For the past year or so I have been exercising what I have thought of as principled quietism regarding the presidential campaign of Donald Trump. Until today I have not written his name in any public forum, or even mentioned him anywhere other than in the most personal conversations with friends and family. I reasoned that if this quietism had been widely practiced, most importantly by the mass media, we never would have arrived at this disgraceful point. The feigned shock acted out daily on TV and in newspapers at Trump's scandalizing statements has itself been a crucial part of the normalization process. The negative coverage has still been coverage, and Trump understood this, and rode on a wave of craven media complicity to where he is now. But I am not Rupert Murdoch or Les Moonves, and my quiet now has a different meaning than theirs could have had earlier on. Speaking seems futile, and a sort of caving to the idiocy and barbarism of the present moment; silence weighs heavier and heavier as the months go by, and starts to feel like cowardice. So eventually one gives in, and speaks, and joins the present, without omniscience about unintended effects, without any real wisdom, but with massive reserves, stored up during the silent months, of pure moral outrage.
It is too late for the media to rewind and to undue the damage of their profit-driven legitimation of the impostor. We are now left with the fact of Trump as someone who will not go away if we simply conduct our lives as if it were beneath our dignity to mention him, but might yet be driven away if we succeed in driving home to our fellow Americans how extremely dangerous he is. I do not want to find myself a member of the Free American Resistance in exile a few years from now, fighting to bring down a despotic regime that has supplanted American democracy. The emergence of such group is not such an unlikely scenario, should Trump become president. He presents, as Andrew Sullivan has rightly said, an extinction-level threat to American democracy.
He represents not the least prospect of making America great again, but rather the prospect of making America part of the same global order of post-democratic authoritarianism that already includes many of the United States' traditional geopolitical adversaries. The result of a power-grab in the United States by a Eurasian-style despot, with bodyguards playing the role of boyars, could be an ignominious peace forged with these regimes with which Trump's America would indeed have a fundamental kinship; or it could be total war, triggered by what Freud called the narcissism of minor differences: when two parties are so alike that they can't stand the existence of the other. But either way it is a capitulation, and a definitive end to the role that the United States has sought to play in the world.
I know many of my friends on the left will say: "Fine then, good riddance to that order that has brought so much pain to the world," and it is this sentiment that has many of them asking, at present, whether, once Sanders is out of the picture, Trump might in fact be preferable to Hillary Clinton. I am witnessing in real time, and finally understanding, the historical process by which, for example, the French National Front has won crossover voters from the Communist Party when the former makes a few promises about improved material well-being and also promises, like the latter, to make those at the center of power --the Establishment-- pay for their greed and indifference. In France, as earlier in Germany, and as in the United States now, what the crossovers from the left are leaving out, or preferring to overlook, is that when these promises of improved well-being are made by the far right they come at the expense of, and with the express intention of hurting, not only representatives of the Establishment, but also anyone who is not a member of our 'nation': a loose category that can be defined not only in terms of citizenship, but in terms of race, ethnicity, or religion. So overt fascism is not just a 'more honest' version of the neoliberal oligarchist politics of the Establishment. Hillary Clinton will not place Muslim-American in camps. She will not 'close the borders'. She will not dismantle the free press or seek to radically change the powers of the executive office. She will continue American foreign policy as usual, which includes the deaths of a lot of innocent people, but she will not needlessly provoke new wars simply as a consequence of a slighted ego or as a distraction from failed domestic policies. It is a profoundly flippant and en-bubbled gesture on the part of members of the American intellectual left to say that Trump could not be worse than Clinton. It is a betrayal of all of those people who, in addition to the innocent targets of American drones, would be directly made to suffer as a result of a Trump presidency, often simply in virtue of the contingencies of their birth.
I think two things must be done in the coming months. First, just like in the defeat of fascism seven decades ago, socialists, communists, and anarchists need to recognize in this case that they do have common cause with the Establishment, including with the Establishment right. I have been extremely impressed with the clarity of vision, and the understanding of the seriousness of the present moment, expressed by the editorial staff of the National Review. I find that I can appreciate these virtues, without falling into doubt and worry about the entirety of my political commitments, most of which do not overlap with theirs. What overlaps is the sheer horror at the thought of the rise to power of a fascist usurper in the United States. I think it is important for Americans, whatever their political commitments, to find this common ground and to stay on it and fight from it into November.
Second, I think it is crucial to engage with Trump supporters and with those who might cross over to Trump (some from among Sanders's disaffected followers) without condescension and by patiently highlighting the multiple respects in which Trump in fact does not represent their interests, the multiple respects in which he is a betrayer, and, if it helps, the multiple respects in which he is not, at all, what might be called a patriot. As to the last of these, I think it is important to emphasize --and I think Trump supporters are certainly intelligent enough to follow this line of reasoning-- that what Trump represents is not anything distinctly American, but rather is only the local variation on a political ideology that is currently recrudescing throughout the world, that this ideology is incompatible with American patriotism, and that it is now and in the past most closely associated with regimes that are hostile to the United States. Again, a Trump presidency would amount to a capitulation to these regimes.
We must fight Trump and everything he stands for. We will fight him until November, so that we do not have to fight him afterwards. He is already a blight on American history, and this is what he will be no matter what his legacy is from here on. But to minimize suffering, both in the US and beyond, he needs to be defeated early and decisively.
I will support Bernie Sanders' campaign for as long as it useful in pushing the Democratic party towards important progressive goals; and I will support Hillary Clinton when the time comes, faute de mieux, in order to prevent the rise of a fascist regime and the end not so much of democracy in America --for there is plenty of argument as to whether true democracy has ever been achieved-- but even of the ideal of democracy. However much we've failed to realize it, this ideal has at least helped us to prevent far worse forms of government from moving in. Anyone who does not see this, who thinks that the existing order is really the worst thing there is, simply does not know enough history, or does not take seriously enough the lives of Muslim and Latin American immigrants, to understand just how bad things can really get.
It is impossible to know at present whether a Trump presidency would bring with it worsening relations with the despotries of Eurasia-- those of Putin, Erdogan, Modi, and the Chinese single-party regime in particular, and most importantly with the first of these, since this is the one that still has its entire nuclear arsenal from the Cold War and that is currently threatening neighbouring NATO members with its revanchist ambitions. A Trump regime could just as well bring improved relations with these leaders, in view of his fundamental likeness to them. It could also bring nuclear war. Either way, though, it will be a capitulation to them. This, I think, is more than anything the message that needs urgently to be conveyed to nativists in the United States who are rallying behind Trump: he is not an American phenomenon, but only one head --still in bud-- of the great global Hydra of post-democratic authoritarianism.
This movement's founding fathers are principally concerned with strategies for regional hegemony in the Eastern Hemisphere. It is thus a strategic mistake and a sign of severe degeneracy for Americans to rally behind a leader who is shaped in this movement's mould. And yet at present Trump is taking advice from Paul Manafort, former advisor to the disgraced Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych, who slinked back to Putin's Russia, where he belonged, after the Ukrainian uprising of 2014. And when we see street art riffing on the famous 'socialist fraternal kiss' between Erich Honecker and Leonid Brezhnev, with the two embracing parties now transformed into Putin and Trump, we immediately understand what it means: Trump is taking his ideological lead from the principal regional hegemon of Eurasia. He, like Erdogan or Viktor Orbán, is a lesser, derivative Putin. If the Eurasianist movement continues to grow, if the United States falls to it in electing Trump, this will most certainly bring about the end of the Atlantic order on which American global power was built over the course of the 20th century.
I am not saying anything about whether I think this power is good or not-- not here. I am only saying that a Trump presidency would spell the end of it, again, either through total war or ignominious peace.
June 4 (from the New York Times):
We are supposed to find some solace these days in the assurance that Donald Trump is “not Hitler.” One reasonable response is this: Of course he isn’t. Only Hitler is Hitler, and he died in a bunker in 1945. There is no such thing as reincarnation, and history is nothing more than a long, linear series of individual people and events that come and go. It is, as the saying goes, “just one damn thing after another.”
This quip is in part a rejection of the idea that history is, or might someday be, a sort of science in which we subsume particular events under general laws. This idea motivated Hegel to conceptualize human history as a law-governed dialectical process of the “unfolding of absolute Spirit.”
Marx in turn eliminated the ghost from Hegel’s system, and conceived the process of history as one of material relations between classes. But it, too, remained bound by general laws, so that when any historical actors did this or that (crossed the Rubicon, repealed the Edict of Nantes, etc.), they did so not so much as individuals, but as vessels of a historical process that would be unfolding even if they had never existed.
Even when Marx facetiously riffs on Hegel’s claim that historical facts and personages always appear twice — by adding that they do so the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce — he is still perpetuating the very serious idea that individual people and happenings in history are instances of something more general.
But what would it mean for the “same event” to happen again? What are the criteria of sameness? How alike do two individuals have to be in order to be paired? How much does this repetition depend on the individuals themselves, and how much on the similarity of external circumstances? Can we really compare the United States at present to the late Roman Empire or to the Hittites just before their collapse, given how much we know to have changed in human societies since antiquity?
With the depressing confirmations of Godwin’s Law that can be found every day in the comments sections of news outlets (surely, this article will be no exception), one often senses that “Hitler” is not so much a historical figure as a mythological one, that the war of 70-some years ago has already become something like the Trojan War had been for the Homeric bards: a major event in the mythic past that gives structure and sense to our present reality. As in myth, that great event’s personages can appear and reappear not in the exact form they took back then, but as avatars, in new forms, under new names.
History seems to present us with a choice between two undesirable options: If it is just one singular thing after another, then we can derive no general laws or regularities from it, and so we would seem to have no hope of learning from it; but when we do try to draw lessons from it, we lapse all too easily into such a simplified version of the past, with a handful of stock types and paradigm events, that we may as well just have made it up. History seems to be a pointless parade of insignificant events until we shape it into something that has significance for us, until we build myths out of it, until we begin using it to make up stories.
This is what makes it so easy and tempting to weaponize history, to forgo any interest in “how it actually was” — to use the 19th-century historian Leopold von Ranke’s definition of the true goal of the study of history — and to bend it toward our own present ends.
Today Donald Trump excels at treating the past as raw material to be sculpted into whatever claims serve his interests — for example, when he shifts President Obama’s birthplace from Hawaii to Kenya. But the idea that history is infinitely malleable is by no means the exclusive property of xenophobic populists. Until very recently it was common to hear from skeptics (in academia and elsewhere) that history is a “narrative,” and that we must not expect the facts themselves to dictate to us what version of history we ought to adopt. The facts are inaccessible, it was said, so let us tell stories, and create our reality.
By the early 2000s, as announced in an influential article by the French theorist Bruno Latour, this skeptical attitude had produced some unintended consequences. For one thing, it had fallen into the hands of “the enemy”: Creationists were invoking skeptical arguments to undercut the epistemological basis of evolutionary theory; neoconservatives were openly declaring themselves free of any obligation to what was now mockingly called “reality,” as they had taken it upon themselves to create a new reality of their own liking by, for example, invading Iraq and, so they had hoped, planting the seeds of Jeffersonian democracy there. And after Sept. 11, 2001, as Latour quickly began to notice, people of all political stripes were rushing to attribute responsibility for the attacks to whatever party or supernatural force best indulged their fantasies about how the world works.
The degeneration of which Mr. Trump is a symptom is by no means limited to American political life. If Trump is not a reincarnation of Hitler, he is most certainly one head of the same global Hydra that has already given us Vladimir V. Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Narendra Modi. For all of them, the past is not something to study and to attend to, but something to sculpt.
The leader of India, Mr. Modi, for example has brought about, through support of the ideology of Hindutva, a political climate in which Indian nationalist academics can claim that airplanes are described in the millenniums-old Vedas without being ridiculed or marginalized. Mr. Trump is seeking to bring about a climate in which equally false claims may go unchallenged, in the name, purportedly, of something much more important than mere empirical fact: making America “great again.” The invocation of the past in this slogan is obviously mythological. No one will ever call on him to cite any dates or figures to back it up.
History has always been prone to such deformations. In the 16th century the Spanish Jesuit Jerónimo Román de la Higuera forged a cache of documents meant to prove the antiquity of Christianity in the Iberian Peninsula. Far from falling into notoriety when his inventions were uncovered, he instead went on to even greater fame as the author of the “falsos cronicones,” the false chronicles, which were only the more glorious in that the claims they made were not dependent on mere factual truths of history, but spoke of a “higher truth,” coming directly from God. There is a long tradition in fact of the so-called pia fraus: the pious fraud.
