In the final days of 2016, the small island nation of Cuba mourned the passing of a political giant. Meanwhile, next door, superpower America nervously welcomed as the latest occupant of its highest office a gigantic bigot. To be sure, Fidel Castro’s passing was not mourned but celebrated in Little Havana in Miami, while Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton was lamented by most of the Americans who voted in their federal election. The reception of Castro’s passing and Trump’s victory was mixed in Canada too, with the Canadian prime minster being chided in some quarters for an overly effusive recognition of what Fidel Castro accomplished and for an overly circumspect response to the reality that his own bromance with President Obama was over. Now he had to make nice with an avaricious boor, belligerent isolationist, and would-be ethnic cleanser.
It seems like a very long time ago that I was savouring the ironies and sifting the indeterminacies of Castro and Trump sharing the same moment and frame. Those ironies and uncertainties, and the amusement and ruefulness they occasioned in many people, have given way to more general disbelief, mockery, and dread, and to a further elastication of time stuffed with (un)presidential tweets that hijack the news cycle only to frack and falsify its concerns, efforts, and findings.
When the Big Lie enforced by POTUS 45 means all evidence is fake, and all criticism merely the animosity of elites, then the need to know is encouraged or forced to give way to the need to believe. This need then invades the public sphere with all the preventable destructive force of Hurricane Harvey. A cornucopia of lies and contradictions appeals to its own fluency and frequency as the best foundation and impetus for the true, the real, and the homegrown good that will alone make America great again. An appeal to “alternative facts” works to ensure that the burden of the past and the question of the hour lose out to the twittering impulse of the instant. What is to be thumbed? What is to be dumbed?
From the New Deal to The Art of the Deal (1987, etc.)
When one endeavours to understand, as one must, the ominous decline of political leadership in the United States symbolized by the presidency of Donald Trump, an outcome unimaginable in prospect and unspeakable in actuality, one may reach for a comparison with leadership in another time of financial crisis. To measure the Donald against FDR, for example, is certainly tempting. But it is a comparison fraught with dangers and difficulties too.
For instance, it is much too easy to deify Roosevelt in order the more thoroughly to demonize and debunk Trump. And here is precisely where things have to be carefully contextualized rather than caricatured, in order not to overestimate the nature and power of individual leaders occupying high office. In particular, more than ever, we need to pay attention to the economic determinations of the political, so as to avoid depicting Trump as an American aberration or demagogic clown, representing a temporary lapse from manifest destiny into manifest idiocy. How the Donald represents himself is ultimately less important than what and whom he represents.
Make no mistake: Trump is a culmination as well as an aberration.
Trump’s virulently anti-labour, establishment economism confirms the directive role of money in virtually every aspect of American life. Moreover, it does so while subverting and perverting the institutions that this economic system claims to enable and authenticate. For the neolibertine and the neoliberal alike, all other freedoms stem from the freedom of the market and the free flow of capital, doctrine acquired as it may have been at the Trump family table, the Wharton School of Business, and in that avaricious circle displayed in Oliver’s Stone’s Wall Street. Trump the crazy exception is also arguably neoliberalism’s most finished product and favourite son.
An agile but unsustainable post-Depression economic order has produced increasingly unsustainable political consequences. Perhaps most notably, the impoverished notion of the deal, an increasingly venal and simplistic derivative from the idea of a social contract or moral economy, has effectively captured domestic and foreign policy in order to remake them in the president’s image in the glorified backroom that Washington has become. The Oval Office is now the Offal Office where the entrails are read with an inattentiveness as staggering as it is devout. After all, when you pretend to think about it, the world is just so much real estate: an array of opportunities seized or going a-begging until in the take-up they beggar masses of ordinary people here and everywhere.
The contradictions which POTUS embodies and promotes bear witness not only to the deep incoherence of his psyche, discourse, and values, though they certainly do that while echoing through FLOTUS and a family circle that would impress even the Borgias. However, the constitutive contradictions of the economic order have awarded the greatest political prize at a most amazingly cheap rate to the most appropriate yet undeserving of business men by relying on the same lies and violence to satisfy the same greed that Trump and his family are addicted to. In other words, the current morphing of plutocracy into autocracy, wealth translating into the Supreme (now supremacist) Will and Being, has been on or in the cards for some time, especially those cards held and played by casino capitalists.
