Sunday, March 12, 2017

Rachel Sanders — Decoded: What My Seattle Womxn’s March Sign Means

Rachel Sanders
Rachel Sanders is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Portland State University. Her research and teaching center on critical race and feminist studies, biopower, health and body politics, and popular culture.

From what I saw live and via social media, the tone of the January 21st worldwide women’s marches presented a striking counterpoint to the previous day’s inaugural proceedings. The signs bearing slogans of defiant protest, searing wit, and intersectional solidarity punctured the dark mood Donald Trump’s first presidential speech, like his campaign, has engendered. Trump’s tone was vividly morbid, eliciting optimism only after prolonged decline and promising safety only in the midst of great danger. 

I took part in the Seattle march. I meant for my sign to denounce and resist the uses of state power Trump has championed, and the terms on which he has rationalized it. The text of my two-sided sign read: Border walls / immigration bans / racist policing / criminalizing people of color / bathroom bills / racial and gendered narratives of protecting cis white women: Not in my name.

I view Trump as articulating what Iris Marion Young and Anna Sampaio have called a racial and gendered logic of protection. In this logic, the state positions itself in the masculine role of protector of a citizenry it positions as subordinate, dependent, obedient, and grateful, in order to legitimate a range of executive and legislative actions that it frames as vital to “homeland security.” The head of state that invokes this logic implicitly identifies with a particular brand of strong-but-chivalrous white masculinity poised to defend a vulnerable populace against dark forces threatening its safety or honor. (To be sure, Trump’s history of bullying women like Megyn Kelly and Heidi Cruz and bragging about committing sexual assault betrays qualities of predatory rather than protective masculinity. His victory, however, suggests that his self-portrait as an executive who will “take care of women” overshadows his record of aggression against them.)

This logic is historically specific to a post-9/11 America defined by a growing Latinx population, systematic police brutality against black and brown Americans, and pervasive unease about foreign and domestic terrorist threats. Yet the notions of race and gender it relies on date back at least to the late nineteenth century, when white lynch mobs’ regular practice of brutalizing black men (and women and children) found convincing justification in what Angela Davis calls ‘the myth of the black male rapist.’ Though there are marked differences, the core racial and gender subject positions of lynching rationales pervade the contemporary racial and gendered logic of protection. Both narratives figure white men as chivalrous protectors of white women’s physical safety. Both demonize men of color as sexual predators, criminals and terrorists. Both valorize white women as worthy of protection while implying their subordinate status as sexual prey in need of male protection. And both devalue women of color by discounting their endurance of systematic sexual assault at the hands of white men since slavery, and by implying that they are unworthy or less worthy of protection.

This logic was the cornerstone of Trump’s candidacy. His campaign kickoff speech portrayed Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “bad people” who are “bringing drugs” and “bringing crime” across the U.S. border and vowed to build a two-thousand-mile-long wall barring their entry into the country. Among many instances of exploiting tragedies for political profit, Trump seized on the fatal shooting of San Francisco visitor Kathryn Steinle by Juan Francisco Sanchez, an undocumented immigrant who had been deported from the U.S. five times and who had aimlessly fired a stolen gun on Pier 14, as a case of a “beautiful woman” being “viciously killed” and as “another example of why we must secure our border.” Likewise, Trump referred to the gunman behind last June’s Orlando nightclub shooting, who was born in the U.S. to parents who had emigrated from Afghanistan over thirty years ago, as “an Afghan” and cited the tragedy to justify his calls for sweeping immigration bans against all Muslim immigrants. Trump’s geared-to-white-ears stump speech portrayals of “inner cities” as fearsome zones of crime and violence, his proclamations that he is “the law and order candidate” who will make police forces and civilians safe again, and his praise of stop-and-frisk practices (which disproportionately single out black Americans) as a “proactive” and effective policing tactic all contribute to the demonization of black men and women. (As dual threads of racial and gendered narratives of protection, the Charleston church slaughterer Dylann Roof’s assertion that “blacks are killing white people on the streets… and raping white women every day” and Trump’s campaign trail lamentations of endangered police officers and of “Kate, beautiful Kate” share similar premises and invigorate similar stereotypes.

"'Cuckservative' is a neologistic term of abuse formed as a portmanteau of the word cuckold and the political designation conservative. It has become an increasingly popular pejorative label used among alt-right supporters in the United States." (source)
By continuously conflating mainstream Muslim Americans and Latinx citizens with Islamic terrorists and Mexican migrants (he has accused American Muslims of failing to report “people who they know are bad” to security authorities); by peddling a campaign slogan evoking nostalgia for an earlier era of unchallenged white and male economic, social and political supremacy; and by framing America’s greatest threats as Arab terrorists, violent black urbanites, central and south American immigrants competing unfairly for scarce jobs, and Asian nations who have roped the U.S. into “losing” trade deals, Trump’s protectionist narratives racialize not only their villains – people of color, citizens and foreigners alike – but also their victims. They implicitly construct as white, that is, the portion of the American citizenry deemed legitimate and deserving of protection. At the same time, these narratives feminize all members of that worthy citizenry as docile, physically and economically vulnerable, and thus subordinate.

Trump has not been an outspoken proponent of municipal and state policies limiting transgender bathroom access, but he has signaled he will let such laws stand as matters of local sovereignty. In so doing, Trump sustains the logic of masculine protection underpinning recent bathroom bills, which claim to protect cisgender women vulnerable to spying and sexual assault by male and transgender restroom-goers. The conservative lawmakers promoting these bills not only depict trans and gender-nonconforming people as sexually deviant and dangerous and reinforce notions that cisgender women need men’s physical and legislative protection. They also conceal cisgender men’s and women’s practices of harassing, intimidating, and assaulting trans and gender-nonconforming people in bathroom settings. Trump’s inaction on this issue sustains these dominant safety narratives. And his incendiary rhetoric and campaign rally antics have invited ordinary citizens to act as vigilante bullies and law and norm enforcers.