Mr. Trump is banking on the American public’s willingness to revert to such a conception of truth that does not require any basis in fact. And it is here that a bit of von Ranke’s hardheadedness can serve as a corrective. We can worry later about drawing significant lessons from history, about finding meaning for our lives in the past. For now what is crucial is to insist that the past can be known — that Mr. Obama was not born in Kenya, that climate change was not made up by the Chinese and that anyone who pretends the opposite, as part of a larger plan to make America great again, is, as a matter of simple historical fact, an impious fraud and a liar.
The task that faces American voters at the present moment is enormous: to save the United States from the same post-democratic order to which parts of Europe and most of Asia has already fallen. Our relationship to history will play no small role in this. History may be rooted in storytelling, but we can summon it to be something more — the arbiter of truth against lies told in pursuit of power.
Mr. Trump himself appears indifferent to history, as well as to the grave significance of the comparisons of him to Hitler. It’s true that Donald Trump is not Hitler. But the fact that the comparison has any traction at all, that it is a recognizable part of our new political dialogue, and that the man at its center is not actively seeking to prove it wrong, shows how severe the current crisis is, and hints at how dark the future might get.
The evidence has been accumulating for a long time now --the connection to Yanukovych's former advisor Paul Manafort, the apparent Russian hacking of the DNC, the flippancy about NATO's responsibilities in the Baltics, the general conspiratorial tenor that sounds so much like a typical invited loon on the RT network, the mutual public praise-- that Trump is, at least unwittingly, an agent of Putin.
Whenever I try to bring this up as potentially damaging, Americans keep telling me that the Putin connection can't be made into a campaign issue, since "Trump's supporters don't really care about foreign policy." But that can't really be true. Surely they care about possible future foreign policies that diminish US sovereignty, or that shift the balance of geopolitical power in the world towards an autocratic Eurasia. It seems to me that the real problem is just poor information in the US: Americans seem to believe that Russia ceased to exist in 1991, that Gorbachev just gave up and closed up shop. This perception only strengthened after 2001, when US triumphalism over the fall of communism in the 1990s fused with racism and 'civilisational' bigotry to convince Americans that the Arab and Muslim world was the principal geopolitical hotspot in the world.
Tellingly, Slavic-studies departments in US universities downsized, and enrolment in Arabic courses skyrocketed (studying Russian in the early 1990s, we still got to use military-issue textbooks with helpful phrases about nuclear summits and fallout shelters). But this indifference only goes one way: Putinite ideology, while also working when expedient to cultivate small autocrats such as Le Pen fille or Viktor Orban, is monomaniacally focused on the US, all the nuclear weapons are still there, and of course Putin is interested in helping to install a leader in the US who has given up on the post-war Atlanticist liberal-democratic order. There are surely among Trump's supporters some horseshoed ideologists too paranoid and incoherent to be classified as either left or right. One such is Alex Jones of InfoWars fame, who would find a Putinite world amenable to them precisely because it rejects the liberal-democratic order that they see as a great hypocrisy and a lie. There are many of these people who may at first have had some progressive spirit about them, but who are too thick or too morally cretinous to allow their anger to be shaped by anything that resembles a principle: like a certain relative of mine whom I saw in 2002 wearing a t-shirt with a big tacky likeness of Yasser Arafat on it, and who by our next and last visit in 2006 was convinced that 'the Jews' are spraying us with chemtrails. I don't know what this kinsman of mine thinks about the current presidential elections, but I can say that it is his type that makes up Trump's base: those who are as far beyond placement on the ideological spectrum as we have understood it since the French Revolution as they are beyond rationality and decency.
But there must also be many, many Trump supporters for whom American anti-Soviet ideology of the 20th century remains a living memory and a still recoverable orientation in their understanding of what might actually constitute an existential threat to the country they claim to want to make great again. To try to convince these people of the extreme danger of a Trump presidency seems to me a worthwhile effort to make right now, and not to be shrugged off simply because Trump's supporters are supposedly too stupid to 'care about foreign policy'.
One often gets the impression that it is in fact the American left that finds it hard to think about foreign policy. I'm astounded, in particular, to see my friends on the left flatly denying that Russia could possibly be interfering in US electoral politics. Say you're glad Russia is interfering, or say you think there's no reason they should not interfere, given how much the US interferes around the world (yes, I'd even be happy to hear another invocation of the fallacy of relative privation, or 'А у нас негров линчуют', to adapt the Soviet slogan into the first-person plural, if the only alternative is flat-out denial of evidence). But why reject out of hand the possibility that Russia in fact seeks to play an active role in the electoral politics of other countries?
This role has been long and well established in Estonia, Hungary, France, and other European states, and there is no reason why, given the Internet-based nature of the interference, Russia should not expand its understanding of the ближнее зарубежье or 'near abroad' to include its principal 20th-century rival. Everywhere is 'near' when your preferred form of warfare is hacking. Americans seems surprised that Russia would engage in such low manoeuvres. My Bulgarian friends, meanwhile, are surprised to see that Americans think any of this is news. The only difference is that it is not some small former vassal state, but the superpower that supposedly became a hegemonic hyperpower a generation ago, that is now learning what Eastern Europe experiences all the time.
I used to find the most productive forums to be the ones, as Victor S. Navasky hoped for The Nation to be, in which liberals and leftists explore their differences, and find out what they have in common in order to help shape a better world together. Since the rise of Trump I've started to feel that the most productive conversations are those one might have with the 'decent right', all the Republicans who have stood up against Trump and really understand what an existential threat he poses to the United States.
Whatever the direct or indirect links, Trump is a Putinite. Putin, and all the other ethnonationalist and autocratic leaders throughout the world that I can think of, want to see Trump elected. Russia is not a joke, especially not for those of us in Europe who sort of remain attached to the post-war liberal-democratic order and don't want to see it overturned by people who don't just fail to live up to its aspirations --most importantly the aspiration to individual rights and freedoms--, but fundamentally reject those aspirations. Trump is not a Republican, or a conservative. He is an autocrat in the 'Eurasianist' mould elaborated by Aleksandr Dugin and tacitly supported by Putin. The Americans who seem to understand this most clearly are the commentators from the center right, those who rightly or wrongly continue to believe that there really is a way of failing to do one's part in American civil society that might be denounced as 'un-American', and one does not have to be a paranoid McCarthyite in order to see this. They correctly see Donald Trump as un-American.
Meanwhile the American left seems to think Russian cyberwarfare is not a real thing at all, either because they believe the myth forged in the 1990s that the US 'won' the Cold War and that Russia has been taken care of, or because they think it makes them look bad-ass in front of their friends to pretend they believe that anything at all, even the global triumph of Putinism, is preferable to the business-as-usual of American-led neoliberal oligarchy.
At the same time, all of those who posture in this way claim to be deeply concerned with the rights and freedoms of all people, particularly persecuted ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities. But under a Hillary Clinton presidency, however crappy her brand of corporate elite rule may be, you or your loved ones will not end up in a labor camp in Oklahoma wearing a pink triangle. By contrast this is a real possibility under a Trump presidency, and there is no source of moral authority in the global order whose ascendancy Trump's election would clinch to which we might appeal to help you get out. Liberal-democratic rulers, for all their hypocrisy, still speak a language in which it makes sense to say things like, 'This is not right', 'This is unjust'. They understand what these expressions mean. Trump and Putin don't speak this language. They are on the same side. Putin knows this, Trump might know it. And Putin is in fact capable of acting on this knowledge to shape the world in his image.
Trump's suspected Russian connections have generated a small flurry of interest over the past few days, in the wake of the reports that Putin's agents may be behind the DNC e-mail hack. It is nearly certain that this mini-scandal will fade within the next few days as Americans, living in the eternal present, lurch on to the next shiny thing.
I would like very much for this story not to recede. Trump has today both announced that he has "nothing to do with Russia whatsoever," and then in a public speech a few hours later made a jaw-dropping request to Putin to help in finding Hillary Clinton's 30,000 missing e-mails. Commentators are wondering whether this constitutes treason, but we can anticipate that the evidently sarcastic tone of the request will provide plausible deniability. Haven't we learned by now, anyway, that Trump can say anything?
Prior to today's events, Masha Gessen, the English-speaking world's most lucid critic of Putin, published an article in the New York Review of Books denying exactly what I've spent the last two days trying to argue (e.g., here) --that Trump is, in a broad sense, an agent of Putin-- but I'd happily concede that point to someone who has "spent a good third of [her] professional life working to convince the readers... of both Russian and American publications that Vladimir Putin is a threat to the world as we know it." I think though that she creates a false dichotomy when she says that fixating on Trump as an agent of Putin is a "way to evade the fact that Trump is a thoroughly American creation that poses an existential threat to American democracy." I see it more as a way to make that same case, and to place it in a global context, which includes not only Putin but, only somewhat more distally, ethnonationalist autocrats like Erdogan and Modi. The point is to understand the genus that is casting forth all these new species in different national habitats, not to blame any one of them for the others.
Clearly, whatever your theory of the DNC hack, when Trump says that he has "nothing to do with Russia whatsoever," this can't be true. His multiple, publicly acknowledged ties with Russian business and with pro-Russian lobbies do not count as 'nothing'. So, once again, he's lying. Putin wants him urgently to be president of the US. Whether or not he is directly an agent of Putin, he is our national mutation of a rapidly speciating genus that includes Putin, indeed that includes him, I would say, as its type species. The fact that 'it can happen here', or that 'we have our own home-grown troubles to worry about', does not mean that there is not a global context for these local troubles that must also be understood. The fact that the global context of this particular trouble is one that reveals strong affinities, whether elective or not, between our home-grown politician and ethnonationalist autocrats in Russia, Turkey, India, and elsewhere, is one that it seems to me might be salient in conversation with friends and relatives who are operating under the illusion that there is something patriotic about voting for Trump. And yet so many people I have read or spoken with are downplaying or denying the Russian connection, even calling it red-baiting. As if there were anything red about the Putin regime: it is an ethnonationalist autocracy! Even if you think patriotism is vulgar, surely you can understand how, by making this Trump-Russia association stick (again, a real association, whether he is Putin's paid agent, useful idiot, or just a species of the same genus), we might hope to help reorient those people who believe patriotism is noble and believe they are acting on their patriotism by supporting Trump.
The recent talk of Trump's relations with Russia reminds me of Obama's attempt to roast the Republican candidate at the most recent press correspondents' dinner by observing that his experience in the domain of foreign relations consisted in bringing the Miss Universe contest to Moscow. Trump himself has boasted that this work indeed gives him special knowledge of Russia. What Obama's joke misses, and what our mockery of his boast misses, is that in the Russian mafia regime the event presided by Trump qualifies as a high-level affair of state. Ceremoniously judging women, and projecting one's power over them to the entire empire, while simultaneously torturing or threatening to torture the men, just is governance. Consider for example the activities of Ramzan Kadyrov, who is technically some kind of regional governor but in fact is a common warlord implanted in Chechnya in exchange for his promise of fealty to Putin. Kadyrov apparently serves on various committees (e.g., the Advisory Commission of the State Council of the Russian Federation), but the actions in virtue of which he maintains his power are things like shooting guns in the air, collecting sport cars, throwing money at women dancers during parties, showing off his own talents in dancing a lezginka, and maintaining active and plausible rumours of the existence of torture chambers in his realm. Notoriously, Gérard Depardieu sought to signal his je-m'en-fichisme towards the French Republic and toward Western high-mindedness in general by himself displaying fealty toward the Chechen warlord, even dancing a lezginka of his own.
Trump is one of these people. In his unhinged displays, in his flirtation with the Russian mafia state and all it symbolises, he is more like Depardieu than like any conservative politician the United States has ever known. It misses the point to call him a 'vulgarian'. Lyndon B. Johnson was a vulgarian, and he was also perfectly competent to serve as president of the United States (however awful his aggravation of the Vietnam War). Trump is, rather, someone who doesn't simply like wrestling and beauty contests, but who has no moral or intellectual ability to comprehend a vision of politics that is not fundamentally modelled on these base spectacles. He is an aspiring warlord, an aspiring mafioso, an aspiring vassal of Vladimir Putin, who for his part must at present be delighted and stunned to see the United States collapsing in just this way.
