American Exceptionalism And Political Violence

Adam Shatz offers some interesting thoughts on dreaming of political violence in the Age of Trump-Bannon:

It’s notable how easily violent thoughts have come to those of us who have known only a single, and much contested, month of the Trump-Bannon era. American exceptionalism may be dead, but it lives on as a habit of mind…in the unprecedented horror we imagine ourselves to be experiencing….It might be useful to think about these fantasies in wider terms, as a way of trying to understand the citizens of other countries, particularly those whom Americans have for the most part refused to sympathise with. We might try, for example, to understand why Palestinians have carried out violent attacks against the people who have occupied them for…half a century. They have been under military rule, without recourse to elections or a fair legal system, much less citizenship, for roughly 600 times as long as we have been under Trump.

Indeed. And we would do well too, to look inwards and closer as well, at the state of communities that have already, for ages now, suffered the kind of political and legal regime we imagine the Trump-Bannon era to resemble. The crisis of mass incarceration and the systematic evisceration of the US Constitution that it has both relied upon and facilitated provides the grimmest reminder that arbitrary search and seizure, detention, arrest, show trials, and cruel prison sentences are already the norm for some American citizens. Innocents make plea deals that send them to jail for years; families are torn asunder; no one reading the formidable corpus of literature on America’s prison and penal system, or the manifestos issued by Black Lives Matter, would imagine that much worse could happen to a black American in the Trump-Bannon era. The heavy-handed knock on the door in the middle of the night at the end of which a young man goes missing, and sometimes ends up dead in police custody? Been there, done that. The road-stop followed by the gunshot, which leaves an unarmed man dead? Been there, done that too. The ACLU received $24 million in donations in the weekend following the issuing of the disastrous ‘Muslim ban’ Trump executive order; it certainly could have used some of those dollars in holding the tide against the assault on the Constitution that drug warriors have been mounting for close to over three decades now.

Why, again, would such an openly declared war not provoke fantasies of violence? America is lucky, very lucky, that the millions of guns floating around in its cities and suburbs have not yet been turned against the armed constabularies who, on the pretext of conducting a War on Drugs, have felt free to promiscuously wage war against entire demographics instead.

The Trump-Bannon era calls for resistance, and resisted it will be. But let us not imagine that this era is exceptional, that the political and legal crisis it showcases is. To do so would be to lapse all too easily to facile self-congratulation, and to let the real work remain undone.

The Republican Party And The Disavowal Of Donald Trump

In response to my post yesterday on the liberal ‘impeachment of Donald Trump’ fantasy, which rests on a fallacious delinking of Donald Trump from the Republican Party, Seth Brodsky writes (over at Facebook):

I agree—passionately—that the desperate attempt to delink the GOP from Trump is…a fantasy. But I don’t think it’s a fantasy held only by liberals, whose very identity as a party of no part, a neutral party, is dependent on it….the GOP has this delinking fantasy too, and it was all too well displayed during the primary. But it’s a fantasy framed in a very different way: Trump is the *essence* of the GOP, but an essence that needs to remain hidden, cached, the principle and not the surplus, something to keep skimming off. He is…the purely libidinal patriarch, the undemocratic king-in-the-flesh, that Republican democracy, always gnawing viciously at its own foundations, has to conceal in order to prop itself up as a kind of democratic subject. In order for the fantasy to operate, and the subject to sustain itself, the object of the fantasy must be held at a distance. It can’t actually show up….Republicans don’t actually want the primal father to show up. They *want to want him,* they want to crow to the ends of the earth about how needed he is, how shameful it is that the world doesn’t give his memory proper respect, how angry he’ll be when he finally returns, how he appeared in a dream to them and demanded, for the love of God, that we stop this nonsense, whatever it is. Which is all to say: they want to enjoy the enormous resentment that comes from His absence.

Brodsky is right here–and I thank him for this interjection of a psychoanalytic take into the proceedings. (I wonder what the Good Doctor would have made of this past election season and of the Trump Twitter feed.) The Republican Party treated Trump like an interloper and a gatecrasher and an ‘outsider’ during the primaries–thus tremendously aiding his election prospects–precisely because he was a rude reminder that this was the true beating heart of the party–just a little too vulgar, a little too overt, a little too clumsy at disguising his plain ‘ol boring Republicanness. This treatment as an outsider allowed Republican Trump voters to feel like rebels and iconoclasts, like pioneers on a new American frontier, one once again populated by hordes of shrieking Injuns (immigrants and Muslims and Black Lives Matter protesters and transgender folk clamoring to use public bathrooms for instance.) If Trump were to come to power, the game would be up; there would be nothing left to complain about. The endless whining and self-pity and moaning would have to stop; conservatives would have to admit they got what they wanted. Their loss would not be special any more. (I am merely amplifying Brodsky’s points here, but it is crucial to make note of how important self-pity is to the Republican image; unsurprisingly, Trump’s twitter feed contains many desperately self-pitying cries. Some of his most overt allies, like the police, are famously afflicted with their own deadly self-pity, the kind that causes them to kill again and again.)

