Friday, December 9, 2016

Psychic Resistance Log, Star-Date 12.9.16

I fear that this blog for the next four to eight years is going to be little more than an account of the constant internal psychic struggle that it will take not to accept the idea of Donald J. Trump as president of the United States as simply one more fact of life, as ordinary as anything else. It is an absorbing pursuit; one that requires constant effort. Any situation, however abysmal, starts to seem normal if it is protracted enough. Even during campaign season last Spring, I would hear floating over the airwaves of NPR phrases like, "Mr. Trump's proposed Muslim ban," and would think -- "oh yeah, that thing." As if that's perfectly normal. As if that's just one more policy idea, among many. (Those on both the left and the right who would urge us to just "give him a chance," meanwhile, are also heard to bid us: "Don't take him so literally when he says stuff like that." That's a new one! If supporters of former presidents were always urging their political opponents to "believe what the President says," and not in some nefarious hidden program; we now have a president of whom we are actively urged by his most loyal apologists not to believe anything he says. Indeed, do conjure up a factitious hidden program, we are told, and place your faith in that!)

Now, of course, that's all down the memory chute anyways (the literal "ban," I mean), along with most of the rest of our president-elect's once-stated "Agenda." The talk of how Trump was going to be some sort of syncretic populist who defied easy ideological categorization -- combining low taxes with entitlement spending, e.g. -- has already begun to fade. He is already too well advanced for that along the path of wooing the last remaining Establishment Republican hold-outs against him-- the "No True Conservative/ Doesn't Represent My Values" crowd-- by offering up what appears to be a free market conservative's wet dream of a domestic policy cabinet team, featuring the boldest ideologues and the biggest wallets of the "school choice," anti-Fair Housing Bill, anti-minimum wage and anti-EPA Republican shadow government. As for his defense picks, the only consistent principle I can perceive underlying them seems to be the goal of narrowing still further the distance between the civilian and military branches of our government (pshaw, surely an incidental feature of our liberal democracy!).

The fact that many of these have been relatively "conventional" Republican picks will give a false hope of normality to many. All I can say to that is: "creep, wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind," to borrow a phrase from Hopkins. Consolidating power through alliances with corporatists and the military fits quite well indeed into some established patterns that we should find deeply concerning, if our fear is for the future of democracy. Without belaboring the by-now familiar comparisons too much -- or falling into any teleological fallacies -- I would simply ask this: What other political movements can you think of from recent history that, after starting life as marginal pseudo-populist movements on behalf of "working people," and the little man, later managed to mainstream themselves through courting the establishment -- and then later still went on to radicalize in a totalitarian direction once things stopped going their way? If you haven't yet caught my drift, I suggest you revisit your Robert O. Paxton.

If the thought of Trump's government moving through this whole tripartite progression from outsider political movement, to the "conservative turn" (sayonara pseudo-populism) and consolidation of power through strategic alliances with powerful military and business interests, to mass destruction, seems outlandish, I would ask you to reflect on what we already know about Trump's pathological personality -- and his demonstrated ability to carry us all along with him into his pathologies. All snark aside, Trump seems to have a genuine lack of any real core to his personality, any ability to form close and reciprocal human relationships, and any concept that people other than himself have the same rights and needs that he does. He knows how to be warm to people -- even the New York Times -- but turns blisteringly vindictive and malicious as soon as he encounters the slightest obstacle to his will.

Indeed, he is ingratiating and cringing, as the Times reporters found, to anyone who has the temporary upper hand over him, and astonishingly cruel to anyone in a weaker position -- or to those who foolishly sell themselves out to him in the expectation that they will one day be rewarded for their "loyalty" (as Chris Christie discovered, in what is perhaps the most delicious exemplary illustration that contemporary history has offered to us of the old adage that starts, "Well, if you lie down with snakes...." My friend Seanan aptly labeled it the "Grima Wormtongue" phenomenon.) As Hazlitt once said in a character sketch of Cobbett, in a description that could well be applied to our empresario-in-chief: "He will not bear the least punishing. If any one turns upon him (which few people like to do) he immediately turns tail. Like an overgrown schoolboy, he is so used to have it all his own way, that he cannot submit to anything like competition or a struggle for the mastery; he must lay on all the blows, and take none. He is bullying and cowardly; a Big Ben in politics, who will fall upon others and crush them by his weight, but is not prepared for resistance, and is soon staggered by a few smart blows."