Thank you for the birthday greetings, Friends. It is a delight to receive them. Let me use this occasion to ask for a sort of present: please, please help defeat Trump in the coming months. If you are on the conservative right, please understand that he is not one of you. He has betrayed nearly every principle the Republican party has traditionally stood for. Many loyal Republican partisans have woken up to this fact, and have rejected him. What point is there in allowing loyalty to harden into simple stubbornness? If you are on the left, please understand that this betrayal is not in any way a ground for hope that a Trump administration might be 'no worse than' a Clinton administration, or that Trump might, in spite of his cravenness, end up bringing less harm to innocent people in the world than would a Democrat. As to the domestic front, he is running with the explicit intention to bring harm to ethnic and religious minority communities. To minimise the distance between him and Clinton on this point is to make a gross spectacle of one's own privilege, of one's (likely unfounded) certainty that 'he won't be coming for me'. As Masha Gessen has asked, who can even say at present what new enemies will be constructed in order to maintain the climate of fear he will need to remain in power? As to foreign policy, it is true that Trump might change the global political order and bring about the longstanding desideratum of the left to diminish the United States' ability to project its power throughout the world. But does anyone think that under these circumstances a collapsing global hegemon would go peacefully, without lashing out? Trump might not care about maintaining global American power, but he would care about maintaining his own power. He is an authoritarian, and authoritarians *need* war as the basic tool for consolidating and legitimating their reign. It would not be perpetual war as usual. It would be far, far worse.
There is a legend that extends at least back to the Greeks, according to which the Scythians were such savage warriors that they were prepared to kill great numbers of their own people just to make the enemy quake and run the other way.
While in reality they were probably northern Indo-Aryans, 'Scythian' has always been a slippery demonym: sometimes it's the Turks, sometimes the Mongols, and sometimes Russians. In his ethnohistorical writings G. W. Leibniz would often identify the Russians as the descendants of the Scythians, when he was writing to German correspondents; when he was writing to Russian correspondents, he would claim that the Turks are the modern-day Scythians. Thus in a 1699 letter to Nicolaes Witsen, Leibniz mentions the report he has heard of the custom in Russia, wherein authorities of the church are themselves obliged to carry out the execution of criminals, and comments that “this is a custom that still retains something of the Scythian.” Yet in a letter to Peter the Great of December 1712, Leibniz characterizes Russian history, as well as Russia in the present, as an ongoing battle of the Russians against Scythians ancient and modern. He thus proposes a “Tabor” or wagon fortress (Wagenburg) as a strategy for battle against the Turks —now taken by him to be the modern-day Scythians— and notes that it worked well “in ancient times against the Scythian peoples on the flat plains” of the steppe. Who is Scythian and who is not, and thus who is represented as exotic and barbarian and who as civilized, appears more a matter of current geopolitical alliance than something to be determined by historical and linguistic evidence.
We see a vestige of this geographical fluidity even in the common World War II-era American slur against Germans as 'Huns', or in Stalin's observation that if you scratch a Russian, you'll find a Tatar underneath: in both cases a claim that some purported European ethnic group is far more Central Asian, and thus more despotic, ruthless, etc., than it appears. Germans today are seen as the paradigmatic Europeans, but as recently as 70 years ago they were circumstantially Asianized in order to make it easier to fight against them.
Stalin had made his own observation with a certain pride. Balkan and Slavic peoples are in fact often praised for their martial stalwartness, for being able to turn back their enemies by adopting 'Scythian' ways, as when Vlad the Impaler (increasingly hailed as a heroic Christian warrior among the European far right) made a wall of impaled Transylvanian Christians before the gates of Brașov, and drove back the invading Turks. The stereotype extends all the way to popular entertainments of recent years, as when the vaguely Turkish character Keyser Söze, in the 1995 American movie, The Usual Suspects, resolved the crisis of his family's tragic kidnapping at the hands of evil enemies by shooting, not the enemies, but his own family.
One cannot help but think of this ancient trope when one recalls the Russian security forces' response to the hostage crisis in Beslan in 2004, or the Nord-Ost siege in Moscow two years earlier. The enemy shows force, we show more force in retaliation, and we demonstrate our invincibility by demonstrating our indifference to the loss of innocent lives on either side. The regime acts as force majeure, as a power of nature that can't be talked down or made to see things differently. We are in the realm of stereotypes here, and there is nothing natural or inevitable about Russia taking up the ancient role of the Scythians. But Putin himself believes in these stereotypes, that playing out these stereotypes is a winning strategy for his political career, and that this does not bode at all well for Russia's neighbors.
It is this broad set of stereotypes that Donald Trump's dim mind is channelling, moreover, when he says that he would like to join forces with Putin in order to fight the real enemy, which is, for him, Islamic terrorism. He thinks of Putin as not just a real bad-ass, but also as a sort of amphibian: blonde and Christian, able to breath and speak among 'people like us', but also, underneath, as ruthless and savage as the people who post the beheading videos online and who shoot elderly priests in village churches. Trump would like to be this way too: like Vlad the Impaler, like Keyser Söze, like every terrible character real or imaginary who believes that the world is governed by strife and the only way to triumph is to become as indifferent to human death and suffering as nature itself is. Trump, in his zeal for joining this fight as a vassal of Putin, cannot see that the people he thinks of as the real enemy are mostly just small-time warlords, criminals, degenerate shits; Putin is a warlord, too, but with nuclear weapons and what is left of the last century's second biggest and most jealous empire. This cannot be a stable alliance, nor can it offer any more hope than a Hillary Clinton presidency, as commentators like Stephen Cohen think, for a way out of the New Cold War.
Of course it is important to question the expansion of NATO after the end of the Old Cold War, and to try to envision a future community of nations in Europe, particularly Eastern Europe, that is stabilized by something other than the credible threat of force. But anyone who thinks we will be getting closer to that goal by electing an aspiring Scythian as president of the United States, who will then deepen the feeling of solidarity and brotherhood with the veteran Scythian in charge of Russia, is hallucinating. To be a Scythian is necessarily to be a loose cannon: not just to display credible threat of force, but to display actual force, unleashed in unpredictable ways. Trump has consistently, repeatedly stated that unpredictability will be the basis of his foreign policy. With Scythians in charge of the world's two great nuclear powers, things cannot end well, even if they begin the period of mutual reign under the false belief that they are indivisibly united in the fight against terrorism.
I've just sent my ballot to the Board of Elections of Hamilton County, Ohio, which some say is the most swing county in the most swing state of the union. I lived in Cincinnati only briefly, but it was my last address in the US, and for as long as I am in voluntary exile I will continue to be treated for electoral purposes as a resident of that city who just happens to be temporarily away. (I abstain from voting for this or that candidate for Clerk of the Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas, and focus only on races relevant to the fate of humanity as a whole.) I really do not want my voluntary exile to become actual exile, and so wish, right now, to volunteer my services helping other American citizens register to vote, or doing anything else beyond sending in my own ballot that might help to defeat Trump. If anyone, particularly in France, is aware of possibilities for volunteering, please contact me right away, preferably by direct message.
October 30 (from the Chronicle Review):
In his essay "On Bullshit," precirculated for years as samizdat and published by Princeton University Press in 2005, the philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt identifies and analyzes a previously neglected species of untruth. It is of the same genre of lying, but unlike its better-known relative it does not seek simply to pass off a falsehood as true. Instead, the bullshitter is the person who no longer considers truth as the anchor of discourse, who speaks without regard for the truth, and who, finally, is unconcerned about whether his interlocutor knows he is speaking untruths or not. "When an honest man speaks," Frankfurt explains, "he says only what he believes to be true." For the liar, it is "indispensable that he considers his statements to be false." But the bullshitter’s eye, Frankfurt argues, "is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose."
One need not have heard of Frankfurt, or have grasped his precise technical meaning of bullshit, to associate it with the Republican nominee for president. But is a Frankfurtian analysis sufficient to understand this election?
Princeton’s edition of Frankfurt’s text came out in the wake of the Bush administration’s audacious selling of the invasion of Iraq as a preventive measure against Saddam Hussein’s development of weapons of mass destruction. The case for the war was made by people who had abandoned what around that time was starting to be called the "reality-based community." This term first appeared in a 2004 article by the journalist Ron Suskind in The New York Times Magazine. Suskind was interviewing an anonymous Bush aide, widely rumored to be Karl Rove, who went on to explain: "We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
Here we see a disregard for truth that quite plainly cannot be understood in terms of bullshit. This is not the deviation from truth we expect from a grifter or a con man, nor is it the pathological indifference to truth we expect from a loud-mouthed boaster. It is rather the audacious rejection of truth as a standard by which we all must be judged, by a self-styled Übermensch (or the Übermensch’s spokesman).
Much of the disagreement about Donald Trump among American voters has to do with which sort of character he is: a lowly fraudster or a larger-than-life revaluer of values. It does not have to do with whether or not he is telling the truth. And so, frustratingly to many opponents, simply pointing out that he is speaking falsehoods can do nothing to set him back. In politics, the Bush administration’s manipulations are often said to have inaugurated a "post-truth" era, whose ascendancy has been confirmed by Trump’s campaign. But here we need to distinguish between truth and fact. In one view we have Trump, the bullshitter and con man, who plays fast and easy with the facts, not because he has any grand conception of the truth that he believes might justify his deceptions, but simply because he sees that he can say whatever he wants and get away with it, and this is fun for him. In another view, we have the Bush aide’s understanding of the mission of the president, which involves the realization of higher truths (democracy in the Middle East, for example) that are far more important than whatever particular facts happen to be the case.
That certain claims may be morally true while empirically false is an idea far older than George W. Bush. It is in play in the lexical distinction in Russian between two different sorts of truth — pravda, which in principle must be grounded in fact, and istina, which is somehow higher than fact. This distinction was inverted by the Bolsheviks, who with no apparent irony gave the name of Pravda to the newspaper that didn’t so much report on what was the case as describe what they would have liked to be the case.
A similar transcendence of the merely empirical helps to explain the reaction, in 16th-century Spain, to the fabrications of the Jesuit historian Jerónimo Román de la Higuera, author of the so-called Falsos cronicones, which purported to document the antiquity of the Christian faith in the Iberian peninsula. When it was discovered that he had made it all up, that there had been no martyrs or miracles in Spain in the first few centuries after Christ, Román de la Higuera was not denounced as a fraud, but instead the empirical falsity of his chronicles was taken as a sign of their power to convey a deeper truth. He had succeeded — by invention, by writing, by telling a story — in retrojecting Christianity into Spain’s distant past, which is surely a far greater accomplishment than simply relating facts.
Why should we remain beholden to facts? They are, as etymology tells us, not some sort of raw material that we simply find, but rather are the sort of thing that must be actively made — or, to use the Latin past participle, factum. Propagandists, whether Jesuit, Bolshevik, or Rovean, are those people who understand that facts, or at least social facts, are the result of human activity, in part the activity of inserting new ways of thinking and talking into the public realm — and that when this is done effectively, the public, sometimes, can come to a new understanding of the truth.
This, again, is not what Trump is doing. He is a mere bullshitter, and what comes out of his mouth has more to do with pathologies of personality than with any real vision of how the world, or America, ought to be brought into line with some super-empirical truth to which he alone has access.
Trumpism is, however, being helped along by master propagandists who understand very well that, by treating facts as something to be actively made, one may eventually change the way truth is understood. (Let us not, here, consider the specter of social constructionism, of whether changing the way truth is understood is the same thing as "creating a new truth.") The activists of the so-called alt-right have been working for years to change public discourse through a concerted campaign of internet trolling. Their goal has been the creation of "meme magic," that moment when an idea that they have promoted online makes the leap from virtuality to reality.
And what better character to symbolize this leap than a frog? In early September, Donald Trump Jr. retweeted an image of his father in an ad for an imaginary action movie called The Deplorables, alongside a cartoon character many would recognize as Pepe the Frog. Pepe had been introduced some years earlier as a harmless anthropomorphic amphibian, with the catchphrase "Feels good, man," but more recently it has been co-opted by the alt-right as a mouthpiece for anti-Semitic and racist meme-mongering. Within days, Hillary Clinton’s campaign would argue that "that cartoon frog is more sinister than you might realize."
