CCR 633: I Can’t Even

I may touch on Swinging the Machine in this post, but I need a space to think through what happened a bit. If I need to write a make-up post, I can, but I simply couldn’t write one tonight.

I think Trump’s policies are destructive and that he is morally dubious, or even repugnant. But, this isn’t what worries me. What worries me is that Trump’s election may legitimize ideologies and discourses that could destroy our democracy as we now conceive it. In this way, I am not worried about Trump per se; I am worried about what people call Trumpism. I don’t think that this destruction is inevitable, but I think that Trump’s election presents a shock to the system and requires a radical examination of “politics.” As Marx said, “all that is solid melts into thin air,” and now, we need to figure out what to do.

I begin my argument thinking through neoconservative thought, particularly Leo Strauss, and the related thinker, and Nazi, Carl Schmidt. Both men argued that liberalism, in the sort of pluralistic J.S. Mill variety, can’t survive identity politics. When it comes to the idea of liberalism, I am always struck by Jefferson’s First Inaugural:

We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all republicans: we are all federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union, or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated, where reason is left free to combat it.

In particular, this liberalism recognizes the capacity for pluralities to co-exist. It’s a social contract founded on conceptions of discussion, “reason,” and (I would argue) the ability to agree on certain epistemological commonalities. As Habermas argues, public discourse requires a public sphere where reason can act as a common currency, where people can talk. Hannah Arendt also makes a similar argument, but bases her ideal on Greek democracy and not modernist conceptions, like Habermas does.

Flaws to this exist, which the left has attacked. Such a public sphere is not neutral. As Nirmala Erevelles argues, liberal humanism is often destructive for people with disabilities. Or as Kwame Ture, or Stokely Carmichael,  points out regarding racism, “it is institutional racism that keeps black people locked in dilapidated slum tenements, subject to the daily prey of exploitative slumlords, merchants, loan sharks and discriminatory real estate agents. The society either pretends it does not know of this latter situation, or is in fact incapable of doing anything meaningful about it.”  This institutional racism is “violence,” he argues. Liberal humanism can construct structures of oppression.

But back to the Right. Strauss argued, echoing Plato, that intellectuals must construct a strong national self, often through a lie about a foreign enemy. We need to be strong, in other words, so They don’t take us over. If we don’t have that single identity, then we will not be able to unify and will fall apart.

Schmidt takes a similar view. He argues that “political” discussions about the market or policy, about what we may call “the issues,” doesn’t mean anything unless it comes down to identity. Schmidt argues that for a nation to stay unified, individual identities or subgroups must get subsumed under a single label, likely a nationalist one. And, much as Strauss argues, people should try to unify with an Us/Them divide.

Both men, then, see that liberalism allows too much individualism, and that with too much individualism, people get fractured. To save liberalism, both men then propose a paternalism that reduces that individualism.

I think that Trump is making a similar move, as many dictators have, trying to construct an “America” in his particular image, excluding and constructing identities and pointing out “Others,” like Muslims or Hispanics. This is not a new insight. But I think the arguments that neoconservatives make against liberalism has felt hauntingly cogent after Brexit and in this election. In particular, Trump’s inability to recognize empirical reality–his pathological lies–means he is not actually speaking in the public sphere. He is hijacking the media sphere and forcing it into a language that doesn’t recognize any truth.

Ned Ressnikof, for example, argues, “They [Trump and his allies] have no interest in creating a new reality; instead, they’re calling into question the existence of any reality. By telling so many confounding and mutually exclusive falsehoods, the Trump campaign has created a pervasive sense of unreality in which truth is little more than an arbitrary personal decision.” In this way, we have lost liberalism, and electing Trump legitimates that false reality. We cannot have a liberal democracy without a public reality at some level. And this is the key: the media did not lie; it showed people reality, and people preferred their own.

I think Pariser’s filter bubble, our algorithmic bubbles of online reality, has intensified this. So has the politics of trending, which is often blackboxed and shows a clear bias. So has the abundance of pseudonews and clickbait.  We already have confirmation bias, and technology is only making this worse. It’s like fast food, building on our own baggage of evolution, but hurting our body politic, not just our body.

But as with any major change, we need to fight back. And for me, what this election has done is push me to reject any sense of comfort, similar to what Clay Shirky has argued about white liberals, that we can’t simply trust in some lie that we are a  majority. Angry, driven people will vote for people like Trump; “moderate” liberals may not. I argue that we can’t simply rest in the privilege of moderate liberalism, as it is not strong enough to overcome alt-right rhetoric.

Instead, we need to make a strong coalition with those traditionally excluded by structures of liberal oppression; we need to actively fight, not fall back on “feel good” notions of liberalism and “getting along” and “smooth transitions.” People like Trump and his alt-right cronies will kick us when we’re down, and if we honestly want to win, we need to fight with the same force, gaining whatever victories that we can. We need to use whatever nonviolent tactics we can to fight Trump and the Discourse he represents. Increasingly, an uncritical “let’s all get along” is simply a violence that we can’t afford.

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