Civilization or Barbarism?
The American election results viewed from the radical center
My vote was more a ritual offering to my political commitments, than a set of democratic decisions. It was as if I live in a one party state. I affirmed my support for the party.
With my community, my friends and neighbors, my students and colleagues, and my family and loved ones, I live in a deep blue zone. We re-elected our Democratic representatives on the federal and state levels. My New York State Senator, Andrea Steward Cousins, will likely be the Majority Leader in Albany. My Congresswoman, Nita Lowey, is slated to be the Chair of the House Appropriations Committee in D.C.. We now have a Democratic Governor, Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General. There was no drama in my neck of the woods.
Yet, as I look out beyond the autumnal paradise of my backyard on this Friday morning, I am filled with anxiety. Crucially, the House of Representatives, the body attuned to public opinion (despite gerrymandering), now has a strong Democratic majority, and this will check President Trump and his authoritarian ways. But, the authoritarianism will also be enabled, as the Republicans have expanded their majority in the Senate.
Trump thinks he won a moral victory, holding the Senate (as predicted) and losing the House (as predicted). But, the terms of political life have now changed. There is an opening to defend the norms of democracy, an opening, without victory, moral or otherwise.
I believe that civilization itself is in the balance. The election was a contest against barbarism, in my judgment. Throughout the world, the barbarians are inside the gate. This week, Americans had a chance to push them out. There was a good push, though I fear it may not have been strong enough.
I am concerned about the form and content of the barbarian threat. Tax cuts that steal from the poor, as they give to the rich, won’t now happen. Millions will not have their healthcare coverage taken away. Official corruption will be investigated, as will foreign interference in elections, and the destruction of the environment by the Environmental Protection Agency and of education by the Department of Education. But of course, the looming challenges to social justice and decency, the pressing problems of climate change, the dangers of war and hunger, dictatorship and kleptocracy, the tragedies of migration, still are not going to be addressed during a Trump era, even if the worst is more likely to be avoided with a Democratic House. And, it is important to note that as the Republican Party is weaker, Trump’s way of acting politically is intensifying. His grip on the party is stronger, and in the days following the election, his authoritarian proclivities have intensified.
The Republican Party is now Trump’s party. There is little, if any, chance that Republicans will act upon commitments that supersede their commitment to the leader. They will not hold him responsible for his inappropriate behavior, past and present, and they will at best pretend not to have noticed even his most outrageous tweets. In the face of the atrocious, Republicans have been silent (or quit or died), and there is no reason to believe that they will now speak up.
And Trump himself seems emboldened, pretending that a defeat is a victory (because he is a winner), more than ever seeking to vanquish his enemies, which include not only the demonized media and political leaders who oppose him, but also, in fact, the majority of the American population, who oppose him and his policies, as is evident by the election results and opinion polling.
I worry about this, as Trump has used unconstitutional means to undermine the Mueller investigation . There is a clear and present danger that the Department of Justice will become the political arm of the leader and his party. Trump and his Republican colleagues are now imagining and considering the prosecution of non-existent electoral fraud in Republican challenges to unfavorable election developments in Florida and Georgia.
The dimensions of a possibly intensifying authoritarianism were in clear view at the press conference . According to the President: Democrats and the media are unleashing crime. He asserts his own factual reality, acting as if his pronouncements make something true, even as the record shows that he is a consistent liar. “It [Mueller’s investigation) was supposed to be on collusion. There was no collusion.” Asked about his attitudes to Muslim women representatives in the House, he responds incoherently, noting the employment levels of African Americans, Asian Americans and Hispanics, and how good his numbers are with them. “They are doing the best they’ve ever done.” He has the solution to the pro-life issue, he tells a sympathetic inquiring reporter. But he won’t talk about it. It’s a difficult issue. He has the answer, but he’s not telling.
And now this absurd form has become the political approach of the Republican Party, with Republican politicians more and more unified behind him and following his lead. And with many Republican candidates seeking to imitate his wild forms of campaigning.
I used to think that principled Republican leaders held the key to stopping Trump. At some point, I thought (I hoped?) that they would finally say no to the absurdities. But with the results of the election in, this seems to be highly unlikely.
Republicans don’t dare to oppose the official line as clarified daily by Fox News. Its thematic consistency and close relations with the President and the White House more and more resemble a ministry of propaganda, rather than a news service. It strokes the President’s ego, as it depicts the world the way he would like to see it, and he confuses its depiction of the world for the world itself, as Fox confuses its journalistic duties with its political commitments to the President. In this bubble, all other news accounts are simply fake news.
Thus, his incredibly aggressive attacks upon the media at the press conference, attacking an African American PBS News Hour reporter for her purported racism because she dared to ask him about how his declared commitment to nationalism might be related to white nationalism, and his coarsely aggressive response to a CNN reporter, declaring he’s the enemy of the people and a horrible person, and later lifting his White House Press pass.
No less than the dictators he admires around the world, Trump seeks to tame the press and like the dictators he does not shy away from politically motivated prosecutions.
The resounding victory of the Democrats in the House assures me that he will not pull this off. So I am deeply relieved, but, obviously, not assured by the election results. As I have explained in a previous post, I consider myself a radical centrist, committed to a free, intelligent and consequential public life. I am convinced that the only possibility for this is not only Against Trump, as sharply explored in Jeffrey C. Isaac’s recently published book with that title, but also against Republicans as we now know them.
Barbarism? I have waited to this point to explain. Hannah Arendt described totalitarianism as modern barbarism. Her point being that the combination of ideology and terror led the modern world to the unprecedented barbarism of the twentieth century. I believe that Trump, along with “illiberal” autocrats around the world, are presenting postmodern variations. The officially enacted xenophobia and racist nationalism, and the potent power of the mob of never quite controlled xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia and misogyny, along with racism and anti-Semitism, recently of murderous sorts, make for a noxious ideological and terrorizing brew. The disregard for truth, and the reality TV rhetorical style, provoking the adulation of Trump’s base for the leader, empowers this toxic mix in a way that I thought had been overcome in the last century.
Civilization? I know this term may echo with colonialism and orientalism, especially as it is identified with “the west.” But I am thinking of the term in a different way, from the perspective of the radical center. As the commitment to civilizing differences without hiding them, so that enemies can become opponents, and opponents can become colleagues, and colleagues can become comrades, making contentious democratic politics possible, as I explored this in my book Civility and Subversion. In this sense, I believe civilization is the answer to the postmodern barbarism that Trump presents, and that the election results on Tuesday represented a small positive step for those of us in the U.S., and beyond.