The alt-right was predictably ecstatic. In an interview with the philosopher Peter Ludlow (aka Urizenus Sklar) at the website Alphaville Herald, the notorious alt-right activist Andrew Auernheimer (aka weev) explains of the effort to bring Pepe into public consciousness: "We drove these people insane, a plague of frogs was upon them for a year, and suddenly they are screaming in public about a cartoon frog." When asked by Ludlow about the usefulness of this tactic, Auernheimer replies: "There didn’t even need to be a discussion. It’s obvious that journalists need to be bullied, and it’s also obvious that you need a consistent signature."
This is all frivolous and deadly serious at once. Trump has been helped by the power of online trolls, a force we have been complaining about for years but whose ability to influence political reality has been greatly underestimated. Academic bourgeois liberals are busy signaling their virtue and affirming one another’s truisms on Facebook. Meanwhile, potent new right-wing memes are being grown in digital petri dishes. Trump’s campaign serves as a vector for whatever is going around, without any real knowledge or understanding of where it comes from. And the Clinton campaign is wasting its time denouncing outrageous tweets that it for the most part does not understand, rather than presenting anything like a coherent political platform of its own.
We are living through a strange political moment, in which the extreme right seems to have a monopoly on irony, while those on the left are straight-facedly trading dogmas among themselves. Alt-right activists, though they would hate to admit it, share more of the spirit of Abbie Hoffman than they do of the Young Republicans I first encountered in the Reagan era. They go about their work with a smirk and evidently get intense pleasure from it. As Auernheimer tells Ludlow, when asked about the sincerity of his commitment to the global white supremacy, "I’m just trolling."
Yet if their meme magic does, in fact, help to put an ethnonationalist into America’s highest office, we cannot expect that his will be an ironic presidency. The alt-right is vastly more clever than your typical brute skinhead of a generation ago, but in the end it does not matter whether the ideas it is inserting into political discourse are put forth in the spirit of irony or with utter seriousness. The effect is the same: harm to marginalized communities. This indifference to both irony and sincerity is of a pair with the indifference to fact. It is enough to get a bit of information out there, whether ironic or serious, whether grounded in empirical reality or not, for it to have a shot at becoming part of political reality.
Trump is a bullshitter, but the forces that have buoyed him go well beyond bullshit. His connection to whatever was left of the GOP has been severed, and he has drifted irretrievably into the arms of the alt-right, the gutter conspiracy-mongers who speak of a great global cabal, and the crowds that whoop and holler in agreement when this conspiracy is evoked, with barely a clue as to what is being claimed, let alone as to the standards of evidence that might be brought to bear to confirm or refute those claims. It is not that they have consented to buy into bullshit, but rather that they find themselves ensorcelled by an idea of truth independent of and superior to the facts. This is the same idea that turned the pseudohistorian Román de la Higuera into a popular hero, and that enabled Pravda to pretend to be delivering istina for the better part of a century. It is a powerful idea, and dangerous, and it speaks to something basic in the hopes and expectations of a political community.
Honestly, it doesn't matter whether Trump's connections to Russia are real or not, whether this or that server was pinged or whatever from this or that IP address. What matters is what is already known and explicit: that Putin actively wants Trump to win the election, that Russian troll armies are waging a massive coordinated disinformation campaign in Europe and the US to help bring Trump to power. We no more need to go looking for connections to Trump himself to confirm this than we need to look for connections to Narendra Modi's ethnonationalist regime in India: we know, without looking for these connections, that a similar ethnonationalist post-democratic regime in the US would be a boon for Hindu nationalists, and a detriment for Indian Muslims.
The rise of the Internet has obviated the need for direct or real connections between two parties. We're all connected anyway! This is confirmed by the new patterns of radicalisation of European jihadists by ISIS propaganda. The attacks in Paris a year ago were carried out by agents of ISIS, whether they were actively cultivated and trained by an organised network or not; Trump is an agent of Putin, whether there has been any contact or not. It serves Russian geopolitical interests, in particular Russian neo-imperial revanchist interests in the 'near abroad' (and perhaps the not-so-near-abroad) to have a US president who rejects the liberal Atlantic order and who looks at NATO countries the way a low-level gangster looks at the shopkeepers he shakes down for protection money.
What is missed by both Putin and the American left crypto-Trumpists, who are just as happy to see the Atlantic order go and who probably don't spend much time thinking about the sovereignty of, say, Estonia, is that there is no rational reason to think that Trump will simply acquiesce to Russia's counter-hegemonic ambitions. He says, right now, that it would be nice to have normalised relations with Russia, and that of course seems preferable to Clinton's predictable continuation of long-standing US policy in Europe. But how long would Trump's friendly stance last? Until the first time he feels slighted by Putin. How long would it take for that to happen? A few weeks, or months?
As Masha Gessen wrote a few months ago: there will be wars. A fraud like Trump can only maintain the appearance of legitimacy by new wars, not just the old 'maintenance wars' of US empire, but bolder wars that are commensurate with his ego, and with his lack of any other real plans. It is irrational not to expect that Trump will, as Ishmael Reed wrote a few days ago, see nuclear missiles as a sort of upgraded Twitter option, as mega-tweets, and that he will make use of them for predictably petty reasons.
Please, please, please, American friends who can't stomach Hillary Clinton: please go vote for her anyway, like I did. After that, we can regroup, and figure out how to make things better.
The alt-right supports Trump not because they think he is himself a competent or coherent exponent of white nationalism, but because they correctly think he is helping to 'accelerate the crumbling' of the current political order, which will, in the ensuing chaos, give them an opening to gain power themselves. 'Heightening the contradictions' is at least a coherent strategy. It is one that guides the alt-right, but also the left crypto-Trumpists who continue, days before the election, to recite variations on Assange's claim that the current choice is like that between 'cholera and gonorrhea' (from an epidemiological point of view, cholera is in fact far worse), and to imply that the chaos that will come with a Trump presidency might at least open up a space for new political possibilities. In supporting Trump's campaign, or in not actively helping to defeat it, the alt-right is evil, while the anti-Hillary left is just grossly irresponsible; self-described 'conservatives' who continue to support Trump, in turn, are just deeply misinformed about the nature of the movement. There is nothing conservative about leaping into a void. And anyone on the anti-Hillary left who continues to denounce as 'red-baiting' any suggestion of commonality of aims and spirit between Russian Putinism and American Trumpism would do well to listen to Richard Spencer on the subject: "Spencer calls Russia 'the most powerful white power in the world'." That is the nature of Trumpism's desired rapprochement with Russia. It is insane to suggest that concern about this desire has anything to do with McCarthyism or with Cold War phobias about communist plots.
Des élections se tiendront en France et en Allemagne l'année prochaine. Le résultat le plus probable, en l'absence du contrepoids de la démocratie libérale américaine, et avec la Russie qui menace de plus en plus agressivement la souveraineté des pays de l'ancien Bloc de l'Est ainsi que d'autres pays qui n'ont pas appartenu à l'Empire Russe depuis un siècle, est que le continent européen succombera lui aussi à l'autoritarisme. Je garde néanmoins un petit espoir pour une conséquence inattendue de la chute définitive des États Unis dont nous sommes témoins en ce moment : que le continent puisse reprendre le flambeau de la gouvernance éclairée et conserver l'idéal de la société civile dans un monde obscur.
I went on the international cable news channel France 24 last night, and gave interviews to both the French and English services of the network in my capacity as a founder of the After Trump movement. I was nervous about having to speak French, and trying to get the talking points just right in my head as I sat down in the guest's seat in front of the cameras. The host greeted me kindly, and asked me if I'd heard the latest, that Trump had just announced Mike Pence would be in charge of the transition, that Chris Christie was out, and that, it now appeared, certain elements of Obamacare were not so bad after all. He asked me if I thought it would be a good idea to discuss these things on air. Oh fuck, I thought, it's happening already. He's conscripting me in the inevitable process of normalisation. I began to nod weakly in the affirmative, but caught myself in time, and recommitted to what I was there for. "I don't think I have much to say about these aspects of the story," I told him sincerely.
Then we went on air, and I told him, precisely, what it was I was there for. I told him that this or that bit of good news about Trump not being so bad as we expected is not of interest to us, and in fact to approach Trump's rise to power in a policy-by-policy way is to aid and abet the process of normalisation that will, eventually, if successful, enable him to impose whatever policies he wants with no surviving democratic or institutional constraints to stop him and his boyars. The problem is not that he believes this or that particular thing, but that, to the extent that he articulates views in coherent language at all, he shows no commitment to the truth of these views, and no interest in holding to them. The only thing he shows, consistently, is contempt for and ignorance of American political institutions and the Constitution, notably freedom of the press and freedom of assembly. It is not that he is a bad president, but that he is a petulant child thrust into the role of president, and with nothing more than a faint buzz of ill will to those who oppose him guiding his political decisions. He is dangerous, and he represents a radical rupture with all American political traditions, liberal, conservative, socialist, and libertarian alike. That is the problem, I said, and that is what I am here to talk about.
Obviously, he needs to be watched by millions of hawks, and thankfully there are many who are committed to watching him on particular issues: backtracking on climate-change accords, chipping away at women's reproductive rights, and so on. But by far the greatest threat he poses is to the survival of the institutions through which decisions, any decisions at all, can be made about matters like the environment, energy policy, health care, and so on. By far the greatest danger is the permanent destruction of the American political system to suit the temporary whims of an elderly caudillo. This is what the chattering classes must never lose sight of. To the extent that they fail to do this, they are abdicating their responsibility, and do not deserve the platform they are given. Many who were fierce critics have already capitulated, and said that it's time to 'give him a chance', even that it's our duty as American citizens to give him a chance. Meanwhile Masha Gessen, who has long been Putin's most lucid and courageous critic, also understands what the US now faces. She is entirely right: we must allow no normalisation, and must oppose everyone who facilitates it. The list of normalisers is growing fast, and already includes, unsurprisingly, Obama and Clinton. Arguably, Obama's position was the only one he could take, and I admit I was moved by his grace and firmness during his press conference at the White House next to that confused and addled old duffer. But we are not statesmen, and we are bound by no such need to project reassurance. Trump is an enemy to be defeated, and that is what he will be until he is defeated. Americans need to be prepared to confront a political reality that Anna Politkovskaja, Nadia Tolokonnikova, Masha herself, and so many other courageous Russians have looked in the face and defied, for which they have paid with death, imprisonment, and exile.
Much of the normalisation began even before Trump's victory, as with that craven worm on late-night TV, whose name I don't recall, who was allowed to muss up Trump's hair. Whoever he was (some Jimmy, I think), his capitulation was really only one step further from the tepid shit that has been served up under the banner of 'criticism' on 'liberal' comedy-news shows for several years now, not by the Jimmys but by the Jo(h)ns. Typically, their 'takedowns' have been followed soon after by viral online videos declaring that Trump has been 'destroyed' on last night's episode of the Stewart, Colbert, or Oliver Program. Yet this word has been gutted of all sense, as, patently, Trump kept reappearing the following day. What are we now to make of this? Why were they assuring us of Trump's destruction? By destroying him without destroying him, they paved the way to the current process of normalisation. We can't let this continue. It is time to destroy him for real.
Part of the path towards this end is to refuse the terms the mass media will try to impose, even when we ourselves join the media as commentators or op-ed writers. If they don't like the terms we impose, then we will not work with them, but instead will use alternative paths. But we will also do our best to slip through, even using bait and switch tactics to get into the studio ('Sure, I'll talk about Chris Christie's prospects as a cabinet pick...'). The hosts of these shows are empty vessels, channellers of whatever is out there. So it's up to us to change what's out there. You might get yourself disinvited, or you might find, as I did last night, that your host appreciates 'a little energy'. But always remember: Trump is not a bad politician, but a bomb thrown into the political system. Everything he does that kind of looks like the work of a politician is a parody of politics, and must never, ever be graded on a curve.
California is drawn deep blue, when conceived as a whole, but drawn at the county level it is as multifarious and fractured as the country itself. I spent a good portion of the late summer in the heart of California’s own Trump territory, in the high desert town of Barstow. I was there to attend to my father in the weeks leading up to his death at the local veterans’ hospital. Nor was this my first stay in a part of the state that supports Trump. I grew up in the town of Rio Linda, the butt of one of Rush Limbaugh’s most long-running jokes— an early lesson to me, when I first heard it around 1990, of the strange relationship between right-wing elitism and right-wing populism. Rio Linda was a hotbed of Klan recruitment, and I personally knew some of its initiates, though my friends were mostly Mexican-American punks and goths. Those were formative years for me, in Trumpland, and I feel they give me sufficient credibility to speak with authority on that dispersed part of America, even as I write from Paris.
