push back against him and to repudiate the Republican victory in coming elections: “This is a time for hard questioning and serious dialogue among those who will be politically humbled and opposed and often defeated under a Trump administration. There is hard work ahead. This is no time for foolish recriminations among people who really have only two choices: to work together or to hang separately.” In this piece, and in the one that followed it days later, “Why Did Trump Win?” my purpose was to defend what might be called “the middle ground” between mainstream liberals and those to the left of the mainstream who have had enough of liberalism altogether, and who are so disenchanted with the liberal mainstream—and with the Democratic party that is its political vehicle, for good and ill—that they were almost ready to welcome Trump’s defeat of Clinton as a rude awakening that would expose the bankruptcies of liberalism and eventually empower a post-liberal, an perhaps even a socialist left.
This middle ground is not “the middle” as conventionally conceived. Far from the center of our increasingly right-leaning political spectrum, it is quite explicitly the ground between the center left and the more radical left, a position not reducible to any neat label, but probably best captured by the term “left liberal.” As a left-leaning liberal, I consider our political system deeply flawed and plagued by social and economic injustices, and I identify in many ways with those socialist and radical traditions that have historically contested these injustices. As a liberal on the left, I am a strong and principled supporter of core liberal values—individual autonomy; freedom of inquiry, speech, expression, and association; intellectual and political pluralism—and believe that all legitimate efforts to promote greater justice or popular empowerment must be consistent with these values. I thus regard liberal democracy as an imperfect, precarious, and indispensable achievement of twentieth century political struggles whose defense and improvement is essential at a time when it is under assault from the right, by free market fundamentalists opposed to almost all forms of public policy designed to remedy injustice, and by right-wing populists committed to a form of nationalism that is xenophobic, masculinist, strongly authoritarian, and fanatically anti-liberal.
This right-wing assault on important features of liberal democracy in the U.S. has a long recent history, traceable at least to the Southern resistance to civil rights that culminated in the Presidential candidacy of George Wallace, and the emergence of the so-called “Southern strategy” of the Republican party under Richard Nixon and then Ronald Reagan. Many of the most noxious aspects of this tendency came to the fore in the strident and unrelenting Republican opposition to the Presidency of Barack Obama, and in the “Birther” movement led by Donald Trump. Until mid-2016 it was difficult to imagine that Trump could even win the Republican primary, much less win a general Presidential election. But it was easy to see the ways in which even the most “centrist” of his Republican rivals, such as Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich, were being pulled far to the right by the “magnetic force” of Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, and of course Trump himself, and also by the emergence of a strong “Tea Party” movement amply funded by the Koch brothers and other right-wing billionaires. (One fine book on the broader history is Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s 2006 Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy).
At the same time, the race within the Democratic party to succeed Obama was evolving in interesting and unexpected ways, as the candidacy of Hillary Clinton—former First Lady, former U.S. Senator, former Secretary of State, the designated candidate of the party mainstream who was also the first female major party candidate in U.S. history—was contested by Bernie Sanders, self-described “democratic socialist” and political independent whose insurgent candidacy captured the attention of many millennials, and gained increasing support, and momentum, as the primary season unfolded.
It was in the face of these contests that the essays in Part I were written. I’ve entitled this section “Trump Agonistes” only because in retrospect the most surprising, and consequential, development was the ascendancy of Donald Trump to the absolute center of media attention and then to the White House itself. In retrospect these months represent not simply the victory through struggle of Trump (any affinities between Trump’s triumph from political marginality, and the more famous Kampf of an earlier tribune of Saxon virtue, can be regarded as merely accidental; or not. Here I plead a sardonic agnosticism) but the beginnings of an agonizing ordeal to which all Americans, and indeed all humans throughout the entire world, have been subjected ever since. At the same time, this victory was far from inevitable. And the essays written during this period can be read as my contribution, in words, to the (failing) effort to produce a different outcome.