In his first days in office, President Trump continues to demonize black, brown and Muslim Americans and to exalt a select, authentically American constituency in need of protection. By portraying this constituency as the weak and grateful beneficiary of gallant masculine guardianship and vilifying virtually all people of color in the process, Trump plays a powerful role in reproducing the racial and gender stereotypes that perpetuate the inequalities a truly “great” America must shatter. His rhetoric is more threatening to social justice than the forces he so starkly depicts.

As a white woman, I am unwillingly but inescapably part of the constituency President Trump claims to protect. My sign was one way of saying: not in my name. Blanket immigration bans and border walls that unduly criminalize Muslims and Mexicans in order to protect “native” Americans (oh, Mr. President, tragic irony eludes you): not in my name. A “law and order administration” that disproportionately targets and brutalizes black people in order to safeguard “good” communities: not in my name. Upholding “states’ rights” to enact bathroom bills in order to shield girls and women from hypothetical violation by predatory restroom users (while open-carry gun laws remain on the books): not in my name. I stand against, and I must find new ways to resist, the policies and executive actions being staged, or at least legitimated, on my behalf, and I urge other white Americans to do the same.

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Friday, March 3, 2017

George Shulman — Horror & Blackness

George Shulman
New York University

Last night I saw Get Out, an amazing “horror” movie about race in America. Get Out pairs nicely with Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro,” because Peck’s movie ends with Baldwin saying, “What white people have to do is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a ‘nigger’ in the first place, because I’m not a nigger, I’m a man. But if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need him. The question you’ve got to ask, if you invented him, you the white people invented him, then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that, whether or not it is able to ask that question.” 

So Baldwin’s question is, who is the monster here, really? The horror genre in movies typically expresses white fear of blackness, and typically punishes those who cross Puritan norms of sexual propriety. White audiences experience the thrill of transgression, and then enjoy its punishment. But in Get Out the horror derives from, is inescapably tied to, whiteness. The white characters in the movie perform enlightened racial attitudes, but they are vampirish, committed to an operation that sucks the life out of, and controls, black bodies, by literally removing black brains and suppressing black agency. (Jordan Peele has said he was inspired by The Stepford Wives as a model.) The souls of black folk, hidden inside these occupied and docile bodies, try to warn our hero to “get out” before it is too late. There is much more to say here, but the horror is the whites and their obsession with black bodies, and the audience is drawn to identify with the black hero, and his struggle to escape the clutches of his white tormenters. He is not a Jeremiah Wright; but is the Obama era black man. The horror begins because he trusts his white girlfriend, who is the lure to draw him to his destruction. It is as if the Obama era romance -to “get out” of race, embodied in symbols of mixing- is here exposed as a fantasy that enables horror. 

When I saw the film at BAM the other night, the crowd was truly mixed in a way unusual for that theater, and I could hear whites readily identifying with the black hero and embracing his positionality toward the white characters. The construction of the film at once displayed and reversed the white gaze, but I wondered: did whites in the audience imagine themselves as exceptions, as exempt from the portrait of whiteness in the movie? When we were laughing at the fabulous humor, and when we felt terror at white predation, did we divide ourselves from whiteness by a kind of self-protective knowingness? Is that division exactly how Obama era politics could proceed while leaving the deep structure of white supremacy intact? The movie seems a fitting epitaph to the Obama era, when white supremacy acquired a veil, now dismissed as mere political correctness. All the more necessary, then, to see this film, whose central horror remains powerful and pointed: as Ishmael saw, the horror is whiteness, which absorbs all color and vitality into blankness and creates living (walking) dead. The irony Baldwin saw is indeed horrific: these people who call themselves white, who do so by making monsters to envy and consume, are themselves the horror. 

Richard Wright’s “How Bigger Was Born,” composed in March 1940, ends with an incredible final paragraph about the meaning of horror in America. “I feel that I’m lucky to be alive to write novels today,” the paragraph begins. Why? After all, he notes, Henry James and Nathaniel Hawthorne had “complained bitterly about the bleakness and flatness of the American scene,” and it is “true” that “we have only a money-grubbing, industrial civilization.” So what is good for a writer and for him as a writer? “We do have in the Negro the embodiment of a past tragic enough to appease the spiritual hunger even of a James; and we have in the oppression of the Negro a shadow athwart our national life dense and heavy enough to satisfy the gloomy broodings even of a Hawthorne” -whose insight into human depravity Melville called a “blackness ten times black.” So Wright concludes: “And if Poe were alive, he would not have to invent horror; horror would invent him.” In Playing in the Dark, fifty years after Wright, Morrison says that horror did indeed invent Poe, in the sense that his work is inconceivable without the absent “Africanist” presence to organize stories of fear, fascination, and death. So the source of “life” in American fiction is indeed condensed in the “horror” (thus also fascinated attraction and use) associated with the black body in the white imagination, which mediates every aesthetic and political issue. 