It's sad for Trump that he's like that, I suppose; but a whole lot less sad than it will be for whichever of us must live with the consequences once a personality like that accedes to power. Trump is quick to say he "loves" and "is loved by" various groups of people -- I believe Hispanics, Muslims, gays, African Americans, the "poorly educated," and many others whom he in fact has explicitly stigmatized and antagonized -- have been lumped by now into at least one of these categories -- but oh, feel how sharp the dragon's tooth turns when anyone provides the least resistance! Trump's campaign all along has been tinged with pseudo-populism on behalf of working class whites and Rust Belt communities in particular -- with many commentators adopting his own self-flattering analysis that he is a champion of the "voiceless" who poses a threat to the "elite" -- and he of course wished his Carrier plant stunt in Indiana to be an expression of his unique brand of "love" for those populations. Yet when one local union leader questioned the accuracy of Trump's claims about the number of jobs he had "saved," he used his new bully pulpit to attack him, deploying scabrous anti-union clichés in the process. So much for populism, pseudo- or otherwise! Add to this Trump's new arch-anti-labor pick for Labor Secretary, and it turns out that the new president -- unsurprisingly -- hates organized labor as much as has every other autocratic personality in history, and for the same basic reason -- because they represent an autonomous source of collective power, outside of his will. "First they came for the trade unionists..." anyone?

Trump's "love" or loyalty for anyone or anything lasts as long as the gratification to his ego. Once that ceases, once his will is frustrated in the slightest regard -- as it inevitably will be when he is faced with even the first challenge or difficulty inherent in the act of governing -- he will descend into paranoia, conspiracism, and probably violence. Beneath Trump's strange charisma and weird gift for humor (is it intentional? unintentional? Who can possibly say?) is an extremely dark view of the world in which most other human beings are enemies -- or perhaps do not exist, at least not in the full sense of reality, until they are granted temporary existence on loan by being incorporated into Trump's ego. It is a personality type that Robert Lifton well identifies with totalistic Guru-ism and megalomania, and that can be profoundly destructive when it is handed the reins of power.

So there you have Trump's pathology. As for the second point -- his ability to involve the rest of us as willing participants in those pathologies-- that should be illustrated well enough in the fact that he managed to win an election -- even if not a popular majority. But it is illustrated as well in the fact that I -- and probably many of us -- didn't even blink all that much over the Chuck Jones story when we saw it. Trump's vindictiveness and littleness and pettiness no longer surprises us -- and it takes a special effort of will to remind ourselves that even if that personality has been with us for a long time, and behaves in incredibly predictable ways, it now has actual power to back it up. We have to hold on to our sense of shock at this, when we see that the president-elect of the United States -- whoever he may be -- is using the immense prestige and profile of his office to attack the reputations of private citizens purely because they question one of his statements (as Jones did -- even while also reiterating his gratitude for the Carrier deal in general terms). That's appalling!

Likewise, how many of us paused to register the chilling quality of Trump's first Twitter response to the Ohio stabbing incident, in which he stated that the attack was carried out "by a Somali refugee who should not have been in our country." That one didn't surprise too many of us either. Perhaps we even thought at the time, well isn't this a sign that Trump is "moderating"? Isn't that a downright "reasonable" statement, compared to his remarks in the past? After all, he didn't say no Somali refugees or Muslims should ever be in the country, only this one! Trump is ever the beneficiary of the extremely low moral expectations he sets. It allows his more run-of-the-mill abhorrent remarks to pass unnoticed. Meanwhile, there is a Somali refugee family -- a single mother and six remaining children -- who are not only facing the unimaginable grief of the fact that their 18-year-old son and brother died while committing an act of violence that they -- and seemingly everyone who knew him -- are totally unable to fathom or explain, and that seemingly had nothing to do with the person they knew; but now they also have to confront the fact that their new President-elect is comfortable implying that they "should not have been in this country."

That's Trump's megalomania in action -- his apparently total comfort with declaring who gets to be here and who doesn't. While this terrifying self-appointment to power over presence and citizenship (recall here as well his casual suggestions last week that people who exercise their free expression by burning flags should have their status as U.S. citizens revoked) has yet to result in the airing of explicitly murderous fantasies, it does lead Trump routinely into fantasies of mass removals of populations he identifies as problems. This is a well-established pattern with him. First it was all undocumented immigrants, all refugees, all Muslims. Gradually it has shaded into more nebulous promises to dispose of "just the bad ones." Either way -- the fantasy of purification is the same. It is the fantasy of ethnic cleansing. Removal from geography has often before been the prelude to removal from existence. The fact that the specific targets of his threats often shifts by the week -- Syrians, Somalis, flag-burners, Mexicans, or maybe all, or maybe none (don't forget as well his proposal to abolish birthright citizenship) -- shouldn't calm our nerves; it just shows how expansive Trump's list of enemies can become, and how quick he is to deny legitimacy to entire categories of people once he sees them as threatening in some way the gratification of his purposes.

All of these are, of course, things that I have said before -- 15 to 20 times by now, if not more. But to do otherwise right now seems a partial concession and defeat. It is itself a victory for the normalization of Trump, to let our minds move on. Wrote BrechtWhat kind of times are these, when/
To talk about trees is almost a crime./ Because it implies silence about so many horrors?(Sassoon's words keep coming back to me as well: "Have you forgotten yet?... / For the world's events have rumbled on since those gagged days, […] Look up, and swear by the green of the Spring that you'll never forget.") If we can get these thoughts out of our heads, it will be because we are no longer astonished, no longer aghast -- and that is what I am still trying to resist (though none of us will be able to hold out forever, or even for long).