As the electoral season unfolded, the outcome came largely to be conceived by me in negative terms, as Being Against Trump. But I did not write a single piece centered on Trump until May 30, 2016. And my first five entries of the year were not about Trump at all. They were about the contest between Clinton and Sanders, and my effort to interpret this contest for Democrats and those to the left of them who were absorbed in it. I sought to explain how both candidates could reasonably lay claim to the mantle of “progressivism,” based on different though not unrelated genealogies of the term, and to explain, and support, Sanders’s claim to be a “democratic socialist,” and to clarify the important American lineage of this claim. In a critique of an op ed by Cass Sunstein, I defended the left populist discourse of “the One Percent” from his centrist objections. And yet in a second piece I challenged those leftists sympathetic to Sanders though hostile to the Democratic party, who sought to “Occupy the Party” in order to “tear it apart.” For these people: “The more we engage, the more damage we can do, at every turn demonstrating the gap between people and practice…The far left should support the Sanders’ campaign not in order to broaden or energize the Democratic Party but because this party, for now, is a site of struggle over the horizon of US politics.” I tried to argue that this approach “is a strategy for promoting discord on the left and for probably throwing the Presidential election to the Republicans—with dire long-term consequences for most people that ‘the left’ claims to care about.”
As the Clinton vs. Sanders contest unfolded, things became increasingly acrimonious, at the same time that the stakes became increasingly high, as it became increasingly likely that a Democratic defeat would lead not simply to the victory of a Republican but to the victory of the most frightening of all the Republicans: Trump.
As the end of the primary season approached, and the general election loomed, my energies were devoted to two interrelated purposes: explaining why I thought Trump represented a serious danger to constitutional democracy, and why I thought that Clinton’s “neoliberalism with a human face” deserved the support of liberals and people on the left. And I insisted that there were two good reasons to support her: because her “lean-in feminism” represented something important to support in spite of its limits, and because whatever the limits of the centrism practiced by Obama and promised by Clinton, it was preferable to the disaster that was Trump.
Everything that follows in the book represents an extended running commentary on this disaster. Part II, “Rude Awakening,” reflects on the immediate shock of the Trump victory. Part III, “Interlude,” offers reflections on the “interregnum” between Trump’s November 2016 election and his January 2017 inauguration. Here I emphasized the danger as it loomed ominously in the near future. In Part IV, “Trump Ascendant,” I treat Trump, and Trumpism, the politics he represents, as a present danger that seems only to deepen with the passage of time.
And in Part V, “What’s Next?” I furnish some tentative and uncertain ideas about how best to think about the revival of a reinvigorated, relevant left liberalism. Here I critically engage liberals “to my right” such as Mark Lilla and Sean Wilentz, and radicals “to my left” such as Nancy Fraser and Joseph Schwartz and Bhaskar Sunkara, sharpening what is “left” and what is “liberal” in my left liberalism. I argue that the best way for self-styled “liberals” and “leftists” to move forward is by proceeding together on the basis of agonistic respect, acknowledging that they share many commonalities in the defense of liberal democracy; that their disagreements represent political differences to be negotiated and not moral or existential battles to be fought; and that because there is so much at stake, and no historical guarantees of success, it is important to negotiate the differences, and to work together, whenever possible, to both defend and deepen liberal democracy.
2. Trumpism as a Crisis of Liberal Democracy
As noted above, Trump’s ascension to the Presidency was hardly inevitable. He might have and probably should have failed in his quest. His success can be charged to many factors, any one of which might well have unfolded differently: the way in which a crowded field of Republican candidates destroyed each other, and the way that Trump, vicious individual and master showman, was able to exploit these bitter rivalries to his advantage; the ways that Trump pioneered a new and improved form of “Teflon” personalism aided and abetted both by reality and “shock” TV and by his use of Twitter; the interlocking vagaries of the Republican-stoked obsession with “Hillary’s e-mails,” abetted by Fox News conspiracy mongering, and the intricacies of Russian interference, the Wikileaks revelations, the Comey memo, and the machinations of Cambridge Analytica; and a level of vitriol toward Clinton on the part of some on the left that far exceeded that accorded to any Democratic candidate—all males—in recent memory (an equally strong hostility was in evidence on the right, but this was no surprise, because Hillary had for decades been vilified for being a Clinton, a woman, and worst of all a feminist, a veritable “hyena in petticoats”—a calumny leveled against an earlier feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft).