I’ve been thinking incessantly over the past few days about what to do: declare that I’ll never return to America, or rush back to do what I can to change it; declare my enmity to everyone who voted for Trump, or declare that them’s my folks and y’all are misunderstanding us. One just reels too much at moments of such historical turmoil to be able to produce anything like a coherent plan.
I am struck, right now, by how much my effort to comprehend the rise of Trump is coloured by my memories of Barstow this summer, by what I see now as a presentiment I felt then of what was to come. My father’s last words to me, or very nearly, were a quotation from a certain Douglas Adams novel: ‘So long’, he said, ‘and thanks for all the fish’. At the time I took it as a funny, if basically empty, reference to our shared popular-cultural reference points. A friend reminded me, when I told him about this later, that in the novel the dolphins express their gratitude for all the fish as they are departing from the earth, and they are leaving because the earth is nearing its cataclysmic end. And I can’t help but think, now, that this is what lay at the heart of the presentiment: that I knew my father was ducking out, now, out of America and out of the world, because the time was right, because his own biology was attuned to the demise of his historical epoch, and all those left alive were tumbling headlong into a great historical void.
My father was definitely no Trumpist. He was a stubbornly independent-minded man who thought most people were full of shit, and who valued nothing more than good, honest, ‘authentic’ folk. He knew which of the two groups Trump belonged to, while his paragon of authenticity and goodness toward the end of his life were the Mexican people who surrounded him in his expat community of Lake Chapala, in Jalisco state. He was also extremely disappointed by American culture, and by the elite political class that, he felt, had left him and his kind with so little. He listened to media that spoke of dark forces behind the scenes, keeping all the power and the wealth. He had his picture taken with the dirty, toxic, shameful Alex Jones at some conference in San Antonio, but assured us that ‘that guy has some ideas that are really out there’. Move a few steps closer to the source of the sort of things my father echoed about the people who are controlling things behind the scenes, and you will find overt and evil anti-Semitic propaganda. I sincerely do not believe that he was aware of this connection.
He was surrounded in Lake Chapala by a number of fairly hardened American men, some of whom I got to know during my handful of visits there: Vietnam vets with eye-patches and missing limbs, who spoke of the need to stock up on gold and on canned food, who hated political correctness. The air was just as thick down Mexico way as in Barstow and in Rio Linda with the sort of sentiments that would propel Trump to power. And this is where things get complicated, for me and in reality. Many of those men love Mexico too, not as entitled white retirees love paradisiac resorts, but as men who think of themselves as lowly and alienated, as on the receiving end of a life of blows coming from the well-connected and wealthy, and who melt into a culture that they feel has room for them, who start families and love their Mexican children, who love Spanish and who love in Spanish. Educated liberals will demonise them for targeting subaltern women in stereotyped and stereotyping ways, yet from their point of view, I am certain, it is not objectification at all, but love. One of the most hardened and politically reactionary of all of them had a disabled child, whom he struggled to send to the United States for medical care. This child was, one might suppose, the very embodiment of everything the Trumpists despise as subhuman, yet there she was: generated and raised up and loved by a man who himself surely believes that Hillary Clinton is a puppet of Alan Greenspan, who is a pawn of George Soros, who is... well, you know.
So, it’s complicated, far more complicated than it appears from within the enclaves of blue America. I have recently said that everyone who helped to bring Trump to power is my ‘enemy’, while everything I am saying here might seem to be an attempt to mitigate that. But I mean what I say. Wars turn brother against brother. True historical crises tear us apart, whether we love each other or not. Those who propelled Trump to power are bursting with love, just like you are, just like the kids sobbing right now, so I’m told, on Harvard Yard. Many of them had no idea what evil they were helping to unleash. They love, and are worthy of love, and they must be defeated.
In the best-case scenario, the one that enables us to avoid total war, Russia will soon be the world’s only superpower, and the United States its venal underling. Why on earth American ‘conservatives’ wanted this is something I will never, ever understand. Putin is the only world leader at present who is getting what he wants, who is riding the historical wave in the direction of his own goals. Trump might think he is doing this too, right now, but it doesn’t matter what he thinks, to the extent he thinks.
Americans are, right now, understandably, terrified about state repression and the destruction of civil society within the country’s borders, and this fear has tended so far to hide from their view the global shockwaves of Trump’s election. Undocumented workers in California are terrified, as are Muslim students who have to go to school wearing headscarves in Texas (two reports I’ve received over the last two days, from people who, I know, do not cry wolf); the citizens of Estonia, Georgia, even Finland, are terrified too. What Trump’s election likely means, within the next few years, is a full restoration of the Russian Empire at its maximum historical reach, with no check on its treatment of the nations it engulfs. Is it still ‘red-baiting’ to bring up this scenario? Is it ‘red-baiting’ even if we consider Russia from the perspective of the longue durée as a single continuous entity from the Tsarist era to today?
Europe will, likely, continue to disaggregate, with minor nations producing minor authoritarian leaders, as has already happened, or appears ready to happen, in Poland, Hungary, France, and elsewhere. Whether these leaders will be vassals of Russia, or whether they will become fixated --the more implausibly the more insignificant the nation-- on their own exceptional historical destiny, is uncertain. But what is certain, now, with the collapse of the Atlantic order (which is practically the same thing as to say the collapse of the United States), is that European states will not see themselves as part of a transnational community bound together by ideals like liberty and equality, or by anything more noble than fear.
I can already hear the criticism: Europe was always maintained by fear, and this was because of the brinksmanship and aggression of NATO. A Clinton regime would have prolonged this miserable arrangement, so good riddance. But here is where we need to consider other scenarios than the one I’ve identified as the ‘best case’ under a Trump presidency. Even if you don’t care about things like the sovereignty of Latvia, or about sovereignty in general, you still must take seriously the scenario in which Putin does not continue to get everything he wants, but is foiled by the fact that one of his vassal states, across the ocean, for all it has done to self-destruct, still finds itself with a huge arsenal of nuclear weapons and with an unstable and petulant child-president who thinks they are his to use.
Just like Putin consolidated his leadership through a long war in Chechnya, an eventual and inevitable expansion into Ukraine, and, finally, a bold return to the world stage with his massacre of Aleppo, so, too, Trump is going to need some wars. This is how authoritarian leaders maintain their legitimacy, by definition and without exception: they start wars. Whether Trump’s wars will be carried out in subordination to Russia’s interests, or in opposition to them, remains to be seen. Again, the best-case scenario is subordination, because the only alternative is total war between the previous century’s two superpowers. Respectful, cautious détente of the sort we might have had under Clinton is unthinkable.
We’ve spent the last 25 years acting as if nuclear disarmament is no longer an issue, and even now Americans against Trump still seem to place it way down on a list of worries that includes, at its top, Supreme Court replacements, women’s reproductive rights, and climate change. Is this because it’s just too horrifying, while all the other evils Trump’s presidency might bring still enable us to imagine ourselves trudging stoically along? All the weapons amassed during the Cold War are still there, with this one great difference, that one of the parties to that war is experiencing a rapid rise in its global power and ambition, while the other is, effectively, a failed state.
We have repeatedly heard over the past few days the call for at least a full suspension of Godwin’s Law: it is now a perfectly legitimate and meaningful communicative move, rather than a comments-section conversation stopper, to note that the present moment has something in common with 1933. We also are now familiar with the truism, that history does not repeat, but only rhymes. While the year of Hitler’s rise to power gives us a strong rhyme, I’ve been detecting at least a rhymoid in the coupling of 2016 with 1989. The current transformation in the United States, I mean, is fruitfully comparable to the collapse of the Soviet Union. This event was called by Putin the worst disaster of the 20th century, while Reagan and some of his Republican successors considered it their own greatest accomplishment.
The Russian empire contracted, and the US gloated. Now we are seeing the reverse. The collapse of the Soviet Union was followed by some years of chaos, which I witnessed first-hand, before a strong-fisted leader imposed order. That person’s American homologue, on this reading, is not Trump, but, perhaps, someone for whom Trump is now opening up the way. Trump is, rather, the American Yeltsin, a ridiculous muzhik who happened to show up at the right historical moment, who didn’t stand on a tank, exactly, but at least stalked menacingly behind Hillary Clinton at a town-hall meeting in a way that parodies courage, and who, we may expect, will soon, on some ’state’ visit to his boss, be picked up by the secret police while trying to catch a taxi in his underwear on Red Square at two in the morning, sleepless and in need of pizza. Obama is Gorbachev, the decent man who couldn’t hold the empire together. Putin is Reagan, on top of the world.
It’s not so much a rhyme as a palindrome really. Everything is unfolding enantiamorphically, as in a mirror. The empire is collapsing though. Something will emerge out of whatever’s left over. But any American Republicans who helped to bring this on, and who claim to have any sort of loyalty to the legacy of Reagan, simply do not understand what is happening, they lack any shred of historical consciousness, either of the recent past, or of the present. They find themselves, at present, not continuing Reagan’s legacy, but assuming the position of the people Reagan defeated. That they brought this on themselves, and still don’t have a clue about what has happened, may turn out to be the greatest tragedy of the 21st century.
Today is the one-year anniversary of the attacks in Paris. There is not much in the way of commemoration, though I did see one billboard that recited our slogan, Fluctuat Nec Mergitur, and indicated the date of 13 novembre 2015. I am struck by the fact that so many of the people who were on the opposite side from me in often bitter debates about the legacy of Charlie Hebdo and the meaning of the attacks are now, unquestionably and entirely, my comrades in the coming long war against Trumpism. I am thrilled to put old arguments behind us. I will say, though, that I see the victory of Trumpism as another attack of more or less the same nature as the one a year ago, though on a much, much larger scale. Trumpism is Putinism is Le Penism is Kadyrovism is contempt and fear of the free play of the imagination of the sort at which Charlie Hebdo excelled. The Le Pens were glad when Paris was attacked, because it boosted their popularity and because they were happy to see their long-time critics assassinated by proxy forces; Putin was glad, because it was a further destablisation of a Western European democracy that, he understood, would enhance his ability to exercise Russian influence; Kadyrov was glad for the same reasons Putin was glad, but also for the same reasons ISIS was glad; Trump was glad because it gave him another chance to tweet 'Only I can solve!' or the like. Trump will be glad when it happens again too, preferably for him within the US, because this will be his Reichstag fire, and he will surely make the most of it. We don't know yet whether this will happen before, or after, the free press has been entirely squelched. But anyhow long live the spirit of Charlie Hebdo, for which Teju Cole had little sympathy, and long live the resistance for which Teju Cole bravely and lucidly calls here.
Trump has appointed an overt white-nationalist ideologue, Steve Bannon, to a top staff position. Bannon is currently engaged, alongside Putin, in helping to bring the Front National to power in France: a party that emerges directly out of Vichy Nazism. Stars within Bannon’s constellation, notably Richard Spencer, express their unabashed love for Russian power because, as Spencer puts it, ‘Russia is the greatest white power there is’. Don’t be afraid to use the f-word: Russia is fascist; so, now, is the United States; France will likely fall soon too. Germany is the last powerful liberal democracy left, but it cannot stand alone forever. I'm alarmed to find myself thinking and speaking like this, but honestly, Americans need to understand, now, that we are all either part of the resistance, or we are collaborationists who will be condemned by history. The world for which Americans fought in WW II is collapsing, right now, because of the tragic mistake of many US voters in this election. Trump voters are not for the most part themselves fascists, but they have unwittingly clinched the global victory of fascism. Please, help your American friends and loved ones who voted for Trump to understand this. Under the present circumstances, only protest is patriotic. We have to become the resistance. It is not because Trump is a Republican like Nixon and Reagan that we are resisting, but because he is an anti-republican, like Erdogan, Putin, and, yes, Hitler, that we have to resist. In the coming months and years resistance will almost certainly involve great personal risk, of firing, imprisonment, surveillance, blacklisting, and worse. (I almost certainly have no future in France if the FN comes to power, and no future back in the US either.) We have to prepare for it anyway.
