The Normalization Of Donald Trump

Before the elections of 2016 we were informed at every step of the way that Donald  Trump was a fascist, one to be stopped by any means necessary; we were urged to stop this greatest danger to the American republic ever by throwing our bodies into the breach, by manning the barricades, by storming them. The skies were falling and we were urged to put down whatever it is we were doing and to run out to hold it up in the company of our fellow citizens. Great crises demanded appropriately pitched responses.

Then the elections happened. Many Americans did not hear the call. Some urged the sky to fall. It did.

Now that a fascist has been elected, magically purified and sanctified by something called an ‘election,’ an ‘expression of the people’s will,’ because ‘the people have spoken,’ fascism is no longer so. Outgoing presidents who spent months mocking and villifying the orange harbinger of doom now welcome him, wish him the best, and make known their willingness to support him at every step; defeated opponents urge gracious acceptance of defeat and future cooperation on joint endeavors; the commentariat and the joint orders of the journalistic pundit class unite in describing any protests at this stage as strategically and tactically misguided, as ungracious failures to accept that democracy is working. (Unsurprisingly, that cabal of gangsters, the Republican Party, has already made nice, and is looking forward to the spoils of power.)

The water grew muddied for a while; it must be bade settle down, calm itself, and cease its restlessness. There is work to be done, money to be made, stock exchanges to be placated. There is talk of ‘coming together’ and being ‘stronger’–all the better to calmly, quietly, quiescently, accept and reconcile ourselves to the presence of Donald Trump as president.

The language used in describing Trump spoke of dark, dangerous, radical thoughts threatening to roll over America; they spoke of how deeply held political convictions were to be laid aside for the sake of rolling them back, back over the dark horizon that had produced them. The language used to describe our supposed interactions with Trump seems animated by entirely disparate sentiments: don’t rock the boat, all hands on board, the ship is sailing onward and we must lend our efforts to Captain Trump of the USS US.

America needs to make up its mind. Is this man a danger to the American republic or not? If he is, then let us not speak of biding our time for protest, or of extending him the usual courtesies extended to this nation’s leaders. Conventions of courtesy are dangerous luxuries when dealing with existential dangers; and my desire to preserve the wild and extend a lending hand to wildlife stewards will take a rapid backward step when confronted with a wild animal threatening my family.

If Donald Trump is truly a racist fascist with his hands on the nuclear button, if he does intend to implement a racist and xenophobic police state, he is going to need to be greeted with more than a protest march at the inauguration, a banner drop at the State of the Union address.

Paramilitary Organization Endorses Fascist; Nation Worries

Friday brought us the most frightening news of this terrible election season:

The National Fraternal Order of Police, a 330,000-member union of law enforcement officers, has endorsed Donald Trump for president.

“Our members believe he will make America safe again,” FOP President Chuck Canterbury said in a statement. Trump “seriously looked at the issues facing law enforcement today” and “understands and supports our priorities.”

It is important to not understate the import of this announcement. The police is an armed–to the teeth, with surplus military equipment–paramilitary organization, dedicated to the maintenance of law and order; they possess a monopoly on the use of deadly force and the exertion of violence in the business of law enforcement. The rule of law is exerted against the citizenry by their efforts. They stand–like a ‘thin blue line’–between the citizenry and the depredations of criminals, and also between the citizenry and those who rule. On this latter front, protests are policed by the police; they may disperse them, arrest those who protest, and may, with varying degrees of violence, render those protesting unable to do so any more. When such an organization endorses a politician who expresses utter contempt for both the letter and the spirit of the rule of law, speaks casually about trashing constitutional protections, and hints darkly at mass deportations and reprisals against minorities, it is but natural to wonder what role such a paramilitary organization envisages for itself in the glory days of authoritarian lawless rule that beckon?

Matters look worse when we look a little closer at the particulars of the endorsement by the New England Police Benevolent Association, which has 5,000 members across Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Its executive officer, Jerry Flynn, said that their groups decision came down to “What…the next president of the United States [is] going to do to unite this country in an effort to save police officers? Because it’s open season on police officers”; Flynn went to say that electing Trump was in “best interest of our members.” This mention of an ‘open season on police officers’ echoes the lowest canard consistently promulgated by apologists for the police: that Black Lives Matter and related protests against police racism, brutality, and murder, have led to, if not directly caused the recent killings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge. This indicates that as before, the police remain afflicted by a ‘deadly‘ defensiveness; they remain committed not viewing their own chosen methods and tactics of policing as a problem worth protesting against.

