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.