Most of my American friends are thinking only about the domestic situation at present— and it is terrible indeed. But part of what made Trump’s victory possible is that those who voted for him were also only thinking about their own domestic situation, and could not take time to think about the global shockwaves. Most Trump supporters, I suspect, are proud of their country’s effort in the Second World War, and would not be pleased to understand that they have, effectively, brought about a delayed defeat in that war. But that is what they have done, and we need, now, to make them understand this, and to start struggling, together, to reverse the damage.
I am writing, now, from Germany, the last major stronghold of liberal democracy in the world. The UK fell to Brexit in July; the United States fell too, with the election of Donald Trump just last week. France has long exaggerated its importance on the world stage, and in any case it will likely fall too, with the help of Steve Bannon and of Vladimir Putin, to the ideology of Le Penism as embodied in three generations of that family dynasty. Whatever 'the West' was can now be autopsied and disputed for whatever time humanity has left. But that it collapsed on Tuesday, November 8, 2016, seems to me beyond dispute. Angela Merkel is the heart still beating faintly within its brain-dead body, but the prediction here is that her plug will sooner or later have to be pulled. No doubt, it will be the German electorate that carries out this grim deed, the 'regular voters' who only want a bit of comfort and security, like the rest of us, who are tired of not being listened to.
It is remarkable to think how much of the present configuration of the world can be traced back to identities that were forged in the 1980s in Dresden and in East Berlin. At the moment the Wall fell, Putin was working as a KGB agent in the DDR's second city. Loyal to the empire he served, he would later describe its collapse as the greatest tragedy of the 20th century, and he would spend his life slowly, steadily, building it back up. Merkel, meanwhile, had spent her formative years in Protestant youth groups, and would emerge after 1989 as a sort of post-ideological cipher. It is astounding now to see how much historical weight she would put on, from a starting point of such apparent emptiness. But this is perhaps the most important lesson of the present moment. Trump is not, as far as we can tell, an ethnonationalist ideologue, but rather a trashy New York real-estate baron who has been thrust by the distortions of the mass media into a role for which he is supremely unsuited. This has not at all prevented ethnonationalism from riding his coattails to power. Putin, too, compared to the Romanovs and the Bolsheviks alike, is an empty vessel. He may flirt with Orthodoxy and pan-Slavism, but a more accurate sounding of the man's depths, or his lack of them, may be observed in the notorious video clip of his performance of "Blueberry Hill": terrifying in its dullness, in its passionless submusicality, it is exactly how you might imagine the soundtrack to a tee-totalling karaoke soirée among on-duty spies. He, Trump, and Merkel alike are all ciphers around which historical legacies congeal, and like the personal soundtracks that help to form our identities in a way we do not recall having chosen, nor did these world leaders choose their legacies. In Trump's case the legacy is not even understood, let alone consciously willed. He still likely thinks he is making deals for America, or something, and does not understand geopolitics well enough to grasp that what he has in fact done is capitulated to the ideology of Eurasianism: a global arrangement, in which the world's sole remaining hegemon, Russia, allows the US to continue existing, sort of, as a white nationalist vassal state.
I have been hanging around Berlin long enough to remember when the punk concerts in the eastern part of the city were still, often, held in church basements, a relic of the time, just two years or so before my first arrival in 1990, when sites of faith were also sites of resistance to the rotten forces of state-imposed conformity that young Putin was still working hard to maintain. The memory of these shows has stayed with me, and endowed me with a healthy relativism in my efforts to understand social conflict. What is punk, after all? It is, for one thing, literally, protestant. In the American Bible Belt it has often been expressed as standing against Evangelical Protestantism, but it has done so in the same spirit that Luther stood against the Papacy, and that the youth of East Berlin gathered together in their church basements, out of the view of the state, to mosh against communism.
Moshing and like effervescences are, we ordinarily assume, the very opposite of submission to authority, to top-down diktats from the state, the church, the military, or the family as to how we ought to be conducting ourselves. But here is where things get complicated, and where Pankaj Mishra's interpretive eye, in his new book, Age of Anger, is particularly sharp. Notice, the moshing, while anarchic, is occuring in front of, and usually somewhat beneath, a band. The moshers are not bowing down to or worshipping the band, but nor is what they are doing an entirely different species of activity from a church service or a mass rally. How exactly the one sort of social phenomenon morphs into the other, how individuals move from an ebullient expression of their individuality to an ecstatic transcendence of the self in a supercharged collectivity, is both complicated and crucially important for our understanding of political history.
We know that many young people who have enjoyed freaking out and dancing alone under the influence of psychedelic drugs and music have not long after found themselves under the influence of enigmatic and psychopathic cult leaders. This passage is so common as to be almost stereotyped. We know, too, that self-identified libertarian ranchers in the great American West will help to vote an autocratic caudillo into office. Can we help but call the movement between these two poles a 'dialectic'? Certainly, the last few centuries reveal that the one cannot exist for long without the other, that the two mutually imply each other. The dialectic seems to get moving, often, when the pretense of individuality is thought to be exposed as a lie, when the person who believes himself to just be 'doing his own thing' suddenly realizes that that thing only feels like an instance of individual self-expression because it is what one wants to do, and one does not recall actively assenting to have one's desires dictated by society.
One way of putting this is that only when our beliefs or behavior are common, which is to say widespread and unchallenged, will we feel like we are 'just being ourselves', and this feeling in turn affords us the privilege of taking our general way of being, which we share with those of our own society or nation, as universal. It is the society that has the privilege of thinking of itself as living according to the universal, as being the type against which all other societies are measured, that accommodates those individuals who imagine of themselves that they are 'just doing their thing'. Individualism and universalism go hand in hand. Where a culture's ways cannot simply be taken for granted, where they are contested and challenged, we tend to see a corresponding contestation of individualism, and a sharper identification with the collective.
In modern European history the paradigm instance of this contrast is to be found in the German Romantic reaction to the universalist ideals of the French Enlightenment. How strange it is to think now, in our era of dumb and ahistorical racializations, that Germany, now the paragon of 'whiteness', is also, perhaps, the birthplace of the subaltern. As Johann Gottfried Herder implored in his poem "To the Germans": "Spew out the ugly slime of the Seine. Speak German, O you German!" (178). At the dawn of the 19th century, to make such an appeal was not to declare inherent German superiority over the French, but only to insist on the integrity, indeed equality, of a nation that did not accept the supposedly universal terms of the imported French ideal of égalité.
The academic studies associated with the idea of the subaltern are today generated in the developing world, and associated most strongly with the output of a number of South Asian intellectuals. The strange migration of subalternness from marginal parts of Europe in the 18th century to the global periphery in the 20th and 21st centuries is a process that is surely better known outside of Europe than within, but one of the many virtues of Mishra's book is that it may help to make us aware of this process. Mishra declares that he is drawn most of all to German, Italian, Eastern European and Russian writers and thinkers, and that this
has much to do with my upbringing in a country that, like Germany once, Russia and much of the world today, is a latecomer to modernity; and whose own nationalists, long accused of being perpetual laggards and weaklings, now strive to fabricate a proud New Hindu. It cannot seem coincidental to me that some of the most acute witnesses of the modern era were Germans, who, galvanized by their country's fraught attempts to match France and Britain, gave modern thought its dominant idioms and themes (43-44).
It takes an Indian author to remind us of the otherness and subalternness, at least until recently, of the Russians, Poles, even the Germans. In our era, in which so many Americans would be ready to identify Mishra as a ‘person of color’, and to hastily file away what a Hungarian or Lithuanian author writes as an expression of ‘whiteness’, Mishra identifies deeper filiations, which show the Yemeni-American al-Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki drawing on the Russian Orthodox Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to give spiritual depth to his own Islamism, and which unite Jean-Jacques Rousseau with the gentleman jihadist Tariq Ramadan.
But what about Trump's America? Trump has, Mishra writes, "led an upsurge of white nationalists enraged at being duped by globalized liberals" (76). Does this show that such reactions are not specific to the marginal nations, as when the German youth of the Sturm und Drang movement rejected France's vision of its own culture's global validity? Or does it show that the US is not as central among 'developed' nations as we had thought? It could be argued that the US is in its own way a latecomer and a backwater. It is part of the North Atlantic, but it also includes an entire continent that extends to the Pacific, which in its different regions had to be subdued, ethnically cleansed, repopulated by paupers, and built up on the backs of slaves. It is not surprising when the descendants of this incalculable historical violence appear a bit dizzy, today, in their attempts to articulate what is best for them politically. But what about England? Surely if there is any nation that is not on the periphery it is this one. And yet it is the English who voted for Brexit and, it seems, helped to set this great unravelling in motion. What about France, the birthplace of the Enlightenment, soon to fall to irrationalism as well?
One possible explanation for why the crises of the periphery seem to be seizing the center with equal intensity is that, to borrow from Malcolm X, the chickens of imperialism have come home to roost. Mishra believes, however, that it is the crisis of legitimacy of liberal democracy that has turned workers in the developed world into an alienated precariat, and turned the national cultures of North America and of Europe into subaltern forces, rising up and unleashing havoc. Trumpism at the heart of the world's richest country is a symptom of the same crisis, Mishra thinks, and is fundamentally of the same nature as the work of the terrorists "who plan and inspire mass violence by exploiting the channels of global integration" (342). But this stated equivalence deviates us from Mishra's claim to wish to focus on the "frustrated latecomers to modernity" (42). It may be that Russian Empresses and, later, Pakistani electrical engineers, have wanted in on some action they felt was going on more fully and excellently elsewhere. But this longing seems to be itself part of what defines modernity. African slaves and Scots-Irish dirt-farmers in America, too, are both contributing to the maintenance of modernity, while being excluded, not from modernity itself, but from modernity's pay-off. They are not so much latecomers as prerequisites.
We have identified the spectrum that has individualism and collectivism at its extremes, but this is only one axis of a Cartesian plane that also includes the opposition between what we have called, since the late 18th century, the 'left' and the 'right'. This complicates things. Ordinarily, we are expected to suppose that Marxism in most of its variants is a further outgrowth of the Enlightenment, that the Marxist analysis of history, with its projection of a future communist society arising out of historical necessity, is entirely based on rational principles. Or at least we must acknowledge that, as Mishra writes, communism is "the illegitimate child of Enlightenment rationalism" (167). We know in reality that there is significant pendular motion, however, between the two wings of the political spectrum. Maoist peasant rebels often find themselves hurtling toward death in a cultic frenzy that we may imagine differs little, in the interior feeling of it, from what Japanese suicide pilots felt when they read Hölderlin and prepared for death. Most recently, Bannon has confessed that his strategies for advancing the desiderata of the radical right are, at bottom, Leninist. On the bien-pensant left today one is often discouraged from acknowledging the evident truth that the far left and the far right share a great deal in terms of vision and methods, and often bleed into one another and cross-hybridize: this seems to open up the floodgate for false equivalencies, as when American gun-rights defenders put bumperstickers on their trucks announcing that 'politicians love gun control', flanking this phrase with a swastika on the one side and a hammer and sickle on the other. But Mishra does not trade in platitudes about how the Soviets and the Nazis were each other’s twin poles or mirror images. He, rather, traces the long genealogy of mass movements predicated on violence that share, whatever their differences, a hatred of comfortable liberal complacency.
There are in fact many historical examples of political thinkers and agitators who have crossed over from the one extreme to the other, and for whom this crossing-over did not require a total overhaul of their world-view, but only a small step. This fluidity is easier to see if we turn away from the clichés of the NRA, and look at the European avant-garde. Futurism as an art movement, in particular, while most closely associated with Italian fascism, sends out its branches and thrives, as well, in the hopeful years just after the Bolshevik revolution and before the great dull thud of Stalin's socialist-realist crackdown. That the path from Marinetti to Mayakovsky is short does not surprise us, because they are classified as 'artists' rather than as hommes politiques, but as Mishra shows us many important cultural figures of the early 20th century occupied a liminal space between these two domains. Many, such as the Italian adventurer and occasional political radical Gabriele D'Annunzio, lived their lives as art, and imagined that in so doing they were making bold political interventions.