When a nation’s police turns its self-pitying eyes to a fascist and finds succor there, we have considerable cause to alarmed. It has offered up its loyalties and made them clear: it stands against the people. With little exaggeration, this gesture looks like the self-annointment of a fascist storm-trooper outfit. As I noted in my Facebook status when I posted the above link: “They also put in a request to change the color of their shirts from blue to brown.” Goose-steppers of the world unite and all that.

Justice Hugo Black, The Ku Klux Klan, And The Trump Candidacy

In 1914, Hugo Black–a future Supreme Court Justice–was elected solicitor, or district attorney in Birmingham, Alabama. He lobbied to improve prison conditions for both black and whites, and even published a report on coerced confessions. As a trial lawyer, he had successfully represented a black man who had been imprisoned twenty-five weeks beyond his original sentence. But he remained a prisoner of his time and place.

After a stint as district attorney, Black became a personal injury lawyer, and showed himself a master of the racial dog whistle. In one case, he defended a Protestant minister, E. R. Stephenson, accused of murdering a Catholic priest, James Coyle, who had performed the marriage of the minister’s daughter, Ruth, to a Puerto Rican laborer, Pedro Gussman. During his questioning of prosecution witnesses, he asked several of them, “You’re Catholic, aren’t you?” Later, he asked for floodlights to be installed in the courtroom, and had them shone on the decidedly not-white Puerto Rican bridegroom during his testimony, saying that he “just wanted the jury to see that man.” And then, during his closing argument to the jury, many of whom were members of the Ku Klux Klan, Black recited the Ku Klux Klan prayer, “Our father and our God. We, as klansmen, acknowledge our dependence upon Thee.” The jury voted to acquit.

In 1923, Black joined the Klan as a prelude to running for Senate. During his electioneering, Black marched with the Klan and spoke at over a hundred meetings, all the while decked out in Klan robes. He struck many populist and nativist themes in his stump speeches, railing against corporations and income inequality and immigrants. In 1926, he was awarded, and happily accepted, the Klan’s ‘grand passport’ after winning the Democratic Party’s primary. When a clerk asked him why he had joined the Klan, Black replied, “Why, son, if you wanted to be elected to the Senate in Alabama in the 1920s, you’d join the Klan too.”

As Black’s biography shows, racist and nativist populists who rose to power are not unknown in American political history; neither is their skilled deployment of race-baiting techniques and their sounding of dog whistles. The artful politician can invite the sympathy of the working class by concentrating on those issues that address their economic bottom line even as he appeals to their baser instincts by readily finding scapegoats among the usual suspects: foreigners and people of color. Donald Trump has learned his lessons well, even if there is little evidence he burned any midnight oil reading the biographies of Supreme Court Justices. He’s not alone in imbibing these lessons, of course; most of the Republican Party have been diligent students of their dark arts. Trump has just done it better.

And so Trump might yet say to someone who would ask him why, during the election season of 2016, he went on tirades against Mexicans and Muslims, welcomed the support of white supremacists, accused Federal judges of bias, and sought to ban an entire class of immigrants from the nation, “Why son, if you wanted to be the Republican Party’s presidential candidate in the new millennium, you’d been a fascist too!”

Note: This post is cribbed from Jeffrey Rosen‘s The Supreme Court: The Personalities and Rivalries That Defined America (Times Books, New York, 2006, pp. 136-137).

Fascism In American Iconography

As the United States of America prepares for the eventuality that on 20th January 2017, John Roberts, the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, could swear in an orange-haired fascist with a tiny penis as the US’ next President, it is worth reminding ourselves that the aforesaid toupeed individual would take the reigns of power in a nation whose iconography bears testimonial to an older and perhaps abiding fascination with the kind of strength and valor that his ostensible political philosophy claims to embody. By the end of the Trump presidency, it is entirely possible that this body of work will be enhanced by similarly inspired works of art–commissioned, of course, by the White House.