They’ve got their primal father now…it’s a huge threat to their identity. But *not* because it’s external to them. Just the opposite: it’s an alien body at the heart of the party, the basis for their repression, formative and disavowed at once….there are quite a few Republicans out there who are confused as fuck, on the level of action and affect both. They’ve got their daddy now, and are not sure what to do.

Part of the problem, as many Republicans are realizing, is that when the dog-whistle is replaced by the klaxon horn, greater disruption ensues: sure, more of the faithful come out of the woodwork, convinced the Messiah is at hand, but the heretics listen too, and they take to the streets to protest like they never did before.

Where I think Brodsky and I gently disagree is that I think Republicans have begun to reconcile themselves to the presence of this realized fantasy; self-pity and dreams of power are intoxicating but so is power itself. All that accumulated misery of the eight years of watching two beautiful black people in the White House, of the wrong folk getting a little too uppity, has to find an outlet somewhere, and perhaps this regime will provide one.  Self-pity and resentment makes the Republican tumescent; power can bring blissful release.

The Donald Trump Impeachment Fantasy

Wishful thinking is in the air: this presidential incompetence is intolerable, it cannot last. Let us take bets on how long Donald Trump will last before he is evicted from the Oval Office by those who cannot put up with his trigger-happy tweeting, his brazen exploitation of the highest office in the land for personal financial gain, his reckless attacks on the independence of this land’s judiciary, his bizarre, unhinged, deployment of illegal executive orders, his juvenile foreign policy. Trump will be impeached before the year is out, before his term is over.

This is an exceedingly curious fantasy to entertain. Impeachment of a president requires the House of Representatives to vote to do so. (It also requires the Senate to conduct a trial and issue a verdict.) Do the proponents of these bizarre speculations imagine that a House of Representatives which is controlled by the Republican Party will ever float such a motion and act on it? And that a Republican Party-controlled Senate will issue an impeachment verdict to follow up? This the Republican Party that, lest we forget, has voted in lockstep to confirm all of Trump’s cabinet nominees, each one more spectacularly unqualified for the task. (So dogged has its defense of this cavalcade of incompetents been that yesterday, the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell invoked a slavery era rule–during Black History Month–to prevent Senator Elizabeth Warren from reading a letter by Coretta Scott King, written back in 1986, which had opposed Sessions’ nomination to a federal judgeship because of his civil rights record.) This is also the Republican Party that has expressed virtually no public opposition to any of Trump’s policies–they’ve all either been cowed down by his relentless tweeting, or they do not find anything objectionable in his policies. After all, as McConnell put it, ““I think there is a high level of satisfaction with the new administration.”

This is not a party that is going to impeach.

These fantasies remind me, all over again, of the feverish frenzy that broke out during the election season when commentator after commentator wrote about the ‘implosion’ of the Republican Party, its death-throes, its being torn apart by the conflicting impulses that had been induced by the Trump candidacy. Precisely none of that happened. The Republican Party rolled on, won the election, maintained its majorities in both houses, and found itself a new President, who now sits in the Oval Office.

One of the biggest mistakes made by political pundits in writing about the Trump candidacy and the Trump presidency has been to imagine that there is a separation between it and the Republican Party, that this administration represents some radical break with the past, that Republicans of yesteryear were milder, less ideologically unhinged, less racist, less xenophobic, less invested in taking this country to the cleaners. It has let the Republican Party off the hook; but Trump is their creation, he is of a piece with the history of this party. This present moment does not represent a discontinuity or disjuncture with the past; it represents its logical continuation.

Trump will not be impeached by the Republican Party. To hope or wish for it is just that, a fantasy. There are far better fantasies to inform your politics with.