D'Annunzio in particular provides Mishra with the model for the radical rejection of bored complacency and the hope for redemption through violence that would later become so appealing to the suicide bombers of ISIS or the amateur pilots of September 11 who, it is reported, went to flight school to learn how to fly large commercial airplanes, but not how to take off or land. In the rise of Italian fascism as in later jihad, D'Annunzio and Osama Bin Laden are kindred spirits: larger than life radical leaders who could, if they had chosen, have whiled away their lives as apolitical playboys. The men they manage to enlist, in turn, are typically not "the poorest of the poor, or members of the peasantry and the urban underclass." They are, rather, "educated youth, often unemployed, rural-urban migrants, or others from the lower middle class" (75). The poorest of the poor are sufficiently alienated to not even notice there is something they are being left out of, while ressentiment, of Trump voters as of Italian fascists or Saudi jihadists, requires at least a sort of longing for upward mobility, even if, paradoxically, it is coupled with a self-annihilating drive that is hardly compatible with the pursuit of a better life.
There is, surely, a variety of reasons one might sign up for fascism, from the struggling worker frustrated about sinking wages and eager to 'send a message', to the giddy intellectual who wants to sign on to a movement that promises to transvalue all values. We see this same spectrum among Trump supporters: from those who feel betrayed by the loss of the American dream, to those who think the American dream is for foolish normies and want to summon a new world into existence by making meme magic with Pepe the Frog. For the latter, as for the publishers of the ISIS propaganda rag Dabiq, politics is primarily spectacle. Even when it appears to be proceeding according to normal parliamentary means, it is still just a play of forces, and in the most stable of times laws are only meaningful to the extent that they are respected or, when not respected, enforced. When and where laws are enforced, to whose advantage and to whose disadvantage, is, then, just as much part of the theater as is a terrorist attack and its quick uptake in the mass media. So we might as well make good theater, be bold, visionary, like the best artists.
It is hard to sustain such boldness as the normal course of things, so it tends to come instead in punctuated historical moments: the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, the Trump revolution in the US in 2016. Such moments provide onlookers, who themselves would like to appear bold, with the opportunity to signal their rejection of the complacent liberal West by offering their support for the radical change underway. Shortly before November 8, 2016, Slavoj Žižek, the Slovenian showman who has made a career out of what we might fairly call the performance of a sort of Slavic minstrelsy, brought left crypto-Trumpism --already on the radar since the disaffected Bernie Bros were sent scrambling after Sanders's defeat in the primaries-- out into the open, and helpfully offered us an example of left Trumpism tout court. A generation earlier, Michel Foucault's moment to look bold in this way came with the Iranian revolution, which the French philosopher called "first great insurrection against global systems, the form of revolt that is the most modern and the most insane" (130).
Mishra makes a compelling case that the first modern Western thinker to construct his intellectual identity upon the bold rejection of the Western piety of normalcy, was none other than Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The Genevan social-contract theorist has of course by now been fully normalized and canonized, with the result that "[t]his central revolutionary tradition inaugurated by Rousseau is scarcely even a memory today. Bland fanatics, seduolously polishing the image of a 'liberal' West against totalitarianism and Islam, have banished it to obscurity" (77-78). It remains to be seen, however, now that we have entered the true Age of Anger, of global anger that has swallowed up the West and by the same token destroyed the West (Mishra's book was published just after Brexit, but before Trump's victory), whether we will continue, for long, to see the explosive violence we have until recently attributed to the special natures of foreign jihadists and like species as something foreign to our own natures here in Europe or in America.
All our efforts to get things in order, to banish extremism and just lead comfortable quiet lives within a society constructed on the principles of reason, have probably been doomed from the start. Once again, it seems as if the problem is of a dialectical nature, where every earnest stab to rebuild society rationally crosses over sooner or later, as if by some natural law, into an explosion of irrational violence. The harder we struggle for reason, it seems, the more we lapse into unreason. At the present moment, we are witnessing the complete breakdown of American democracy, with its hard-won and long-thought-out basis in constitutional law. A form of authoritarian demagoguery is in the course of replacing the old system, and this as an expression of the popular will of people who do not think of themselves as enemies of American political tradition, but on the contrary wish to restore the greatness of it, which they feel has been lost or degraded. But this restoration movement has detached itself from the prevailing political tradition of the country that generated it, to the extent that it has embraced irrationalism as its motor and its method. It is a movement that gleefully rejects facts and arguments in favor of feeling, of passionate group identification and the titillating prospect of violence.
Perhaps no greater emblem of this modern paradox of irrationalism in the service of rationality can be found than the 'Temples of Reason' that were briefly set up in confiscated Catholic churches in the wake of the French Revolution of 1789. This conversion, at the same time, shows what may well be an ineliminable contradiction in the human effort to live our lives in accordance with reason, and to model society on rational principles. There is something absurd, indeed irrational, about giving reason its own temples. What is one supposed to do in them? Pray? Bow down? But aren't these the very same prostrations that worshippers had previously performed in the churches, from which we were supposed to be liberated? Here we see, again, perhaps, the ease of motion from Woodstock to Jonestown, from the individual freak-out at the rock concert to ecstatic absorption into the collective of the psycho cult. This is what explains, too, the alt-right memesters who are now ready to bow down to Trump as their 'God Emperor', yet whose exuberant spirit tells us that had they been born somewhat earlier, they would have made perfectly good punks of the Sex Pistols' anarchist variety.
There is, one hesitates to acknowledge, a certain honesty of vision in those who are prepared to move straight to bold political explosions as in themselves desirable, an honesty that is missing in those who, hypocritically, would like to use violence instrumentally only in order to bring about, per impossibile, a comfortable and peaceful future built on the principles of reason. Nowhere is this contrast better illustrated than in the bitter disagreement between Rousseau and Voltaire over the best way forward for the nations of Eastern Europe. Voltaire had enriched himself as the favored courtier of Catherine the Great of Russia. With his help, Russia became a great luminary pole of the Enlightenment, but it did so in the most top-down way imaginable: by decree of the sovereign. What Catherine achieved, Rousseau could see, was what René Girard would later call 'appropriative mimicry'. Russian Enligthenment was largely formal, an imported style all the rage among the aristocracy in a country whose economy was still based on serfdom.
This did nothing to curb Voltaire's enthusiasm for Catherine's project. In fact he believed she would do best to spread Enlightenment further, by force, exhorting Catherine "to teach European enlightenment at gunpoint to the Poles and Turks" (98). For Rousseau, such a top-down approach is both wrong and futile. In the Social Contract (1762), Rousseau accuses Catherine's predecessor Peter the Great of what Mishra calls 'painful self-division', writing that the Tsar "wished to produce at once Germans or Englishmen, when he should have begun by making Russians; he prevented his subjects from ever becoming what they might have been, by persuading them that they were what they were not. It is in this way that a French tutor trains his pupils to shine for a moment in childhood, and then to be forever a nonentity" (100). Such self-division is bad enough when it is imposed by a sovereign on his own nation; when it is imposed from outside by imperialism, as in Voltaire's plan for the destruction of Polish national identity by Russian arms, the only appropriate response, Rousseau believes, is national resistance. The defense of distinctive cultural identity is always an unbreakable barricade against foreign domination: "[S]ee to it that no Pole can ever become a Russian," Rousseau writes, "I guarantee that Russia will not subjugate Poland" (147).
Voltaire and Rousseau's disagreements "over the meaning of modernity for backward peoples in the East," Mishra writes, "have the profoundest implications" (98). Voltaire wrote the Urtext for the neoliberals who invaded Iraq; Rousseau anticipated the jihadists who took over amidst the chaos left by the neoliberals after they failed in their foolish quest to export democracy. Who was right? The wide-scoped historical view that Mishra takes can, at least, help us to see how ridiculous it is to take sides here. Voltaire's universalism, when applied, is always a blind and destructive juggernaut; Rousseau's subaltern resistance always grows dark, if it does not start out that way, when it gains in power.
We see this already in the early German counter-Enlightenment. When Herder called for Germans to spit out the slime of the Seine, German breasts swelled with pride. In Ernst Moritz Arndt, less sensitive, less doux, than Herder, the rejection of French universalism begins to sound like a martial drumbeat: "Let this hatred [of the French] smolder as the religion of the German folk, as a holy mantra in all hearts, and let it preserve us in our fidelity, our honesty and courage" (193). In Heinrich von Treitschke, in turn, writing under Bismarck's Second Reich, we discern a further element, an entrancing melody piped over the drumbeat. He complains that Heinrich Heine, the great German Jewish poet, "never wrote a drinking song." Heine had 'esprit', Treitschke writes, which "was by no means Geist in the German sense" (207). The poet himself understood the connection between the rising sense of German national particularism, on the one hand, and hatred of Jews on the other. "The French-devourers," he writes, "like to gobble down a Jew afterwards for a tasty dessert" (206). As Mishra himself puts it more bluntly: "Francophobia's flip side is anti-semitism" (214). Or, as we might in turn put it more generally, soft nationalism, defense of the particular against the encroachment of the universal, always threatens to cross over into hard nationalism, ethnic cleansing, persecution, genocide.
It did cross over in Germany. We know that. Heine already knew it too. "A play will be performed in Germany," he wrote, "which will make the French Revolution look like an innocent idyll" (215). This prophecy presumably came true with the outbreak of World War I, of which the bellicose intellectual Ernst Jünger would write that it is "the forge in which the world will be hammered into new limits and new communities" (247). Friedrich Nietzsche had a similar prophecy, though he spoke in the plural: "There will be wars the like of which have never been seen on earth before" (215).
It has been one hundred years now since the world was reforged in the war to end all wars. But then there was another war, far greater, and the world was reforged again, and those new limits and new communities held together for a while. And now Nietzsche's prophecy seems as potent as ever, and I am looking out the window of my hotel in Leipzig at a crumbling monument to the power of the workers, feeling nothing but dread, as irrationality, ressentiment, and anger engulf the whole damned earth.
A consensus view is emerging among my friends on the left that any talk of 'post-truth politics' is itself ideology, that 'fake news' is itself propaganda, and that Russia could not have been partially responsible for the Democrats' loss because only the Democrats can be responsible for that. As for fake news, the conclusion seems to be, from the fact that the establishment media have money-making as their raison d'être, that the epistemic and moral relationship to the truth within, say, the NY Times editorial board is exactly the same as that of, say, a 17-year-old Macedonian villager who decided to run a pro-Trump website during the campaign when he discovered it brought in more Google AdSense revenue than a Hillary site. Can we make no distinctions at all here? Can amoral profit-seekers not do better or worse jobs, and be variously praised or blamed, for their truthfulness, or do we have to pretend that pure disinterestedness is always a precondition of truthfulness? If so, how does anyone ever learn the truth from anyone else? As for the question of Russia's role in the Democrats' loss, many act as if the party were a child who, when reprimanded for doing something bad, petulantly spreads the blame to his playmates, rather than recognising that this is an extremely complex phenomenon in which multiple causal factors are possible and often relevant for adequate understanding. In the denial of Russia’s power and intent to install Trump and to bring about the collapse of the United States there is something of the psychology of Holocaust revisionism: deny in order to affirm, and, if challenged, relativise. "It didn’t happen ([sotto voce]: but holy shit look at Putin go!), and even if it did it’s no worse than what the Americans have been doing all over the world for a long time."
Я считаю себя русофилом. Именно поэтому я сожалею о том, что руководитель этой страны является авторитарным каудильо. Я сожалею чаще и громче в последнее время, так как агенты этого самого вождя очевидно успели оказать влияние на президентские выборы в моей стране, которую я тоже люблю, поддерживая нашего нового американского каудильо Дональда Трампа, гомоморфного образа Путина. Для меня критика одного из них логически заключает в себе критику другого. Они сделаны из одного теста, а борьбу против авторитаризма невозможно ограничить в границах отдельных государств. Многие американские левые всё-таки считают, что критика внешней политики России- это русофобство и даже возобновление маккартизма XX-ого века. По-моему мнению настоящее здесь предубеждение- это та самая идея, что русское государство и русский народ равнозначны, что быть русофилом значит необходимо смириться с государственной властью.
I was on the France 24 Debate show again this evening, to talk about Trump, Russia, Rex Tillerson, and the ongoing relinquishment of US sovereignty (1989, but in reverse, as I've begun saying). Afterwards the producer texted me: "How did you like the program :)?" So I texted back: "It went well, but as usual I would have liked to say more. Also, I wish there were not an imperative in the media to create a false balance. Trump and his appointees are a shocking, dangerous aberration in American history. Why invite that energy company shill [Ellen R. Wald, joining us by satellite from Tallahassee] who acts like it's all perfectly normal?" And he wrote back: "It was great to have you with us. My programs are meant to be this way. Conflicting views. It can be better though! Hope to do it again soon!" This is, in my view, a concrete lesson in how normalisation works. These are not bad people. But they have no fucking clue what they're helping to bring into the mainstream with their fallacious commitment to 'balance'. Agreeing to be 'the other side', as I did this evening, is normalisation too. I hope, by now, that I've learned my lesson. In the coming years, real resistance is in samizdat.