Of course, we must add to this the serious weaknesses of the Clinton campaign and of its candidate, and also a level of disaffection with the status quo, especially in the “Rust Belt,” that helped to reinforce the conventional electoral advantage of the opposition Republicans after a two-term Democratic President.
That said, Clinton, who so many on both the right and the far left denounced as an evil and unappealing candidate, still won the popular vote by over 3 million votes. And in those Midwestern “Blue-leaning” states that supposedly constituted her “firewall”—Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—her losses, which catapulted Trump to an Electoral College majority, were by exceptionally small margins.
Trump could have lost, and Clinton could have won.
Had that happened, we would still be concerned with a broad crisis of US politics, linked to a crisis of liberal democracy, but it would be experienced very differently, perhaps less urgently, perhaps more challengingly. (And quite obviously, had that happened this book would not exist.) Too much of the discussion of Trump in office has centered on the individual, and too little on what he represents, and how he articulates broader tendencies and dangers, and also poses broader challenges that might be addressed. Of course, to note this is not to deny that he is a particularly noxious individual, whose combination of idiocy and megalomania makes his possession of Presidential powers profoundly troubling.
In my essays on this topic I have consistently tried to strike a balance between the two dominant approaches to Trump on the left and center left: the tendency by some to minimize the gravity of Trump and the dangers his Presidency presents, and the tendency by others to exaggerate the danger, as if until Trump came along the U.S. had a well-functioning liberal democracy, and his authoritarian tendencies are entirely aberrational.
Trump is not an aberration.
Indeed, Trump is hardly unique in mobilizing substantial resentment against liberal democratic politics as usual and in advancing an authoritarian nationalist agenda capable of garnering mass political support, and he is only an American version of a much broader tendency that has swept across Europe (this is the core thesis of the extended essay on “Illiberal Democracy” in Part III.) At the same time, as a distinctively American form of this broader tendency, Trumpism is most assuredly grounded in prior developments in U.S. politics, including a long history of racism that is deeply entwined with peculiarities of the U.S. political system—federalism, traditions of so-called “states rights” and the exaggerated representation of states in the Senate; the lack of a fully nationalized electoral system, and the prevalence of both gerrymandering and state-level voter identification laws designed to disenfranchise poor and minority voters and thus depress turnout among liberal constituencies; and the institution of the Electoral College itself. These unique features of American politics have long shaped the evolution of American capitalism, and have colored (pun intended) and limited the labor movement and the character of the U.S. welfare state, since at least the New Deal. All of these things have influenced the development of post-WWII liberalism in the U.S. and helped to lay the foundation for Trumpism. And all of them would require our attention even if Donald Trump had never been born.
At the same time, the peculiar combination of authoritarian personality, relentlessly xenophobic rhetoric, and popular adulation and agitation that is Donald Trump is now, in 2018, the defining feature of our politics. And however long the Trump Presidency lasts—can he last through his first term? Will he run for and win a second term in 2020?—it is likely to cast a dark shadow on our politics for years to come.
3. Thinking Politically in the Face of Trump
For me, thinking politically in the age of Trump means understanding the broader context of Trumpism but also its proximate causes and likely short-to-medium term consequences. And it means taking seriously its regressive and inegalitarian policy implications, but also taking seriously the extent to which it has inflamed popular resentments, actively promoted conspiracy thinking and hostility toward government, and debased both elite and mass public discourse. I am not a believer in most versions of what is considered deliberative democratic theory, and I surely do not believe that the U.S. has ever been “a deliberative democracy.” Exclusion, antagonism, hostility, denunciation, outrage, repression and resistance and more repression and more resistance—these have been essential features of the American political system as it has evolved since 1787. At the same time, it has evolved, and been liberalized, and democratized, through contestation and through the consequential cooptation and institutionalization of demands for inclusion, recognition, and justice. As a result, the U.S. political system today is not a monarchy or a totalitarian or authoritarian or apartheid regime. It is a liberal democracy, even if a deeply flawed and precarious one. Its flaws surely contribute to its vulnerability. And the remedy of these flaws, by means of further reform, is surely a central imperative.