One could say that in Native Son Wright himself tried to write a horror story about Bigger, as if to embody the white nightmare in a way that exposes the nightmare of whiteness. But Baldwin objected that Wright had inverted Harriet Beecher Stowe, retaining a metaphysically anchored blackness- as-damnation, and so retaining a “melodramatic” structure of evil and redemption. Wright thus remained trapped within the white nightmare of blackness, and failed to escape the nightmare of whiteness. Baldwin proposed a different kind of novel, that would express the richness of a black life not reduced to its relation to whites and whiteness. Baldwin suggested that would involve a “tragic” view of American history, plotted as novelized tragedy, or voiced in prophetic speech. But brilliant as Baldwin was, the claim of Get Out is compelling. Nothing short of Horror will do.

The question of how to represent that “shadow athwart our national life,” a shadow falling across and so uncannily entwining both black and white lives, remains our most important aesthetic and political question. In contrast to writers like Hurston and Morrison, or to a great film like Moonlight, which focus on black life, not whiteness, the gift of Get Out is that its humor about the absurdities of race, and its playfulness with Hollywood genres of horror and thriller, displays the possibility of facing - exposing - this horror in ways that cross racial lines, and by evoking affects other than self-righteous reproach and guilt. But the question remains whether this movie can - what act, event, or artifact possibly could - undo the knowingness by which Obama-era whites protect themselves from their implication in the horror, the horror. “I would vote for him a third time” says one heinous character in the film. And he would.

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Saturday, February 4, 2017

Romand Coles & Lia Haro — Trump-Shock, Resonant Violence and The New Fascism

Romand Coles (left), Professor at the Institute for Social Justice at Australian Catholic University & Lia Haro (right), Research Fellow in Sociocultural Anthropology at Australian Catholic University.

Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones
Since the U.S. election, daily surges of Trump-shock – awful disorienting blasts – have regularly defied our standard ways of making sense of political life. Something is happening here, indeed. But, each unpredictable wave throws our paradigms into disarray. We are perpetually swept into the wake of an event that scrambles the measures of consistency and inconsistency we desperately try to employ. Trusted weapons of analysis and resistance cannot find their aim fast enough to keep up with the whirlwind.
While the new regime bears important similarities to classic fascism--rapid intensifications of white supremacist nationalism, dismissive attacks on reason, autocratic leadership, deepening entwinements of state and capital, disenfranchisement, the attack on liberal and representative democratic institutions, and the increasingly open right-wing populist violence – this new fascism relies on distinctive dynamics that must be illuminated to move toward understanding – and ultimately transforming – our current condition. To this end, we offer the following theses as a modest, preliminary contribution to a theory of the emerging fascism:

1. Beyond the substantive elements of what is shocking about Trump himself, he is a hyper-intensification of shock politics as such.  Neoliberal shock politics, as described by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine, functions by creating and capitalizing on crises that send shockwaves throughout the polity that disorganize, dismantle and subsequently reorganize lifeways, institutions, and spatio-temporal regularities. While previous shocks have typically had at least the illusion of a substantive character – financial meltdowns, fiscal crises, terrorist threats, natural disasters – Trump-shock manifests more in the very character of the waviness itself, the chaotic aggressively disjointed temporality, of 140 letter pulses, refusing accountability, disavowing predictability, with a serial blast-like character that disorients all who are geared toward ordinary political reasoning and conduct. 
The chaos of Trump-shock sends waves of distracting, disorganizing, and dispersing energy through the polity in ways that defract and overload the circuits of critical response to the emergence of an extreme right-wing political regime that will consistently enhance capitalist circulation and vilify difference beyond all bounds. As the regime moves steadily toward the extreme right (a climate change denier takes charge of the EPA, Goldman Sachs steps in to head the Treasury, a multi-billionaire moves to privatize education, and a rabid purveyor of white supremacist hate assumes control of strategy ‘to see what sticks’), minute by minute twitter flares and ‘protocol smashing’ phone calls repeatedly draw away energy and attention. By incessantly provoking frenetic scrambles to react to each appalling new event, Trump-shock disables proactive movement and oppositional initiative.

2. Most fundamentally, Trump unleashes an extreme sovereignty of perpetual disruption, confusion, and contradiction, rather than embodying a power that imposes and is bound to a single order or a coherent, consistent ideology (though his regime surely orders and ideologizes).
 We can understand this as a nominalist mode of shock sovereignty that operates through radically disordered ordering, which simultaneously exceeds order and transforms ordering itself. While efficient and formal causalities of state and leader are still highly operative, technologically intensified and diffused modes of resonant causality assume transfigure the fascist machine. 
Trump-shock admits of no otherness, not even of himself an eyeblink prior to the present. In that way, Trump exemplifies power as instantaneous event with no stable form. This perpetual hyperspeed exceptioning makes Agamben’s State of Exception seem quaintly stable. Trump-shock is like the sovereignty of William of Ockham’s God, manifested in the fact that he can be bound by no law he had made, even to the point of totally changing the past willy nilly.
    In the extremity of Hobbes’ explication, such sovereignty is epitomized in the fact that there can be no law prior to nor uttered by the sovereign to which the sovereign can be held accountable, because law can be none other than the sovereign’s interpretive event at each instant. Hobbes writes: “To him therefore there cannot be any knot in the law insoluble, either by finding out the ends to undo it by, or else by making what ends he will (as Alexander did with his sword in the Gordian knot) by the legislative power; which no other interpreter can do.” (Lev., XXVI) Trump displays this power in an endless series of chaotic tweets, spinning out myriad unpredictable, ephemeral, and contradictory stances. 
   Analysts and opponents, missing the performativity of this power and the power of this perfomativity, often scurry to measure the veracity of his missives according to traditional frameworks (law, ideologies, empirical facts) - or even their consistency with his own past statements. Thus, for example, when Trump claimed to The New York Times that “the law’s totally on my side, meaning, the president can’t have a conflict of interest,” pundits jumped to reference U.S. Code, presidential tradition and constitutional law to assess the correctness of the claim. We suggest that the substance of his claim adheres to the nominalist event - the energized sword that Hobbes describes. The affective energies and powers of this event, however, are not missed by those hungering to unleash themselves from all restraints of democratic norms and accountability.