The Tethered Eagle And The Refugee Refused Entry

A little over fourteen years ago, in the fall of 2002, shortly after I returned to the US after finishing my post-doctoral fellowship in Australia, I went to see the Yankees play at the old Yankees Stadium. I had arrived in New York City just a couple of weeks earlier; the Yankees were in contention for the post-season; a date had suggested a baseball game might be a good way to get back to city life; I agreed. I paid no attention to the date of the game she chose to buy tickets for: September 11th.

That evening, I showed up in time for the first pitch. Or so I thought. Once seated, I realized the significance of the date; a memorial ceremony was planned. It included all you might expect: flags, salutes to the military, anthems and paeans to the nation, all backed up by fierce chants of ‘USA, USA, USA!’ The grand finale of the show–one I predicted to my date–was a flyover by a F-15 Eagle fighter jet, which lit its afterburners with a crowd-pleasing ‘whump’ right over the stadium. The cheers grew louder.

That military jet was not the only Eagle on display that night. A little earlier, an American bald eagle had been brought out to the middle of the stadium–an American icon, a national symbol, a beautiful, powerful, bird of prey, used to soaring and pouncing and floating. It came out tethered with a chain to its handler’s wrist, unable to fly, confined to being a prop, and a confined and restricted one at that.

Irony hung heavy in the air.

I’ve never forgotten that sight. 9/11 didn’t just bring down three buildings and kill thousands of people, it also dealt a crippling blow to American liberty. Since that benighted day, the assaults on American civil liberties have grown. Along the way, the US committed war crimes in Iraq (among other countries), tortured prisoners, suspended habeas corpus for Gitmo detainees; and that was just overseas. At home, electoral disenfranchisement and assaults on reproductive rights were but mere samplers of the wholesale assault that seemed to be directed at any and all disempowered groups. (Along the way, America elected a black man whose middle name was ‘Hussein,’ an electoral result that sent enough in this country into fits of apoplectic fury. That fury has never abated; the backlash still reverberates.)

Donald Trump’s executive order banning Muslim refugees entry to the US isn’t surprising in this context–indeed, it’s a logical terminus of sorts. The land of the brave and free was scared enough to shackle its icon of freedom (and preferred to grant wings instead to a military jet named after it)–that seemed to have said all that needed to be said already. Why wouldn’t this land turn its back on its other vital national principles, its supposedly defining moral foundations? This was a country built on the idea that it would offer shelter to the world’s benighted; that idea can’t fly any more either.

Note: The ACLU has obtained a stay order from the Federal Court in the Eastern District of New York against the executive order.  Stay tuned.

That Sneaky Cur, The Defense Lawyer

A quick quiz: When you think of phrases like ‘all lawyers are liars,’ ‘the law is an ass,’ ‘first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,’ what vision of miscarriages of justice come to mind? Do you think of the innocent being deemed guilty, or do you think of the guilty getting off scot-free? Let me venture a guess: it’s the latter. Moreover, I would also surmise that the kind of lawyer you have in mind when these images of law present themselves is a very particular one: the defense lawyer. A sneaky, unethical, slimy, conniving, opportunist who represents the reprehensible, who puts his morals on hold and sallies forth to defend the indefensible, looking for loopholes in the law through which his client may wriggle, away from the grasp of the law and the virtuous society which seeks to prosecute him. Isn’t that really the worst kind of lawyer? The defense lawyers? You know, the ones who defend the ‘guilty’?

We have plenty of cultural representations to thank for this image of the defense lawyer. (I was reminded of this all over again as I sat through the second season of Broadchurch; in the last episode, the assistant prosecutor makes sure to tell the eager assistant defense attorney that she is a ‘horrible person;’ the series makers have done their best till then to drive us to the same conclusion; she is, after all, shown to be the master of the dirty trick, anything to get her client, a murdering pedophile, off the hook.) Remember the phrase ‘all lawyered up’ made so popular by one police and homicide procedural after another? Apparently, policemen and judges and detectives just want to do their work, but those pesky defense attorneys get in the way.

These are strange representations to deal with in a country engaged in the process of a gigantic human rights violation called ‘mass incarceration.’ Here, prosecutors engage all too often in gross misconduct, piling up charge after charge on their initial indictments, which they will then drop down to force accused into plea deals for lesser sentences, thus often forcing the innocent to choose jail time. They strike us as even stranger when we consider that the hardest working species of lawyer is the public defense attorney: overworked and underpaid, staggering under a caseload that would bring the most ardent workaholic to his knees.