The deepening and the defense of liberal democracy are thus mutually entwined.
In the face of the very real crisis that liberal democracy currently faces, it may be tempting for some to exult in the exposure of its hypocrisies, and to press on its vulnerabilities, in the hopes that such moves can generate a radical alternative, beyond the imperfections of representative government in an age of mass politics and the inequalities of neoliberalism in an age of flexible, global capitalism.
But this is a dangerous temptation.
One reason might be called consequentialist: because crises do not necessarily generate progress. Antonio Gramsci, writing from prison in the period between the 20th century’s two World Wars, is famous for having observed of his time that: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Gramsci was greatly attuned to the experience of morbidity; and he did not live to see the end of the “interregnum” of which he wrote. Even Marx and Engels acknowledged that revolutionary situations can result “either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” Of course, as Albert Hirschmann argued in his brilliant book The Rhetoric of Reaction, the uncertainties of the future are a very bad reason to remain wedded to the status quo. But they are a very good reason to think twice before celebrating and perhaps even abetting the breakdown of a political order that in comparative historical terms looks pretty good relative to the alternatives thus far attempted. And indeed, it is hard to imagine exactly what would represent a wholesale replacement of representative government in an age of mass politics and neoliberalism in an age of flexible, global capitalism.
The second reason might be called ethical: because the achievements of liberal democracy, however limited, are of real value, and the rhetorical disparagement of these achievements diminishes them and the people whose lives they enhance. Trumpism centers on the rhetorical disparagement and administrative assault on these achievements: civil rights for women and for racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities; civil liberties for dissenters and activists; freedom of association, including the right to form labor unions and protest groups; a free press relatively unhindered by prior restraint or libel or sedition laws; voting rights for all citizens; environmental safety, health and workplace regulations designed to protect the well-being of citizens and to promote environmental sustainability; social security in the broadest sense. It is true that all of these achievements have been halting and precarious, in many cases honored more in the breach than in fact. It is also true that these achievements are real and constitute normative benchmarks, laying a basis for future juridical and political demands for the redress of grievances, and furnishing a ground on which to fight for these demands.
I honestly do not understand the investment that some smart people on the left seem to have in persistently chastising, mocking, and attacking what they call “liberal tyrannophobia.” Not only is such rhetorical pathologizing condescending; the notion that it is not the Trump administration but its liberal critics who warrant outrage is, well, rather outrageous. It seems to rest on the idea that a focus on the authoritarian dangers of Trumpism represents a distraction from the deeper failings of neoliberalism itself, that an emphasis on Trump somehow implies that if only Trump would go away, all would be well. Indeed, there may be certain television pundits who believe this. But most of the serious liberal critics of Trumpism believe nothing of the sort. And I most certainly believe nothing of the sort.
And it is possible to say, at one and the same time, that Trump’s assaults on liberalism expose its hypocrisies and limits, and that such assaults are both dangerous and wrong, and that the proper remedy for the hypocrisies and limits of liberalism is further reforms of liberalism that realize in practice what has thus far only been promised in rhetoric and in law.