3. The power of nominalist shock functions through a modulation of resonant violence that is ubiquitous and also unaccountable. 

The affective energies of this movement of will to power animate significant portions of the polity – particularly on the neo-fascist right. As Trump’s Twitter shocks surge directly into the pockets of over 17,000,000 followers, many are propelled into barrages of raging threats against those he vilifies--directly or indirectly. In this way, the violence of shock-sovereignty exceeds the formal channels of the state (themselves horrifying). For example, when Trump tweets condemnation of a union organizer in Indiana or a woman at a rally, hundreds of threatening communications (including murderous violence) to the targeted follow almost instantaneously. 
Picture by Johnny Silvercloud
Just as Trump-shocks come anytime and all the time – these expressions of resonant violence can emerge explosively from anywhere and everywhere. This unpredictable ubiquity is amplified by the intimate relationship between the Trump regime and neo-fascist right-wing media outlets like Breitbart News, which spontaneously launch their own call and response shock waves that vilify, threaten, and enact violence. Rather than being met with condemnation from the president-elect, they resonate with and are amplified by previous and coming 3 a.m. kindred tweets from Trump Tower. In turn, these frequently drive mainstream news cycles that perpetuate the resonance in more subtle and insidious ways. 
Operating according to resonant probabilities, these shock waves have a Teflon-like quality in relation to calls for accountability that follow logics of formal and efficient causality, for they come less from a single location and more from resonances among nominalist shocks that move too quickly in and out of being to be caught at rest.

4. This form of power both draws on and transforms what we conceive of as a neoliberal smart political energy grid that has been taking shape in recent decades. 

A smart energy grid is one that employs a variety of modes of (political) energy production, transmission, consumption, and blackout in highly flexible and responsive ways to maximize power. No longer relying on a few central nodes of power generation, they work with increasingly interactive forms of energy production to create even and usable flows of power across a wide area. Elemental to the neoliberal grid are mutually amplifying currents between overwhelming episodic energies of political economic shock, on the one hand, and myriad quotidian energies associated with radically inegalitarian circulations of goods, finance, capital, bodies, and media resonances. 
Each shock wave simultaneously summons new flows and resonances that maximize capitalist power and profit, energize vitriol, and enhance capacities for future shocks while shutting down impediments to capitalist metastasization. These amplificatory currents are immanently connected with affective currents of fear and rage that both energize and are energized by capitalist intensities - particularly in manifestations of xenophobia, white supremacy, and fundamentalisms that are hostile to reasoning and science. Trump draws on and proliferates these existing flows of power as well as intensities of shock. 
As shock politics moves from being episodic to becoming itself quotidian and accompanied by dispersed resonant violence, the neoliberal dynamics are at once amplified and rendered more unstable in ways that may ultimately short-circuit the grid itself with intensities and counter-energies it cannot handle. 


Efforts to parse truths, reveal contradictions, or selectively negotiate and collaborate with this mode of power are both 

blind to and disguise what it fundamentally is - a new fascism that exercises and enhances nominalist sovereignty 

through disordering ordering and hyper-prerogative power

The Italian term fascismo referred to the fascio littori--a bundle of rods attached to a battle ax symbolizing strength through unity and the bolstered authority of the Roman civic magistrate. In the Twenty-First Century, the ax becomes the chaotically moving nominalist cyber-sword of shock plugged into the neoliberal power grid of circulations and affective resonances, such that even within government all that is solid melts in the air. In the first
weeks of the Trump administration, the nominalist cyber-sword has been quickly turned on the agencies and processes of American government. In this process, chaos is not only a means of dissolving the recalcitrance of other branches of government and agencies but also a principle of governance itself.
Consider the example of the so-called Muslim ban executive order, the “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States” order issued January 27, 2017.
Preceding the release of the order, different members of the regime leaked multiple, contradictory versions—sowing seeds of speculation and confusion. Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway even claimed it may never be released. In rolling out the order, Trump did not consult department heads including the very relevant State Department nor did he vet the order with the Office of Legal Counsel. The Department of Homeland Security saw the text of the order only shortly before it was released. In the midst of all this interpretive confusion, the execution of the Order was left largely to the judgement of officers of Customs and Border Protection. What all this begins to show is the extent to which the Trump regime enables, deploys and tolerates a high degree of chaos and unpredictability as a mode of reinventing government. While such mayhem in an earlier moment would be an indication of weakness and disarray, the new fascism operates through disordering-ordering, which simultaneously exceeds order and transforms ordering itself. Nominalist sovereignty seeks to liquify government to the ever-changeable will of the sovereign. In the ceaseless exercise of prerogative power and its chaotic effects, Giorgio Agamben’s notion of the state of exception almost seems quaint. Prerogative power doesn’t quite capture this phenomenon. Rather, it is a kind of hyper-prerogative power in which each communicative and ordering action intensifies and proliferates a whirlwind of contradictory and confusing qualities that endlessly call forth new exercises of prerogative. 
   Clearly, radical democratic politics must target the classical manifestations of fascism we noted at the outset. As we do so, a monumental challenge will be imagining how to resist and contest the unprecedented apparatus of surveillance, security, and militarized policing whose potentials have been constructed since 9-11, but whose uses are likely to take countless new and horrifying forms. 
    Yet, we believe all of this will hinge upon our capacities to counter the shock politics and resonant violence characteristic of the new fascism. This will require engaging in a double politics. On the one hand, we must escalate sustained modes of direct action carefully-targeted to short-circuit the worst aspects of the regime. On the other hand, we must develop a radical democratic politics that shocks in a different way, that overwhelms the unaccountable vitriol of Trump-shock with dramatic engagements and magnetic enactments of receptive solidarity. This will take great creativity among those who oppose Trump and neo-fascism. Stay tuned.
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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

