The Abyss Stares Back

Out of respect for the editors of this fine publication, I will resist the temptation to make some joke about spending a relaxing morning sipping fine Namibian #covfefe. The Internet has been ablaze with humor on this theme, but at this point it is a matter of liberals (mostly) laughing to keep from crying.

It has long been clear that the lines of battle have solidified around this administration. The moderate left laughs and mocks because it is powerless. The Trumpian right views his ignorance as a badge of honor. The rich guys in the middle just wait for their tax cut.

The distinctive feature of the Trump regime is not its politics. A consistent policy is hard to detect amongst all the tweets and their post facto explanations, but the views that are expressed are generally consistent with the political nostrums of the Republican Party in the decades since the Eisenhower administration. These include race baiting, military aggression, concentration of wealth, and an approach to social programs commensurate with the level of empathy of the average Bond villain. This is not to say that the Democrats have not engaged in such conduct at points, but the larger point here is that there has been a tendency common to both parties to promote the less savory elements of these projects with a nudge and a wink. Mr. Trump’s innovation has been to state these things baldly.

In his History of the Revolution in France, the proto-conservative Edmund Burke wrote of the tendency of the revolution to strip away the civilized aspects of the prior order:

“But now all is to be changed. All the pleasing illusions, which made power gentle and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason. All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked, shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.”

In executing his own revolution, Mr. Trump has undertaken the same procedure, but from the opposite end of the political spectrum. In previous political eras, it was the radicals of the left (or of the Mountain in the days of the French Revolution) who sought to strip the illusory coverings from politics in order to put them on a more just and rational foundation. The rude tearing off of the decent drapery of society undertaken by Mr. Trump and his associates has precisely the opposite objective. The goal is a politics of power and illusion rather than of reason and of justice. To the extent that it has been (and continues to be) successful it is because we now live in an environment structured by images and their fragments.

Before continuing, there are a couple of caveats that might be offered here. The first is that, irrespective of what the Jacobins might have said about the new order that they sought to create, what actually arose had serious deficiencies of both reason and justice. Arguably, this has a great deal to do with exogenous geopolitical issues as it did with the endogenous problems of Jacobin ideology. Still, it’s fair to say that the outcome bore little relation to the ideals in whose name they were justified. Second, in our own era the decent drapery of society has covered up a great deal that was fundamentally indecent. There is value in a mode of criticism that defetishizes the ideological integument of the existing order. But there is a difference between that and bare faced and ignorant duplicity masquerading as truth speaking.

In place of Burke’s moral imagination, Mr. Trump presents a tormented nightmare of squalid, decaying cities and of brown-skinned hordes streaming across our borders to consume our resources and besmirch white womanhood. For his supporters, the illusions that he strips away are really just the excuses that milquetoast politicians have used to camouflage the selling out of the white middle class. The loss of the sort of jobs that allowed Ward Cleaver to support a wife and two children are not a function of automation and the tendency of capitalism to concentrate wealth at the upper end of the income distribution. Rather it is a combination of non-whites at home and abroad stealing these jobs and of a corrupt political system that hamstrings job creators with unnecessary regulations.

There is a reason why this narrative has power, one that the Democratic Party is by and large unwilling to recognize. The narrative coming out the DNC and the Clinton campaign was that this was a matter of Trump ginning up the anger of the ignorant, and that the situation would be resolved if these people could simply by prevailed upon to reconnect with the better angels of collective nature. Sadly, it was not so. And the reasons are not hard to find. White Americans up and down the income distribution have been drinking the draught of race ever since the founding of the republic. As such, it is hardly surprising that Mr. Trump’s overt racism would play well with the US electorate.

This approach had particular resonance for those in the bottom 80% of the income distribution because it created synergy between hopes (of the return of middle class supporting manufacturing jobs) and fears (of the dissolution of the white race). The difference between Trump and most American politicians (at least since the era of George Wallace) is that he says things out loud that have mostly been whispered or spoken of behind closed doors. Mitt Romney lost traction when his secret speech about American’s being takers became public knowledge. Mr. Trump benefits from stating this variety of claim openly, in part due to his better bona fides in terms of being an outsider. Perhaps the oddest feature of the strange narrative of American political life is that Mr. Trump has presented himself to lower class whites as speaking truth to power.

It is hard engage with American politics these days without developing a rather queasy feeling. If it is arguable that it is a step forward to have stripped away the pettifogging around the naked use of force against perceived opponents at home and abroad, it is nonetheless the case that what we are left with is a set of illusions similarly vile and even more intractable that those that they replaced. To look at the political scene in the United States is to gaze into an abyss of violence, exploitation, and unapologetic racism. Do it long enough and the abyss stares back into you, with leering eyes, a fake tan, and the worst hairpiece ever to blight public life. Given that the forms and modes of the left, from free speech to civil disobedience to critical media, have now been colonized or destroyed by the right, the question that remains is: what strategy can fix this before the rising seas make the question moot?

Photograph courtesy of IoSonoUnaFotoCamera. Published under a Creative Commons license.