At the same time, saying so still leaves us facing a host of very real political challenges of coalition and movement and party-building to which there are no easy answers and many substantial obstacles. The three essays that comprise Part V, “What’s Next?” address many of these challenges. So too my “Coda: Against Trumpism, For Liberal Democracy.” These pieces furnish little comfort. The widely-bemoaned tensions between so-called “identity liberalism” and “social democratic liberalism,” and between what Nancy Fraser has called “recognition” and “redistribution,” are very real. The fissiparous and inegalitarian tendencies of “flexible” capitalism are also very real. When these challenges are placed in a genuinely global economic and geo-political context, and considered in light of the virtually inevitable constraints likely to be imposed by global warming, it is easy to imagine that we are in for a long period of what the Greeks called stasis—a kind of tension-filled and conflict-ridden “immobilism” with no obvious terminus. Indeed, the “morbid symptoms” of our situation might well represent not an “interregnum” at all, but the only dispensation we have reason to expect moving forward.
But in truth, we cannot know what comes next. We can only attempt, in a spirit of healthy disagreement that is at the heart serious inquiry, to understand the evolving situation and the constraints and opportunities it presents; and to act, on the basis of our always imperfect understandings, to make a difference. But what does “make a difference” even mean in a “postmodern” situation in which it is impossible to confidently identify the issue, or constituency, or value, or even the rhetoric that ought to guide us or that can claim universality or stand unambiguously for “progress” or “freedom” or “justice” (even here, it is impossible to find the right word)? “No to Trump.” “Not My President.” “Black Lives Matter.” “#MeToo.” “ACT UP.” “Fight for $15.” “Immigrant Rights are Human Rights.” “Fight Like a Girl.” “Black Trans Lives Matter.” “Mother Earth Needs Us to Come Together.” “Different is not Dangerous.” “Democratic Socialists of America.” “This Pussy Fights Back.” “They Only Call It Class Warfare When We Fight Back.” “I’m With Her.” “This Machine Kills Fascists.” “Love Trumps Hate.” “Unity. Peace. Equality.” “Indivisible.” Each of these signs was featured at the January 2018 Women’s March in Washington, D.C. Each says something different, and some would seem in direct contradiction to others. And each, when read along with the others, symbolizes a pluralism, heterogeneity, and fractiousness of both political identity and political strategy on the left.
And this is why it is important among liberals and those on the left to maintain a healthy sense of what William Connolly long ago called “agonistic respect.” There is no single way to resist what “Trumpism” represents, in part because it does not represent the same thing for each of us, and in part because depending on our analyses, and our personal or aesthetic or metaphysical dispositions, and our sense of who we are and what matters most to us, we will think differently about how to resist and indeed what it means to resist and in the name of what values such resistance even makes sense.
My own view is that right now the most important imperative is to defend and extend the basic norms and institutions of our imperfect liberal democracy, in order to forestall a looming authoritarianism and in order to legally and politically empower movements for social and environmental justice, or at least to keep open spaces of contestation for such movements. At the same time, I think it is very important to advocate for this in a way that seeks, whenever possible, to minimize unnecessary political divisions within the broad “resistance” to Trumpism on the left. One way to do this is to foreground some of the broad procedural concerns that might be relatively widely shared. A second is to attempt to be critical of interlocutors without being disparaging. And to be clear, I am talking here about interlocutors, those who I regard as participants in a common debate and dialogue, however agonistic it might sometimes become. As readers of my very active Facebook page well know, I have no problem at all saying that Trump is a “thug” or worse, and that many of his supporters are either racist or complicit in racism. I regard many of Trump’s supporters not simply as political adversaries but as political enemies, people who are hostile to core moral principles I hold dear, hostile to groups of people I consider to be personal or political friends and sometimes even family, and hostile to me—what I think and who I am.
Where to draw the line? Ultimately, each of us must think this through for ourselves, and draw the boundaries that make most sense. We can and should argue about this. But even our most earnest disagreements are incapable of delivering a “knock down argument.”