This state of affairs is entirely unsurprising. We are a very self-righteous species, blessed with a sense of our own rectitude and of the guilt of others; our insecurity in the former dimension makes us lash out in the latter; our theories of punishment are infected with petty, vicious, vindictiveness. We suspect legal protections for the accused because we do not imagine ourselves ever needing them; they are there merely as smokescreens and obfuscations of the legal process. So those who employ them must be suspect too; they must be sophists and liars, manipulators employing deceitful sleight of hand maneuvers to pull the wool over our collective eyes.

Perhaps we should be more tolerant of the defense lawyer; perhaps we should not rush to judge them too quickly. Prudence bids us do so; we might need one someday.

Wanted: Presidential ‘Leadership’ In North Dakota (#NODAPL)

As I have noted on this blog before (here and here), America is not done with Native Americans yet. You might have imagined that banishment to impoverished reservations was the final insult to historical injury, but apparently much work, like the denial of clean drinking water–the provision of which in certain communities seems increasingly beyond the capacities of our great republic–remains to be accomplished.

Ever since the Standing Rock NODAPL protests began–inviting an impatient, intolerant response by local law-enforcement authorities–a superficial sense of unreality has pervaded proceedings: Are we really, seriously, in the process of yet again violating another treaty with Native Americans? Have we no shame? Matters have worsened, of course. In a delightfully old-fashioned move, one evoking nostalgia for days gone by, as air temperatures have dropped below freezing on the North Dakota plains, police have used water cannon on protesters at nighttime. Some German shepherd dogs and some tobacco-chewing cops speaking in Southern accents were all that were missing from those classic American mise-en-scènes; these provided a salutary contrast to images of policemen chatting with those brave pioneers who occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon earlier this year, and desecrated Native American lands in the process. Sooner or later, the strong arm of the law will descend on the Standing Rock protesters to evict them; their presence is an embarrassment to those who have routed the Dakota Access Pipeline through Native American lands, and to all those who let them do so.

The history of past interactions with the Native American in this land is so sorrowful and shameful, so redolent of betrayal, that the very idea of a paleface not speaking with forked tongue when it comes to land treaties strikes most dispassionate observers as risible. You’d imagine that under these sorts of historical circumstances, politicians would consider it easy to go out on a rhetorical limb, and utter protestations about the need to redress past wrongs, to correct injustice, to suggest there might have been an implicit national agreement–a moral one–to the effect of ‘Never Again.’ Apparently not. For instance, during the election season, Hillary Clinton could only offer a familiar, mealy-mouthed, triangulated response; that attempt at cultivating that mythical creature, the ‘moderate Republican’ failed, and needless to say, it did little to suggest the Standing Rock protests were distinctive in any way. Meanwhile, Barack Obama, perhaps trying not to disrupt his carefully cultivated image as a measured, unflappable, reconciler of extremes, has stayed well above the fray, not deigning to put his considerable presidential authority and prestige on the line in speaking up for the protesters. But time is running out; the Oval Office will soon be occupied by a Wall Street bootlicker; and further waves of exploitation of lands out West will soon commence. The president has nothing to lose, and much to gain. Speaking up on behalf of, and intervening by any means necessary, shouldn’t just be thought of as a political tactic; it should be a moral imperative.

Note: In saying the above, I do not mean to suggest that protests are reliant, dependent on, or cannot proceed without the White House speaking up on their behalf; it would be just, how you say, nice to see a display of moral backbone from those quarters.

Stopping The ‘Muslim Registry’: A Serious Approach

A symbolic act of resistance is being proposed to the Trump administration’s proposed registry for Muslim immigrants to the US: right-minded folks should register as Muslims too. This is an essentially well-meaning gesture of solidarity but it is useless. It will accomplish nothing; it will not prevent the registration of Muslims; and worse, it will make many who support Muslims’ right to live free of pernicious discrimination in this land complacent because they will feel they have done enough, shown enough support. If progressive Americans really wish to prevent the registration of Muslims,  then any strategy that does not involve wide scale civil disobedience and direction is not serious. (Currently, the proposed registry aims to register Muslim immigrants from a list of ‘target’ countries deemed ‘risky’¹; other iterations could include registering all Muslim immigrants; and then the most nightmarish scenario of all, the registration of all Muslims, whether immigrants or not, whether citizens or not, whether US-born or not. There is no reason to not guard against these eventualities given a) Trump’s rhetoric in general and b) the views and opinions of those who support him and will be found in his cabinet. The slippery slope is visible, and it declines steeply.)

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