William E. Conolly — Trump, Putin and the Big Lie Scenario

William E. Connolly, author, Facing the Planetary: Entangled Humanism and the Politics of Swarming  (Duke, 2017)

Donald Trump is a practitioner of the Big Lie. It started with the Birther lie, when he insisted loudly for several years with no evidence that the first democratically elected African American President in the history of the U.S was not born in this country, was Muslim, and was an illegitimate President. That Lie, never actively corrected by other Republicans, helped to weaken Obama and to energize the radical right. Other Big Lies were soon to follow: the charge that Islam in general is laced with terrorist imperatives; the refusal to release his taxes, claiming falsely that an IRS audit makes it impossible to do so; the statement that climate change is a Chinese hoax, in the face of massive scientific evidence to the contrary; the campaign assertion that Hillary Clinton is a criminal, soon to be charged for her treasonous use of a private server and favoritism she gave supporters of the Clinton Foundation as Secretary of State; constant repetition on the campaign trail that the election was “rigged” by a combination of illegal votes in large cities and media bias against him, even though overwhelming evidence speaks against voter fraud and his campaign events received more direct media coverage than Clinton's; the assertion that Mexico and China are stealing American jobs, when in fact those real losses are surpassed by capitalist technological changes that dissolve many decent paying jobs; the repeated assertion that the homicide rate is soaring, when in fact it has been in decline for several years; the very tardy withdrawal of the Birther charge after activating the base around it for years, followed immediately by the assertion that the Clinton campaign in 2008 had initiated the story; the repeated insistence in a “thank you” tour that he had won the election by a "landslide" when it was in fact relatively close in the electoral college and he lost the popular vote by 2.8 million votes; and post campaign repetitions at rallies and on tweets that he would have won the popular vote if the election had not been polluted by “millions and millions of illegal votes,” again with no evidence and in the face of numerous studies to the contrary. These are merely some of his Big Lies. They also omit numerous false promises he has made for the future, including the promise to replace Obamacare with something “terrific”after repealing it. 

The Lies, repeated on campaign stops in front of a screaming audience of ardent supporters, are designed to further outrage a base that energizes him as he brings it to a boil. The base is prepped to receive these lies, partly because the lives of many in its lower reaches are filled with real grievances that the mainstream media and the Center of the Democratic Party downplayed or ignored at their peril. The lies provide many with scapegoats to blame for real difficulties and fears, making it possible to hope that a billionaire president, billionaire Cabinet, and Republican Congress could resolve them by a series of simple acts that also preserve the powers and privileges of the 1%. The lies allow the base to express its grievances, hatreds and hope for radical change without the need of a more radical economic transformation. Of course, Hillary Clinton was not helpful in this regard because her actual campaign (more than her platform) failed to challenge profoundly neoliberal policies. It emphasized the grievances of multiple minorities in need of attention without also speaking closely to those of another large minority: the white working class in a de-industrialized America.

Some Big Lies are believed by Trump supporters; but others are not really believed. They, rather, serve as pegs upon which the beleaguered can project their grievances against Trumpian targets: liberals, the media, African Americans, Muslims, Mexicans, and the liberal arts professoriate.When one Big Lie is dropped because it has become inconvenient, others are wheeled out. The new ones perform the same functions as the old.

The media are key here. At campaign rallies Trump would point to the media assembled in one spot, gesturing angrily as he yelled and prodded the crowd to express its contempt. At his invitation, many in the crowd would turn and gesture violently at the crew. They are “liars”, “scavengers” and “scum”, Trump would say. This tactic allowed him to dismiss corrections of Big Lies made by the media, to energize the hatred of the crowd against a constellation that in fact had too often treated their regions as fly over zones, and to initiate a strategy of media intimidation that will escalate during his term in office. Trump and his entourage do not express concern about the potential violences such a strategy invites. You don’t need to show restraint or respect for “scum”, a term that recalls Hitler’s characterization of Jews, Romani, homosexuals and social democrats during the nineteen thirties.

All this is clear enough. Two critical dimensions must be added, however, to capture the full dynamic of the Big Lie Scenario. First, some Lies provide cover for activities in which Trump himself engages. The shocking intervention of FBI Director James Comey in the election that weakened Clinton and allowed Trump to escalate his charges of criminality occurred shortly after Rudolph Giuliani had announced on Fox News that there would soon be a welcome "surprise" from the FBI. Trump's own previous charge of an election rigged against him thus allows him to neutralize the evidence-based charge by his opponent of unjust interference. Now Trump supporters and sycophantic voices on the media can say that “both sides” have made the same charge, disarming the evidence-based charge in relation to the evidence-free charge. Carriers of the Big Lie often accuse their opponents of what they themselves do. Indeed, President Obama has now conceded that he delayed publicizing the most serious evidence about Putin’s intervention against Clinton because it would have appeared to be too “partisan” in this electoral context. And after the Putin intervention was exposed Trump recited another Big Lie: There is no evidence to support that claim, he says, though all the intelligence agencies say otherwise. The objective of the evidence-free campaigner is to reduce this to another “he said, she said” situation.