Richard Spencer, Steve Bannon, Breitbart News, David Horowitz, John Kelly and Donald Trump: these are not my “interlocutors.” They are adversaries, and indeed in a political sense my enemies (to say this is not to declare them to be “enemies of the people,” whatever this might mean, nor to call for their heads to roll). I have sufficient faith in the “rule of law,” speaking very broadly, to consider them enemies who yet still remain constrained by the institutions of procedural democracy. They demonstrate that they are not particularly respectful of many of the norms that govern such institutions. Some of them or their followers violate norms, and laws, in ways that are cruel and harmful. But the institutions—including the criminal justice and police institutions– still play an important practical and normative role, which is why the “weapon” with which I engage them is primarily the weapon of words. [Note: it so happens that I am not an African-American male. If I were, I would surely experience the police very differently—though even here there is no one way to experience, and there are serious arguments among African-American males about how adversarial to regard the police as such, as opposed to police officers who violate civil rights. Again, there is no single place to draw the line, even among those who share many egalitarian values.]
David Brooks? He is an ideological adversary for sure. A moralistic windbag too, at least too often for my tastes. But he is no enemy of liberal democracy, and while I disagree of most of what he says–about culture, about political contention, about the importance of “moderation”—he and those who share his general views are people to argue with, and to politically oppose, and even sometimes to make common cause. When he criticizes Trump, or Know Nothingism more generally, I welcome this, both because it represents an important fissure among conservative adversaries more generally, but also because I agree with these things, and I believe it is important to recognize agreements among fellow citizens, even ideological adversaries, when such agreements arise. That is why I welcome the recent arguments of David Frum, and why I regard his Trumpocracy as an important book, even though it is entirely too uncritical of everything not Trump to suit my tastes. At the same time, while I agree with most of the critique of Trumpism offered by E. J. Dionne, Jr., Norman J. Orenstein, and Thomas E. Mann, in their important book One Nation Under Trump, I do not share their belief that “progressives must welcome and work with the anti-Trump right” (see especially their “Welcoming All Trump’s Critics” in the Winter 2017 Democracy Journal). Or, to be more precise, while I agree that it is important to work together when there are unequivocal common values at stake, I also believe that the problems of our time run much deeper than most on the “anti-Trump right” can acknowledge, and that building a strong left liberal movement requires a principled commitment to egalitarian left values towards which those on the right are typically adversarial if not downright hostile, even if I also believe that it requires a principled commitment to liberal values around which it is possible to join with many “Never Trumpers.” More important, my own convictions aside, I also believe that many of those “to my left” with whom I wish to work can never embrace anti-Trump Republicans, because the left values they hold dear make such an embrace impossible.
All of this makes for a very complicated set of political priorities and public interventions. And it is further complicated by the fact that while I regard many “to my left” as genuine interlocutors and as real or at least potential “allies” in a political sense, there are also those to my left whose positions I oppose and with whom I cannot envision aligning. These include many who embraced the “Occupy the Party” effort to magnify the contradictions of the Democratic party, as a way of breaking apart that party and organizing a more radical labor or for some even “communist” party on its ruins, and also the ideological adherents of “antifa,” whose opposition to right wing authoritarianism is animated by a sectarian, and authoritarian, leftism far from my own version of left liberalism.
What I’ve outlined above constitutes only the barest outline of my own rough “political map,” and the general ways I see myself navigating the terrain (at the same time, every moment presents its own distinct challenges and opportunities that are impossible to simply be “read off” of a broad political perspective). I do not presume that this map is or ought to be shared by anyone else. Indeed, the purpose of this volume is simply to share my own perspective, in a way that resonates with others who are in my rough “vicinity,” engages those who might be open to venturing somewhat closer, and exemplifies and also clarifies for others why I think as I do, and why I challenge, criticize, or outright oppose what they support.
4. Why This?
As I’ve noted already, much of this book consists of Public Seminar pieces that have already been published. Why publish them again, in this format? In a way I hope the answer is clear from everything I’ve already said above. But I think a bit more discussion of “format” is due. For while I would never consider publishing anything that I did not truly wish to publicize, a primary motivation behind the precise form of this book is my desire to contribute to Public Seminar Books, and to Public Seminar more generally, because of what is novel and exciting about the overall venture.