The New Deal was an admission of past error and a promise of something better, something akin to a fairer deal for a greater portion of the populace. Build that highway! Build that dam! Not, build that wall!
Alas, FDR’s promise has long lost its lustre and traction. In a post-war America armed to the teeth, that promise of the public good nourished by public works has been steadily repurposed to exploit not only millions of Americans but the world’s population and the planet itself. Economic and racial nativism inspire the new Prattle Hymn of the Republic:
My eyes have read the story of the coming of the Don;
He is trumping up the footage with a mix of lie and con;
He has told the biggest whoppers that we’ve ever come upon;
Post-Truth is marching on.
Yet despite the rabid nativism and its trusty dog whistle, all citizens are now apprentices, inside and outside the Beltway, and POTUS can hire them and fire them as and when he pleases. America’s recovered greatness will, it seems, ever more obscenely reward the old rapacity while punishing anew indentured enthusiasts and opponents alike. As usual, only rich lives really matter. What is to be done?
The Jargon of Authenticity and the Rise of Neo-Fascism
While American institutions struggle to maintain the traditional separation of powers so as to prevent the reductio ad tyrranum of Trump’s young presidency, scholar-citizens, activists, and journalists are turning to both familiar and new instruments and platforms to expose and counter the agenda beneath the apparent impetuousness and caprice of a narcissistic nepotist such as the world has rarely seen yet is somehow only too familiar with.
As the consummate exemplar of the contradictions and menace of current capitalism, Trump has triggered what until recently seemed inconceivable and indefensible, namely, the return of the term “fascism” and its cognates into popular discourse and the mainstream media.
A skewed start in the mediascape of terrorism after 9-11 gave rise to the notion of “Islamo-fascism.” However, this soon went away after being linked to a readily documentable “Judaeo-fascism.” (If you can’t have one without the other, then better not have either.) But then the ultimate f- bomb relocated from the political periphery to the political centre as the Middle East changed its threat from an intractable conflict between Israel and Palestine to an unstoppable tide of desperate refugees from countries ranging from Afghanistan to Libya. American-led, Western military intervention was once again reaping a bitter harvest while busily blaming the victims.
Trump, the allegedly unlikely Republican contender and then presidential candidate, looked to anti-immigrant sentiments across Western Europe and to the Brexit vote in the UK for inspiration in developing and using his own levers to manipulate sectoral alienation while scapegoating immigrants and visitors to the United States, especially Latinos and Muslims. Gradually, following the lead of Chris Hedges and other courageous and informed commentators, more and more people drew public analogies with the greatest victory in recent memory for a politics of grievance and pseudo-populism, the one achieved in Nazi Germany. As the Trump-Putin pact revived memories of the Hitler-Stalin one, the deal being done by clandestine proxies and brazen principals looked ever more clearly like a deal with the devil.
In Canada, we have been much too timid or discreet thus far in dealing with the dangers that Trump poses to pretty much everything most Canadians would at least claim to hold dear. If Neo-Nazis, the alt.right, the KKK, and the Proud Boys are emboldened by Trump, then we should be too. But we need to read and reflect before we act. And, yes, that includes committing sociology as well!
Encouragingly, Orwell’s Animal Farm is once again flying off bookstore and library shelves. The text and television serialization of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale exudes dystopian prescience to an audience perhaps more receptive to this work’s admonitions than ever before. And Shakespeare in the park does its usual job of bringing home to audiences the conditions that enable human villainy to thrive inside status and celebrity.
I would recommend two other texts for the times to readers of this blog, Mein Kampf and Theodor Adorno’s The Jargon of Authenticity, for their chilling prescience and much more.
Hitler’s text effectively humanizes him, as his most recent German biographer rightly insists we should do. Hitler’s rage against the media’s “lies” feeding “stupidity and cowardice” is there for all to see from his working title onwards as a key site of struggle. But he also inveighs against “greedy finance capital” in passages that could come from The Leap Manifesto. However, everything plausible over the course of two dramatically uneven volumes is tainted by the underlying contradiction which ties finance capital’s fight against the national interest to “the special help of its most faithful comrade, the Marxist movement.” A populist, nativist, racist appeal to the people rests on a fundamental distortion of political and economic relations. But the attempt to unite the people against opposing ideologies by branding them accomplices can be accomplished only temporarily, and only with the aid of brutal, eventually self-defeating violence on an increasingly massive scale.