The second, even more sinister, upshot is this. It is no coincidence that Trump expresses admiration for Putin and nominated a Secretary of State who will defang investigating Russian intervention in the American election. Rex Tillerson, the chief of Exxon, has made huge oil deals with the Russians, and he has been awarded the Russian Medal of Honor. His selection reveals amply how Trumpites give priority to corporate profits over democratic sovereignty, even though they regularly accuse democrats of the latter sin.

The most basic tie between Putin and Trump, however, is this. Putin is a practitioner of Big Lies who enforces them by murdering, poisoning, imprisoning or smearing those who seek to expose the falsehoods. The former KGB Head controls the media that assess his performance. His hacking efforts within Russia are designed to marginalize those who criticize him. And many analysts contend he also practices kompromat, implanting evidence on computers to destroy the reputations of opponents. The practice is common enough to have earned its own name. The evidence that tainted images of child pornography has been found on the computer of one internal Russian critic is bone chilling. And it is meant to be bone chilling. 

Donald Trump admires Putin because Putin can spread and enforce Big Lies with impunity. Putin is a “strong leader” because he overwhelms democratic accountability to enhance autocratic rule. Practitioners of the Big Lie undermine democracy to protect Big Lies: they deliver Big Lies to enforce autocratic rule. You don't need everybody to believe the Big Lie if you can silence or demean critics of it: you merely need the counter-assertions to be neutralized.

There are many reasons to be worried about the future during a Trump Presidency, including that of a nuclear winter, attacks on vulnerable minorities, and the disastrous effects of unattended climate change. But vilification of the media, hacking critics, further politicization of the FBI and CIA, attacks on the professoriate, and new limits on minority voting rights in Republican controlled states are high among them. For these latter practices inhibit publicity about the other Trumpian practices. Big lies enact smear campaigns against proponents of democratic accountability. You can see that in operation again through recent right wing neutralization of worries about fake news by claiming that most news that does not toe their line is fake. The same scenario. 

What can be done to respond to such dangers and threats?

First, each time a Big Lie is initiated or repeated join factual correction of it to an account of how the Big Lie Scenario works. Factual correction alone is not enough. You must show how the Scenario over time undermines democratic accountability.

Second, match the strategy of endless repetition practiced by Trump — his term in office is apt to become a perpetual electoral campaign — with a counter-strategy of repetition, to further loosen the hold of these Lies. When so many Big Lies appear and recede it is otherwise too easy to forget how those recently left behind continue to do their work on the lower registers of cultural life. It is very important to negate those effects. Why? Many who voted for Trump were a little shaky in doing so. While they will resist exposes in the early going, new events and future Trump failures may make more ready to allow now suppressed doubts to re-emerge. If the logic of the Scenario becomes an object of recurrent critique. Such delayed responses did occur during the Nixon years with respect to Watergate (few would listen to the available evidence until after the election) and during the tenure of George W. Bush with respect to Iraq. 

Third, the white working class now sits on the razor's edge of time. A huge cadre supported Trump in this election, but that support contains a large reserve of citizens who could turn against Trump if and when they see how he has conned them. This will be so, however, only if more critical voices outside the working class speak forcefully to the real grievances and suffering of that class while simultaneously supporting other minorities in precarious positions. The task is to contest expanding the military and fossil fuel infrastructure with support for dynamic programs that would increase the number of good paying jobs for high school graduates. Bernie Sanders started to pursue such a noble combination, with great success. He spoke to the higher angels of the working class, as Trump pounded away at its worst tendencies. Cornel West and Elizabeth Warren pursue similar strategies to Sanders. Moreover, several voices on The Contemporary Condition have been calling for such an approach for several years now. The Rust Belt must no longer be treated as a fly over zone; the ugliness finding ample expression today in sections of the white working class must not be deployed as an excuse to ignore its real grievances and suffering. The idea is to criticize expressions of racism and misogyny when you encounter them, as you simultaneously support positive responses to real working class grievances. Hopefully, it has finally become clear how necessary it is to draw working class and other minorities closer together. Hopefully, too, that clarity has not arrived too late to counter the grip Trump has now gained on the first constituency. The Hillary Clinton campaign, again, missed the boat in this respect, even if the Democratic platform she was supposed to represent did make modest gestures in this direction.

Fourth, the democratic Left needs to identify more young leaders who are charismatic in noble ways and who can inspire large constituencies as they counter the ugly appeal of Trumpian charisma. For Trump is a charismatic adversary whose critics have not adequately appreciated his rhetorical effectiveness. Apparent wanderings in his speeches—as it seemed to many academics and journalists who ridiculed those speeches in the early going--actually gather together a medley of grievances as they crystallize collective targets of white working class resentment. Each element in the medley becomes fused with the others into a resonance machine. Satires and dissections of the Big Lie Scenario itself are far better than either academic dismissals or factual corrections alone. Formation of a counter-resonance machine with charismatic circuits of its own is better yet.

Fifth, while the privately incorporated media often deserve intense criticism, the democratic Left must also expose and attack Trumpian intimidation of it. It was unwise, for instance, to re-enforce Trump and Putin denials of the Putin intervention with Left wing statements that came close to saying the same thing. The media and professoriate are going to be vicious targets of Trump’s attacks for the next four years as he deflects attention from the failure of his policies to lift the working class and from the dangers he promotes on several other fronts. It is possible for critics to chew gum and walk at the same time, in this case to hold the media accountable as you also defend it against Trumpian assaults. Indeed, the protection of democratic institutions makes it essential to pursue such a combination.