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Donald Trump’s Allies: Our Craven Media (And Our Apathy)

Here are some damning statistics (reported by the Washington Post) from “the Tyndall Report, which tracks the airtime that the various flagship news programs on NBC, CBS and ABC dedicate to a variety of stories.”

Quick, depressing, highlights:

1. The Republican primary race received more than twice as much coverage as the Democratic contest. (The larger number of candidates perhaps necessitated this but undoubtedly their illiterate pronouncements made for better copy.)

2. Donald Trump has received more airtime (234 minutes) than the entire Democratic field (226 minutes).

3. Joe Biden, who is not running for president, got far more coverage (56 minutes) than Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont (10 minutes), who is running.

4. As Nate Silver pointed out on Twitter: “There are (slightly) more Bernie supporters than Trump ones, but Trump has gotten 23X more network news coverage.”

(Donald Trump and the rest of the xenophobic, racist, nativist, Republican candidates have not just received ample, disproportionate prime-time coverage; rather, when they have gone on air, their fact-challenged assertions have gone unchallenged. )

Some twenty or so years ago, in the course of a conversation with a disgruntled academic whose career had been spun off into the backwaters–thanks to the usual depressing combination of overzealous gatekeepers, unimaginative senior academics, and unsympathetic university administration–I heard him blurt out in disgust, “Scum rises to the top.” Yes, well, it does, but it needs help too from forces that impel it upwards.

Fascists and demagogues don’t magically acquire power; they draw it from their environment. In his rise to the top, or his race to the bottom, depending on your perspective, Trump has been aided and abetted by a media corps that prefers sensation over substance. This is not a new complaint in the American political context, but it needs to be made and aired yet again just so that when the time for reckoning comes, when the smoke has cleared, and this nation will–hopefully–wake up from this nightmare, blame can be apportioned fairly. (Even if uselessly.)

The problem, of course, is the insanity created by the election ‘season,’ which with each passing year becomes lengthier, more expensive, and as such, ever more vapid and offensive. Television channels run twenty-four hours a day; they need content and ratings and sponsors; and political candidates supply it. A vicious feedback cycle is rapidly created: Trump says outrageous things; other candidates try to match the bid; supporters in the respective camps take the rhetoric to newer depths; and all of this then makes it back to the newsroom. (I’ve never been happier about my decision to have cancelled my cable subscription a few years ago.)

Over at Corey Robin‘s blog, he asks what is to be done, besides gnashing our teeth, were Trump to come to power.  This is an excellent question (even though Robin seemingly only directs it at the ‘professoriat’): after all, it is unclear whether Trump will provoke serious in-the-streets resistance were he to become President. This is a nation that let a presidential election get stolen in 2000, which does not punish mass murderers and war criminals like the Cheney-Bush-Rumsfeld troika, and whose population is narcotized by television and long working hours.

Long dark nights and all that.

Donald Trump, Sabbatai Zevi, And The Unchastened Devotee

I have made note, here, of a habit of mine intended to prompt writing:

Sometimes I scribble little notes to myself…prompted by observations while walking…by a passage read in a book…a scene in a movie. Sometimes they make sense when I return to them…and an expanded thought based on them finds its way into my writing…

It doesn’t always work:

But sometimes…they make little or no sense. I have no idea what prompted them…This forgetfulness stems…from their provenance. When I write them down, I am possessed by a panic that the momentary thought will disappear, leaving no trace behind. So, cutting corners, I rush to commit to permanence [leaving out some perhaps necessary detail].

Today, I am confronted with another example of that genre:

Sabbatai Zevi and the Republican fallen

I am not sure what prompted this thought but Donald Trump and his followers prompt a few responses.

Many fascist leaders have portrayed themselves as messiahs. They attract a following, the admiring attention and devotion of those who find in their blunt, intemperate messages the promise of a salvation, a deliverance, from their own messy lives (as all human ones are.) These followers scurry after their New Prophet, unwilling and unable to accept the often mounting evidence that their ‘leader’, their ‘redeemer.’ is anything but. Mostly, they follow him over a cliff, but tragically, not before they have pushed a few innocents from those same ramparts themselves. And then, suddenly or not, the ostensible Messiah is no more, literally or figuratively: he becomes an apostate, or meets death, at his own hand or at those of others. When he departs, his followers may find themselves akin to those who wake up from a nightmare in which they remember themselves as the possessed, sleep-walkers and zombies of a kind. They might look around, at each other, and wonder what demonic forces coursed through their body and mind, committing them to courses of action which now serve as causes of regret and dismay.