Thus, reiterating and reiterating the total beyond-the-pale-ness of Trump strikes me as one of the few mental prophylactics we have at this stage, even if it means we are reduced to quoting ourselves. I find for instance that the list I made on this blog last May, immediately after Trump won the GOP nomination, of factors that might result in a Trump presidency, still holds up pretty well. I have little to add to them now. The five factors were:

1.) Internecine and ego-driven struggles on the left.
2.) Trump was seen as a joke for too long.
3.) Our news culture, in a misguided attempt to appear "even-handed" and "objective," will begin to portray Trump as a mainstream candidate.
4.) The Republican Establishment and other elites will decide Trump is "a man with whom one can do business."
5.) We all thought "politics is a game anyways."

Without in any way planning it, I notice that my three post-election jeremiads on the blog so far have essentially been a process of going through each item on this list and ticking off the "I told you so's." The previous post was mostly devoted to #1. The present post covers #4, I believe -- and does so with all the bitter gusto of fulfilled prophecy (I don't get to do it often, and I confess that for the most part I made all the same false predictions as did most people about Trump along the way). Apparently, people did decide Trump was "a man with whom one could do business," and if any still had their doubts his cabinet picks will have them eating from his hand soon enough. As I asked in May: "How long does the American elite continue to care that 'first he came for the Mexicans; then he came for the Muslims' -- so long as he does not appear to be coming for their assets and holdings?" Not long at all, it would seem! Wall Street apparently loves him, for the stock market is bouncing along quite merrily.

While we have our eyes on the list, however, should we talk a little bit more about numbers 2 and 5? Certainly I've addressed them all plenty by now, but this feels like the time in history when we have to keep struggling to find new ways to say old and obvious things -- or perhaps to describe new situations in ways that are old and have long since gone out of fashion. I suppose the old and unfashionable word that needs dusting off and repurposing today -- and that numbers 2 and 5 are gesturing toward -- is "decadence." It is that stage a society reaches when it has sunk so far into relativism that everything is a "bias," everything is an "opinion," and there is no such thing as truth. It is the cancer that sets in when both sides of the political spectrum decide that the fundamental values and institutions that hold their society together are not worth defending, because people perceive only the ways in which those institutions frustrate their desires-- whereas the ways in which they hold us each day above the abyss is forgotten, because it is assumed that they could never stop preserving us, that they will always be their holding us in their care. It is a child's attitude. It is what Ortega y Gasset was referring to when he wrote:
"The cynic, a parasite of civilisation, lives by denying it, for the very reason that he is convinced that it will not fail. [...] What is your Fascist if he does not speak ill of liberty[? ... ]The Fascist will take his stand against political liberty, precisely because he knows that in the long run this can never fail, but is inevitably a part of the very substance of European life.
As if by an unseen hand, I keep finding myself drawn to reading the prophets of decadence this year, the Jeremiahs who warned that we had planted the seeds of this harvest in our complacency, in our cynicism, in our worldly-wise sarcasm. Ortega y Gasset was easy to spot for one -- but who would have thought that reading a book of poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay would present me so suddenly and starkly with another equally flawless diagnosis of our present era. But there it was, in its undeniable aptness -- an example of that frightening gift the world sometimes has of handing one an unexpected à propos, in a poem titled "Underground System":

Ease has demoralized us, nearly so, [...]
All will be well, we say, it is a bit, like the rising of the 
sun, 
For our country to prosper; who can prevail against us? 
No one. 
The house has a roof; but the boards of its floor are 
rotting, and hall upon hall 
The moles have built their palace beneath us, we have 
not far to fall.


3 comments:

  1. Am I the only person who finds it curious that very weird post modernist views have become common sense, especially among the powerful? Remember when the idea that there is no truth, just power, was a dominant trope of the pomo "left"? Well, as Cory Robin has noted frequently, the right is always ready to appropriate the useful ideas generated first on the left. They are reaction-aries after all. But of all the unfortunate things used to lay the basis of Trump's rise, the institutionalization of (5), pomo really, is the oddest of all. As we might all have begun to notice, truth is the weak person's friend. The powerful just make shit up.

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  2. Couldn't agree more. The left can't seem to resist digging its own grave.
    Did you see Timothy Snyder's "20 Lessons from the Twentieth Century" about combatting authoritarianism in the wake of Trump, by any chance? Definitely worth a read if not. This part in particular comes to mind in regard to this point about truth:
    "8. Believe in truth. To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights."
    Here's his full list:
    http://kottke.org/16/11/fighting-authoritarianism-20-lessons-from-the-20th-century

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