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Monday, January 9, 2017

Steven Johnston — Trump’s (and the GOP’s) Illegitimate Legitimacy

Steven Johnston

Author of American Dionysia: Violence, Tragedy, and Democratic Politics.

While democracy is no stranger to violence, the Republican Party and Donald Trump have escalated and exacerbated democracy’s violence problems. Among other things, violence has achieved a new level of viciousness, bordering on murderous. This change could be seen during Trump’s campaign when the candidate himself called on his supporters to attack fellow citizens in his audiences who were there to voice their political disagreement and disapproval. It could be seen when Trump, on more than one occasion, effectively solicited his followers to assassinate his opponent, Hillary Clinton. Trump also threatened to unleash the forces of the state on Clinton after the campaign (lock her up) if he won. Violence is also inherent in Trump’s (and the GOP’s) domestic and foreign policies—from the repeal of the Affordable Care Act to the elimination of women’s reproductive rights, from an embrace of the fossil fuel industry and the denial of climate change to torturing and bombing America’s enemies in the so-called War on Terror. The material harm these policies portend range from serious injury to death. This reactionary agenda constitutes Trump’s impotent vision of American greatness. It is a vision shared by Republican America and its fellow travelers.

The GOP’s, not just Trump’s, resort to violence poses an existential threat to American democracy, especially in combination with another age-old political debility: illegitimacy. Trump’s November 8 victory reeks. He defeated Clinton in the Electoral College, which gave him the formal win, but he lost the popular vote by over 2.6 million ballots cast. This translates to a 2% defeat. Given the undemocratic character of the Electoral College, Trump, at best, enjoys an illegitimate legitimacy. From a democratic perspective, Hillary Clinton deserves to be president of the United States. American democracy earned a Clinton victory. If the principle of electoral equality (one person, one vote) means anything, the Electoral College cannot be defended as a democratic political institution or practice. It enables, even invites illegitimacy. Trump’s presidency is the illegitimate offspring of this antiquated institution. Wyoming voters, for example, exercise nearly four times the voting power as California voters. This is not just unacceptable but intolerable. When American citizens claim that Trump is not their president, this is more than a rhetorical ploy. It is a valid, even compelling democratic political argument. (Tom Dumm’s December 5 post brilliantly recounts and dissects the Electoral College’s fatal defects.)

Candidate Trump also received illegitimate assistance from another source, one not as well-known for its distortions in American politics as the Electoral College. There is convincing evidence, Donald’s refusal to believe notwithstanding, that Russia tampered with the American election in an effort to secure Trump’s victory. Republicans led by Mitch McConnell refused to publicly denounce the interference when they had the chance prior to November 8 and when it might have made a difference. They preferred to effectively collude with a foreign dictatorship rather than protect the integrity of American elections, as long as their candidate potentially benefited. The Trump Administration will assume power indebted to Vladimir Putin and tainted by the specter of treason. Someday, and that day may never come, he’ll call on Trump to do a service for him. What payment will Putin demand in return for his assistance? Is a Secretary of State enough? Trump’s white nationalist regime can now claim Russian ancestry.

These are not the only problems with Trump’s ascension. For years the GOP has been engaged in deliberate voter suppression efforts to deny the franchise to people they deem political enemies (people of color, the poor, the elderly, college students, etc.) and prevail in elections they assume they would otherwise lose. Many of these legislative efforts successfully took place in battleground states such as North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, and Wisconsin. No one can say with exactitude what kind of effect they had on turnout and thus the election’s outcome, but the fact that a decisive influence cannot be categorically ruled out in a tight contest is damning. The Republican Party invented the problems of voter fraud in order to commit voter fraud. Donald Trump, resentful of Hillary Clinton’s decisive numerical triumph, has perpetrated new lies about illegal voting, part of new efforts to further suppress voting. Not surprisingly, the Trump campaign and the GOP oppose recount efforts in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, even though it is a standard aspect of the political process, and even though it is unlikely to alter the election’s result. Since Republicans have secured total power at the federal level, it does not matter to them that they won by hook or by crook. Only the outcome matters since they understand themselves to be the only party entitled to rule America. For them democracy and (permanent) one-party rule (theirs) are tailor-made for each other.

Mass political deceit is not a phenomenon limited to presidential politics. Republican-controlled state legislatures across the country have gerrymandered congressional districts to guarantee themselves a national superiority unwarranted by the total number of votes they receive in each election. Republicans have thus legislated their way into a nonrepresentative—and therefore illegitimate—position of power. With the election of Trump, Paul Ryan’s House will be able to introduce and impose ideologically-driven legislation that should never see the light of day, thus making American citizens subjects rather than authors of the laws that govern them. This is a traditional definition of domination. The Republicans Party is the ugly embodiment of authoritarian minority rule in 21st century America. The pushback on many fronts thus far has been minimal, though on November 21 the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin ruled that the Wisconsin legislature’s 2011 reconfiguration of State Assembly districts to ensure Republican Party control violated the 1st and 14th amendment rights of its Democratic voters.
Republicans at the state level have recently expanded their power ambitions. In North Carolina, following the defeat of incumbent Republican Governor Pat McCrory, Republicans called a last-minute special session to pass legislation to cripple the governor’s office and limit its power, perhaps especially including ways that will make it difficult to reverse successful Republican voter suppression efforts, now that a Democrat has been elected to it. Republicans will do anything to prevent Democrats from winning electoral office. Failing that, they will sabotage any office they do not control—until they hold that office again. Republicans seek a form of democratic totalitarianism where they—and they alone—can rule. They have not yet acquired a monopoly on power nationwide, but this is what they are after. It is a kind of political psychosis with them and there is no effective response to it other than raw power in one form or another.