It is too early to tell how and when the spectacle of the Trump will conclude. Perhaps he will crash and burn in the Republican primaries; perhaps he will be defeated by party machine maneuvers, perhaps he will be nominated by the Republican Party and then, find defeat at voting stations. (I continue to be resolutely optimistic that he will not be this nation’s next President.)

But I do not think his defeat will be chastening for him or his followers. For Trump, it will mean, as is usually the case in a culture that rewards such bad behavior, a book deal, or perhaps even a new television show. For his followers, convinced of conspiracy and informed by rumor and innuendo, it will be the signal to commit anew to a new struggle. Perhaps with renewed vigor and determination, with an eye firmly on 2020.

The real damage done by Trump is not the uncorking of the fascist genie (that’s been out and about for a while); rather, it is his–and the Republican Party’s–coddling, nourishment, and elevation to national prominence and respectability of that force–all by their placing it on the most exalted American political stage of all.

We will pay the price for this insanity for a long time. In many different and difficult ways.

Heard The One About Fascists, Socialists, And Murderers?

In Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny (W. W. Norton, New York, 2006, pp. 6-7), Amartya Sen, in the course of asserting how ‘our freedom to assert our personal identities can sometimes be extraordinarily limited in the eyes of others’, slips in the following:

[S]ometimes we may not even be fully aware how others identify us, which may differ from self-perception. There is an interesting lesson in an old Italian story–from the 1920s when support for fascist politics was spreading rapidly across Italy–concerning a political recruiter from the Fascist Party arguing with a rural socialist that he should join the Fascist Party instead. “How can I,” said the potential recruit, “join your party? My father was a socialist . My grandfather was a socialist. I cannot really join the Fascist Party.” “What kind of argument is this?” said the Fascist recruiter, reasonably enough. “What would you have done,” he asked the rural socialist, “if your father had been a murderer and your grandfather had also been a murderer? What would you have done then?” “Ah, then,” said the potential recruit, “then, of course, I would have joined the Fascist Party.”

Dunno about you, but when I read this, I chuckled long and hard. This is genuinely knee-slapping stuff.

Analyzing a ‘joke’ is a decidedly unfunny business, but I’m going to press on regardless.  There are three levels on which this story ‘works.’

First, of course, is the partisan one. We laugh because we think the Fascist recruiter, the representative of a murderous regime, received a rather effective and witty, even if perhaps unwitting, comeuppance from someone he might have considered his political and intellectual inferior. It’s good to laugh at Fascists–pompous, brownshirted, jackbooted types, all of them.

Second, the story conveys the impeccable logic of both interlocutors quite well. The Fascist recruiter, as Sen notes, picks apart the ‘fallacy’ of the socialist: Why should your ancestors’ political commitments be so determinative of your current political commitments? The socialist, in response, relies on a supposedly inductive extension of what seem to be his family’s predelictions in the counterfactual state just described for him: All members of this clan thus far indulge in activity X, therefore so will I (in the current political manifestation of X.)

Third, and this might be the reason for the story’s enduring appeal, we recognize within it an abstract formal schema that can be pressed into service across variations in time and space and political commitment. This may be easily demonstrated by my twist on the tale:

There is an interesting lesson in an old American folktale–from the early 2000s when support for Republican Party politics was spreading rapidly across the US–concerning a political recruiter from the Republican Party arguing with an urban progressive that he should join the Republican Party instead. “How can I,” said the potential recruit, “join your party? My father was a socialist . My grandfather was a socialist. I cannot really join the Republican Party.” “What kind of argument is this?” said the Republican Party recruiter, reasonably enough. “What would you have done,” he asked the urban progressive, “if your father had been a hypocritical sexist racist and your grandfather had also been a hypocritical sexist racist? What would you have done then?” “Ah, then,” said the potential recruit, “then, of course, I would have joined the Republican Party.”