Hitler composed his loathsome, inadvertently instructive tract in prison. And anyone attempting to emulate his politics of blame and purification belongs there too. Post-Reich Germany has made itself great again precisely by admitting to and learning profoundly from its Nazi past. Meanwhile, as Marx reminds us in the first volume of Kapital: “However long a series of periodic reproductions and preceding accumulations the capital functioning today may have passed though, it always preserves its original virginity.” Capitalist presentism is validated by the miracle of its own recurrent purity, and expects us to be true believers too. The Immaculate Conception is replaced by a Serial Virginity born of serial violation.
Reading Adorno with Hitler enhances understanding of authoritarian intersectionality while focusing suspicion and resistance still on those who appeal to authenticity as the guarantor of their right to power, or their right to be trusted after a figure like Hitler is toppled. Adorno’s writing is fiercely difficult but worth struggling with even for a short time, for both cautionary and empowering reasons. On the one hand, he and his fellow Frankfurt School intellectuals did not make much a dent in the Nazi project during the thirties and forties, and were forced mostly into exile and/or suicide. On the other hand, they represent the political potential of often arcane critical theory when the enemy so emphatically despises evidence and analysis.
Here, then, with apologies for its difficulty, is a sample of Adorno dealing with the implications of what the Nazis did to language. After the citation, I’ll try to unpack it briefly for the purposes of understanding fascism and aspects of Trumpism.
“In Germany a jargon of authenticity is spoken—even more so written. Its language is a trademark of societalized chosenness, noble and homely at once—sub-language as superior language. The language extends from philosophy and theology—not only of Protestant academies--to pedagogy, evening schools, and youth organizations, even to the elevated diction of the representatives of business and administration. While the jargon overflows with the pretence of deep human emotion, it is just as standardized as the world that it officially negates; the reason for this lies partly in its mass success, partly in the fact that it posits its message automatically, through its mere nature. … The jargon has at its disposal a modest number of words which are received as promptly as signals. “Authenticity” itself is not the most prominent of them. It is more the illumination of the ether in which the jargon flourishes, and the way of thinking which latently feeds it. Thus the important thing is not the planning of an Index Verborum Prohibitorum of current noble nouns, but rather the examination of their linguistic function in the jargon. Certainly not all its words are noble nouns. At times it even picks up banal ones, holds them high and bronzes them in the fascist manner which wisely mixes plebeian with elitist elements…. The jargon—objectively speaking a system—uses disorganization as its principle of organization, the breakdown of language into words in themselves“ (6-7).
Adorno recognizes but is not distracted from linguistic system by what we might call buzz words flaring up within that system. The individual signifier or two (think of Sieg Heil, or SAD!), no matter how powerfully coded, cannot conceal a dependency on syntax for effect beyond the moment, except as incantation. Syntax dictates the rules of combination that make linguistic and political expression part of an unfolding argument or narrative. Syntax can be authoritarian intersectionality at work on the page as well as the stage. Adorno’s shift away from demagogic speech to writing in extenso entails a shift of emphasis from Hitler as self-signifying name to fascism as a dialect or beer hall argot or gangster slang that became the Third Reich’s official language. Adorno brings out with maximum ominousness the politico-discursive assertion of “sub-language as superior language,” taking direct aim at his fellow academics and commercial and bureaucratic elites for being soft on fascism and then fetishing authenticity as its opponent and successor in Germany.
The notion of robotic spontaneity and artful informality speaks across decades to the support system and social movement behind the alternately tele-prompted and impromptu Trump who signals his scripted self as reluctant and inauthentic and his unscripted self as speaking from the heart in a way that got him the top job in the first place. Authenticity for Adorno is not a matter of censorable vocabulary, though the reference to the Vatican Index is multiply apt.
If the tweet is our current epitome of the unguarded and hence sincere, then Adorno would probably warn that the medium and the mindset may reinforce each other in producing the effect of authenticity, but that effect is not confinable or reducible to a single term—noun or adjective or whatever. Draining the swamp, it seems, requires swamping the drains of public media.
Adorno openly mocks the self-monumentalising folksiness of fascism. The social elevation, even apotheosis, of the demotic is for him an illusion produced by a Nurembergian ceremony of conflation (looking for union but pretending resolution) of the elite and the aptly Roman “plebeian.” And the agent of that illusion is not the Führer but fascism, just as it is with neo-fascism in the so-called United States. The people are supposed to exist beyond class in the idea of the nation and then, after 1945, in existential self-awareness. The charismatic leader is succeed by the authentic being while the idea of a collective revolutionary subject is ruled a priori inadmissible where it is not conveniently or zealously forgotten.