GOP subversion of democracy is not restricted to electoral domains. The Republican-controlled Senate led by Mitch McConnell, for example, refused to consider, let alone approve Merrick Garland as Supreme Court justice following the death of Antonin Scalia. Chief Justice John Roberts stood by and said nothing on behalf of the judicial branch as the Republican Party converted the court into an instrument of its conservative ambition. This constitutional coup delegitimizes the court itself, especially any 5-4 decision issued if and when Trump’s appointee rules with the majority. The GOP cannot simply arrogate to itself a monopoly on Supreme Court appointments and thus control of the final decision-making power of the court regarding the law of the land.

"Teens Throwing Rocks At Overgrown, Long-Vacant Supreme Court Seat"
Each one of these democratic assaults is corrupt. Taken together they undermine the credentials of the very system that enacts them. This, of course, is the point. Republicans do not pursue these measures ignorant of or indifferent to their consequences for American democracy. They implement them precisely because of the political consequences they generate. Just as Republicans did not think Bill Clinton or Barack Obama legitimate office holders and did everything they could to obstruct and destroy their presidencies, they do not think those who would vote Democratic (or anywhere on the political “left”) are anything other than voices to be suppressed or silenced, however possible. Republicans have made it abundantly clear that they cannot (and do not want to) share a democratic polity with anyone unlike themselves, which makes it impossible for others to live with them as democratic equals. This is a recipe for not just resistance but upheaval.

The United States is always quick to condemn any violence that the state does not authorize and impose itself. The story the country tells itself is that violence is unjust insofar as political institutions exist where differences and disagreements can be resolved peacefully because all parties accept the inevitability of winning and losing, where political office and power are open to genuine contestation and results reflect the democratic will of the people, and where opposing voices are not only listened to and respected but also protected from the exercise of arbitrary power by majority coalitions or minority tyranny.

Yet the Republican Party has systematically subverted these institutions and understandings, which means that American citizens have been deprived of their most basic political right, the right to self-determination. If anything, American citizens today have greater cause for complaint than British colonists, who took up arms in opposition, did in the 18th century. American citizens have been disenfranchised in a system where there is no longer agreement on and loyalty to its fundamental terms. Republicans use democracy to game the system and destroy it just enough to empower themselves and retain a democratic veneer. It could thus be argued that the Republican Party has effectively forced the question of violence back onto the American political agenda. In this kind of hegemonic context, do the people have a right to resist those who successfully manipulate, mutilate, and render meaningless the democratic process to control and dominate their perceived enemies? If so, what forms might resistance take, especially when the state is likely to attack those who oppose, protest, and disrupt illegitimate minority rule?

Ironically, democratic citizens under violent assault from an illegitimate Republican regime might take a lesson from the testosterone-driven, gun-toting antics of the Bundy family, a gang of welfare-system deadbeats determined to open public lands to private exploitation and extraction, and its followers. They invoke the cause of freedom, but this rhetoric is mere cover for their know-nothing anti-statist libertarianism. At the same time, they embody a defiant, oppositional disposition uncowed by the state that democratic actors with actual grievances would do well to channel productively.

Republican subversion of American democracy is nothing new. Much of the country, however, has fooled itself regarding Republican identity and intentions. America regularly tells itself reassuring stories to maintain and stabilize the order in the face of incursions against it. After the Rehnquist Court shamelessly installed George W. Bush in the Oval Office in 2000, for example, Vice President Al Gore came to the rescue with a stoic concession speech that honored the allegedly final decision of an institution that had just delegitimized itself by its blatant ideological intervention in and usurpation of the electoral process. The Court stole an election, but the country preferred to congratulate itself about and revel in the peaceful transition of power. In similar fashion, mainstream acquiescence to the Trump regime-to-be is now under way.

According to American political lore, what happens when government tyrannizes its people and denies them the possibility of effective participation in the political process where the collective future is decided? American citizens from the Revolution in the 18th century to the Labor and Civil Rights Movements in the 20th century have, when necessary, turned to the possibilities of democratic violence to counter state and state-sponsored domination to exercise and take (back) their rights. The GOP envisions something other than benevolent, white nationalist, free market despotism. The program it plans to implement is beset by violence. The state does not need to resort to guns, truncheons, gas, and water cannons (though we are likely to witness an upsurge in the use of force by police at all levels under Trump) to perpetrate violence against citizens. Flint, Michigan, is one example. People there have been poisoned by a Republican-controlled political machine that deemed political ideology more important than the health and well-being of those in its charge. Paul Ryan’s plans to privatize and thus gut Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security, to cite but one post-election example, would also constitute violent assaults on human well-being.

As the (now Trump-led) Republicans make social, economic, environmental, and political war against American democracy and many of its people, what are they supposed to do? Sit and take it? As Rousseau, hardly an advocate of violence, wrote in pre-revolutionary Europe: “I would say that as long as a people is constrained to obey and does so, it does well; as soon as it can shake off the yoke and does so, it does even better.” What might shake off the yoke mean here and now? It’s not just a question of the indispensability of everyday resistance that is called for. The Republican Party needs to be put on notice: the United States of America is a political fiction the continued existence of which is unnecessary. Perhaps it’s time to deconstruct it, as some anti-Federalists imagined in the 18th century, for the people of the United States no longer share a commitment to, let alone practice, a democratic way of life. A United States split into two (or more) separate and distinct political entities would not only trigger a new birth of freedom on the North American continent; it would also be a boon to peace across the planet.

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