When I first started writing for Public Seminar I had had no prior experience writing regularly for a digital publication. And indeed, I did not imagine that I would find myself writing regularly at all. Yet if the technologies of our digital, social media age make it possible to connect almost instantly with others across the globe, and to access a vast range of opinions on a daily and even hourly basis, the very experience of doing so engenders, at least for many of us, the need not simply to “listen” but to “speak.” And the same technologies that offer access to the ideas of so many others also offer each of us the ability to reach broadly, and quickly, about the things that matter most to us. It is well known that much of what passes through the interwebs is noise, or junk, and sometimes even something more malevolent in intent or result. But the very best digital platforms make it possible to participate meaningfully in an extensive, deep, rich, and multifaceted digital public sphere. I have discovered, to my delight, that Public Seminar is such a platform, and as it has grown, it has become increasingly welcoming to me. This is partly a function of the unique perspective and talents of Founding Editor Jeffrey Goldfarb, who is a prolific scholar of the samizdat public spheres pioneered by Eastern European dissidents under Communism, and who has very deliberately sought to foster a site for broad and contentious intellectual and political sharing that models what was best about some of those public spheres. It is due to the unique staff, which is also an intellectual community, that has been brought together by Jeffrey and his Co-Editor Claire Potter. And finally, it is due to the unique commitment of resources by the New School to Public Seminar, Public Seminar Books, and the broader effort to nurture public intellectualism in the digital age. While I have long lived in Bloomington, Indiana, and while I benefit greatly from my association with Indiana University, a truly global university, I am originally from New York City, and I have always felt a particular affinity toward the New School. Founded in 1919 by liberal critics of the “first red scare” such as Charles Beard, John Dewey, and Thorstein Veblen, and expanded by Alvin Johnson in the 1930’s through its sponsorship of the University in Exile, the New School has always been a center of transnational civil society linked to independent inquiry and critical theory. The Public Seminar project is an important cosmopolitan initiative linking left and liberal writers and publics, and it is the kind of project that can play an important role in countering the dangerous forms of populism that currently plague our public life.
When the idea of doing this book was first proposed to me by Jeffrey, I was deeply skeptical. I had no desire to even re-read the things I had already published, much less to publish them again. But I was persuaded otherwise, by Jeffrey’s prodding and by my re-readings that were also a result of his persistent prodding. I came to believe that the pieces hang together well; that together they say something worth saying; and that there is real value in sharing them in this format. For the format not only affords a perspective on the evolution of a very particular political intervention—mine—over time. It also allows for a consideration of how different kinds of pieces—essays, reviews, and a few academic article-type pieces—articulating a more or less coherent perspective while motivated by very specific occasions, can together, over time, contribute to public debate. The volume, in short, exemplifies some of the potential advantages, over time, of contributing to a platform, a journal, like Public Seminar. One advantage is the ability to experiment with ideas, themes, or even genres. Another is the ability to build on what came before, from you and from others, and in the process to establish a “presence,” in real time, in relationship to other interlocutors.
All the same, to publish such interventions together, even if bookended by framing essays, is risky. Do the pieces really cohere? When does what might be considered effective reiteration become simply repetition? The answers to such questions are for each reader to judge. Such questions might be particularly dispositive for readers who regularly read Public Seminar, and have thus encountered many of these pieces before. Such readers are of course free to read as selectively as they like! At the same time, there are a great many potential readers out there who are not yet regular readers of Public Seminar, and one of the functions of books such as this one can be to reach out to them, and bring them into the journal’s regular networks of conversation. And there are many readers who are simply drawn to a book of essays entitled Against Trump, because they are against Trump, and are curious to test their ideas, or to learn, or to argue. We are now in year two of the Trump Presidency. The United States, and indeed the entire world, remains profoundly unsettled. And for many of us, this unsettlement is mixed with fear, and dread, and an urgent sense of the need to regroup, to rethink, to resist, and to remedy.
There is no time like the present.