When targeted Russian disinformation campaigns will have helped to propel the Front National into power in France, the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, the FPÖ in Austria, etc., and Putinism defines the horizon of political discourse in Western Europe, and cession of this continent to the Russian Empire is basically a fait accompli, will Americans, Trumpists and Sanders supporters alike, *still* be protesting that any mention of Russia's role in the erosion of whatever was left of liberal democracies is just 'playing the blame game' and refusal to accept responsibility on the part of Democratic party hacks? Surely the impending fall of Europe cannot be written off to Hillary Clinton's failure to reach out to unions in swing states, etc. Yet it is almost certainly going to happen, and we are going to have to give an account of it.
Please don't start saying Meryl Streep 'destroyed' Donald Trump. Didn't we learn anything from the election? That's just not how it works. John Oliver 'destroyed' Trump over and over again, but the ghoul kept coming back the following day. We're going to need to try something different. I expect this will involve the slow, mostly quiet, and difficult labor of monitoring and analyzing not Trump's vulgar person and stunted syntax, not his color or finger size, but his administration's inability to function within the confines of the law. It will involve refusal to participate in the insane call-and-response cycle of the exclamations of 'liberal' celebrities followed by a bracing for the next delirious Tweet. No one is going to be talking about what Meryl Streep said a few days from now. It will come to nothing.
Есть у американских левых новое клише, по которому те, которые принимают всерьёз доказательство русского вмешательства в американские выборы, доставленное американскими спецслужбами, являются "ястребами" по поводу России. Это может быть совершенно правильно, что касается Демократического эстаблишмента. Есть однако другие возможности, которые серьёзные левые критики должны принять к сведению. Есть например американские прогрессисты, которые хотели бы способствовать интернационалистскую солидарность с прогрессивными диссидентами в России против международного трампизма-путинизма. Мало, кто в прогрессивных кружках в США даже знает, что такие диссиденты существуют в России, как будто в этой стране только актуально властвующий режим может легитимно олицетворять политическую волю русского народа.
There's a cliché emerging that people who take the evidence of Russian interference in the US elections seriously must therefore be 'Russia hawks'. Members of the Democratic establishment indeed might be, but this certainly does not exhaust all the possibilities, and serious critics on the left should at least take note of some of the other ones. In particular, there are some of us who take the evidence seriously, and who have thought since long before the US elections that the best thing to do vis-à-vis Russia is to express true internationalist solidarity with progressive forces in that country, against the rising wave of international Trumpism-Putinism. These forces in fact exist, though you would never know it from the way the American left speaks of Russia: as if the regime in power there were necessarily and by definition the only legitimate representative of the Russian people.
I mostly agree with Matt Taibbi, Masha Gessen, and others that the Buzzfeed report, far from giving us reason to hope that Trump might be brought down, is, in its unverified sloppiness, prurience, and rumour-mongering, part of the same broad problem that gave us Trump in the first place.
I do take issue however with some of the reasons that Taibbi cites as grounds for doubting it. He writes of the treatment in it of Vladimir Zhirinovsky: "I've met Zhirinovsky. He's the Triumph the Insult Comic Dog of Russian nationalism. He once told me Russia would invade Boston (I had told him I was from Boston) and re-seize Alaska. Nobody who knows anything about Russia would include Zhirinovsky's ravings as evidence of anything. Assuming the intelligence agencies also know this, we have to wonder what the hell is going on.”
I've met Zhirinovsky too, and was made dangerously ill by the Zhirinovskaya brand vodka, though I drank it in moderation, that he had released onto the Russian market in the mid-1990s as an enticement to vote for him. Taibbi is right that Zhirinovsky is a loon, but what this misses is that in the current political climate the exclamations of loons are perfectly relevant for our efforts to understand what is going on at the highest levels of politics. Upon winning, for example, Trump called Alex Jones —Alex Jones!— to thank him for his support. Zhirinovsky is certainly no more a loon than Jones. In fact there is good reason to think that it is Zhirinovsky, and not Putin, who is Trump's closest counterpart in Russia, with the one difference, in my view minor, that Zhirinovsky has not been chosen as head of state. He is someone nonetheless who plays a role in the Russian political ecosystem, one that Putin evidently tolerates: if he didn't, Zhirinovsky wouldn't be there. He is one of the trashy loudmouths (again, like Trump) who gets to air things that the circumspect Putin does not, and in airing them helps to give shape to the broader political culture of fierce nationalism over which, in the end, Putin has control.
When I recently decided to start listening to Russian radio online again, I chose at random the most obscure live stream I could find: some call-in talk-radio show in Novosibirsk. And what were they discussing at the moment I tuned in? The invalidity of the Seward Purchase, by which, most Americans believe, the US acquired Alaska from the Russian Empire in 1867.
Zhirinovsky's comment to Taibbi about Alaska, I mean, really is not so irrelevant to understanding the political culture that the Putin regime has brought about within Russia, especially when it is a question of trying to understand how that same regime is now trying to shape American political culture through another underling who, like Zhirinovsky, though specialising until recently in steaks and not vodka, Putin thinks can help him achieve his goals.
It is not of course that every creature lacking speech is defective. The most severe Christian theology was at its least convincing when it taught that all animals, even the innocent mute deer of the forest, were envoys of Satan. But there is a variety of human being, at least, whose inarticulacy does seem to be an external sign of essential evil. I think this is what Auden understood in his lines, in 'August, 1968', about the Ogre:
The Ogre does what ogres can,
Deeds quite impossible for Man,
But one prize is beyond his reach:
The Ogre cannot master speech.
About a subjugated plain,
Among its desperate and slain,
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips,
While drivel gushes from his lips.
Meanwhile journalists are parsing, still, Trump's purported policy declarations, about how exactly the revenue for the mad project of a transcontinental wall will be collected, and so on. They're still acting as though he's a being endowed with speech, who says things with meanings grounded, however imperfectly, in reason. They've misidentified the species.
There's a long pedigree to Auden's understanding. In the Sophist, Plato dwells for a while on the problem of the 'giants', which is to say the earth-born humanoids who lack reason and morality and speech, and who, as the young Theaetetus interjects, "are truly terrible creatures" (246c-d). The so-called Eleatic Stranger comes up with a very bad idea for what to do with them: “since it is impossible to talk to these people… we will have to deal with them this way, namely by making them better than they actually are” (246c-d). This is what the journalists are doing with Trump right now. This is what everyone is doing who tries, through vain coaxing and supplication and hope, to appeal to his non-existent better side.
John Lewis is right. Trump's presidency is illegitimate. (I'm fairly certain this is a view that will get many of us into a lot of trouble over the next few years, but that will be universally acknowledged a decade from now.) Anyone who attends his inauguration, or otherwise sings and dances for him, is a craven sycophant and a coward. Plato saw it, Auden saw it, we've seen it over and over again in history: there are people whose evil is not softened, but fuelled by the efforts of others to communicate with them, to reason with them, to make them better than they are.
I am still reeling from watching the press conference at which Putin --after having joked, as if making an overt shout-out to Borat, that Russia's prostitutes are "the most beautiful in the world"-- went on to say that all people who take the intelligence reports on Trump's kompromat seriously are, I quote, хуже чем проститутки, "worse than prostitutes." But no one who is either denying or affirming the plausibility of the report, other than Putin, takes the alleged actions of the sex-workers themselves as at all relevant to understanding the problem. We all agree, I hope, that, if they existed, they were just doing their job.
The absence of a definite article in Russian makes the phrase in question ambiguous as between "worse than prostitutes [in general]" and "worse than the prostitutes [who are alleged to have met Trump in the hotel]." If the first interpretation is correct, the statement is simple, gratuitous misogyny and contempt for women who are, as he also smirkingly put it, нижнего социального положения, "of a low social station." If the second interpretation is correct, then the analogy disintegrates into nonsense, as clearly anti-Trump factions in the US are not doing anything at all comparable to urinating at his request, even by the loosest metaphor, on a bed slept in by the Obamas.
Either way, Putin is insinuating that Americans concerned about Russian intelligence operations compromising their electoral process are, somehow, like prostitutes. He doesn't explain the comparison enough to make clear to what interests or parties we are prostituted, but he insults us, and he does so directly, in the same breath as he insults all sex-workers, and all women.
It struck me while watching this how little familiar I was with Putin's live speaking persona, and how surprised I was to see how similar to Trump he is, if vastly more articulate: what a pure, transparent thug he is, reaching out across the airwaves to extend a reassurance of fraternity to his new American homologue.
The enemy takes power tomorrow in the United States: the enemy of everything I value, and the enemy of the country he is pretending to govern. What more is there to say? Here is an essay I wrote for Harper’s two months ago, which takes off from Pankaj Mishra’s excellent new book, Age of Anger, in order to explore the historical conditions leading to Trump’s victory. I am feeling much less defeatist now than I was in mid-November, or at least I have grown weary of reading other people saying the sort of defeatist things I say in the essay. I am convinced, more than ever, of the power of individual people to have significant influence over the course of world history: it is not all blind material forces and inevitable macro-scale processes. This is both good news and bad news. The contingent fact of Donald Trump’s existence as an individual human being is making the world a significantly worse place than it likely would have been had he never been born. But he is only one person, a mortal, seventy years old, and while he might believe he is all-powerful we certainly don’t have to. Something will happen to bring him down, whether political or biological, and the world will begin to recover. We will fight to bring about his political end as soon as possible. The blind material forces will continue working then too, but nor will they be all-powerful, and it is very likely that they will be balanced against the much less destructive governance of future political leaders. Their governance will likely be less destructive because Donald Trump is, among mortals, exceptionally evil, cruel, stunted, and stupid. He was elected by only 26% of eligible voters, and many who voted for him are, like the rest of us, gaping in horror at his daily transgressions against the political and moral norms of our society. He is widely hated. I hate him. He is the Ogre of Auden’s poem, whose inability to master speech is a certain external sign of his fundamental evil. I am made happy by the certainty of his eventual demise and disgrace, and by the thought of what might come after that.
Завтра в США враг придёт ко власти: враг всего, чем я дорожу, и враг самой страны, которую он претендует руководить. Что можно больше сказать? Вот эссе в журнале Harper's, которое я написал два месяца назад, и в котором я пользуюсь выдающейся новой книгой Панкаджа Мишры, Age of Anger как исходной точкой для анализа исторических сил, которые привели к победе Дональда Трампа. Я чувствую себя гораздо менее пессимистичным чем в ноябре, или по меньшей мере мне уже надоело читать других писателей, которые выражают те же самые пессимистичные мнения, как я в этом эссе. Я сейчас убеждён, больше чем когда-нибудь в своей жизни, что индивидуальные деятели могут играть важную роль в ходе истории, что это не всё только слепые материальные силы и неизбежные широкомасштабные процессы. А эта новость одновременно хорошая и плохая. Тот контингентный факт, что Дональд Трамп родился, сделает мир значительно хуже, чем если б его никогда не было. Но он один только человек, смертный, в возрасте семидесяти лет, а если он верит сам во своё всесилие, нам вообще не обязательно с ним соглашаться. Раньше или позже, из-за политических ошибок или чисто биологических причин, он падёт, и страна начнётся выздоравливать. Мы будем бороться за то, что политический его распад придёт как можно скорее. Слепые силы истории будут действовать и после его исчезни с политической сцены, но они, точно как Трамп сам, не являются всесильными, и это очень вероятно что политические лица, которые придут после его, будут менее вредными чем он. Мы можем быть уверены в этом, так как Дональд Трамп- это человек необыкновенно слабоумный, злонамеренный, подрубленный и глупый. Он был выбран лишь 26% американцев, имеющих праву голосовать, и я полагаю, что теперь много из них, как и мы все, шокированы его ежедневным нарушением политических и моральных норм нашего общества. Многие люди его ненавидят. Я его ненавижу. Он же Огр из поэмы Одена, у которого неспособность овладеть человеческой речью является несомненным внешним знаком своего основного зла. меня радует эта моя уверенность, что рано или поздно он будет разжалован.