Mein Trumpf, not Sein Kampf
One can understand, and to a degree admire, Stern magazine for putting Trump as Nazi on its front cover on August 24, salute, flag, and all. Moreover, one can do so even while conceding that there is in that image the danger of trivializing a catastrophic past and exaggerating the perils of an unnerving present. Yet, I incline to support the editorial decision to go with that front cover, not only as a brave one-off in German-American relations (Du bist kein Berliner!), but because it can be connected to the series of magazine front covers which have reflected or fabricated Trump’s celebrity over the years since The Art of the Deal first brought him such attention.
Those focused on the Hitler-Trump analogy might also point to the fact that both authors relied extensively on authorial ghosts: Rudolf Hess and Tom Schwartz respectively. However, what is more germane, in my view, is the fact that Stern underlines the Hitler-Trump identification with the change of the title of a pseudo-heroic personal narrative from “mine’ to “his.” There is certainly historical warrant for this allusive play, but I think it unduly personalizes the relationship between German fascism and American neo-fascism. My preferred expression above, Mein Trumpf, aims to keep the interpersonal analogy alive so as to alert us to demagogic dangers while placing greater emphasis on the pathetically self-referential branding of everything by a president whose awareness of others and the world around him is so limited that it demands we dig deeper, beyond Pence and the Republicans (and Democrats), or Ivanka and Jared, to Bannon and Spencer, and the other Breitbartistas and white supremacists who simultaneously support the American way and the fascist past. And we need to find where Wall Street might draw the line on isolationism, though with a regard its own bottom line rather than the race to the bottom it enforces on labour inside and outside the United States.
Mein Trumpf suggests for me a story of entitled self-absorption rather than struggle in the context of national defeat and punishment. Name recognition is pursued via self-misrecognition. Trump is of course a fully paid-off member of the “elites” he so relentlessly disparages. But that does not harm him as much politically as it should. He is an iconoclastic iconophile lamenting attacks on Confederate statuary as if they were décor for a Trump Tower. This plays to his base. So he performs contradictions in a different way from Hitler, but to a similar end: the unification of a vengeful citizenry behind a leader only ever impeded by the existing political system and the cosmopolitan/global interests it ‘really’ serves.
Is Charlottesville the New Sharpville?
It is no accident that Goebbels put so much effort and resources into the establishment and management of a Culture Chamber, and that Hans Johst’s line—“When I hear the word ‘culture’ I reach for my revolver”—is so often attributed to Goebbels.
Like Nazification, Neo-Nazification requires multiple forms of violent surveillance, interrogation, and enforcement, including the violence that is censorship. Accordingly, the current debate about the public monuments to Confederate heroes should surprise no-one. It is as much a part of the current national makeover as the presidential pardon granted police chief Joe Arpaio in Arizona for his ultraviral racial profiling of suspected illegal immigrants. The chief, of course, was convicted of criminal contempt of court, and the Commander in Chief’s brand includes explicit and concerted contempt for a judiciary beyond his control. And Trump is predictably supportive of his “representatives” outside the formal structures of government, but his dependency on such allies tells us much about the larger social forces at play, reminding us that the mirror may be filled with one authoritarian image, but that is far from the whole picture.
It is too early to say for sure whether Charlottesville was a turning point like Sharpville was in the struggle against apartheid. What one can with certainty say is that in America under Trump it is a question well worth posing, debating, and posing again. Like all the analogies suggested or alleged here in this blog, it works in some ways but may mislead in others. But telling the difference between the two is necessary intellectual and political work. And I use the term “intellectual” because Charlottesville is not just any “college town,” as the media persistently depict it, but the home of that revealingly mixed academic and civilizational, Jeffersonian project, the University of Virginia. The history of that institution, like the history, old and recent, of Confederate statues in public places in the South and the North, needs serious and urgent review lest a new Jim Crow era arise as prelude to a new Civil War fought on a basis only too similar to that first bloody struggle.
And so I conclude with another question, one that could be mistaken for a tweet but tries its best not to be:
Stone Mountain or Standing Rock, which will tomorrow’s America be?