Last Wednesday I was listening to the morning politics show on WNYC, my local public radio station, when the supposedly innocuous transcript of the phone call between President Trump and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky was released. The host and his guest, Robin Wright from The New Yorker, were gobsmacked. I nearly spit out my coffee.
When asked to comment on it, the President described it as “perfect” and “beautiful” and “a nothing call”. He kvetched for the millionth time that he was the target of a witch hunt by a Democratic party in thrall to “the Radical Left”, the most persecuted individual that there ever was, etc. etc. etc.
The following day the actual whistleblower complaint was released to the public. I wisely refrained from reading the online news and drinking coffee at the same time. I would have short-circuited my keyboard for sure.
Since then, more and more “juice” has come into public view. The cover-up. Trump’s meeting with Russian officials Sergei Lavrov and Sergei Kislyak where he claimed that he was not worried about interference in the 2016 elections because the USA interferes in foreign elections too. The tactic of moving Trump’s other conversations with other foreign leaders like Vladimir Putin and Mohammed bin Salman to a restricted server dedicated to confidential national security matters. That server will, I suspect, play an analogous role to Nixon’s secret Oval Office recordings some 46 years ago.
It is tempting, then, for liberals, leftists, centrists, and sane Never-Trump conservatives, to breathe a sigh of relief that at last, at long last, the political paralysis has been broken in a spasm of shocking news, and that the nation can now return to normalcy. This cathartic sensation is welcome. But it is not wise. Like a patient with cardiac disease who has been told the bypass operation was a success, it would be hasty to conclude that “normalcy” actually has returned, happy days are here again, and we can go on eating cheeseburgers and greasy fries with abandon. The “normalcy” of the recent (and not-so-recent) American past was not so normal. A change in political lifestyle and diet is necessary, lest the arteries clog up again.
Being a Cassandra or spoilsport is not something I relish. But while an energized sense of political reassurance is understandable, it’s not necessarily commendable. And this is for a number of reasons.
First: Donald Trump has consistently behaved like a malignant, narcissistic, sociopathic ignoramus throughout his presidency, indeed his entire career and personal life. As is typical of such a person, he has surrounded himself with careerist enablers who run interference, ruthlessly and heedless of the consequences. (A lucrative career as a Fox News pundit, or a book deal with a large advance, awaits them no matter what happens.) There is thus no indication that Trump will “go” meekly and quietly and every indication that he will resist tooth-and-claw, with lots of assistance. It may be vain to speculate about what he will attempt — endless stonewalling and media-gaslighting, declaring a state of national emergency, calling his fanatical base to rise up and rally to his “cause”, etc. — but that he will attempt something is, I think, a reasonable assumption. Remember: he is Roy Cohn’s golem. Cohn was never one to take an existential challenge lying down.
Second: should Trump be removed, either by impeachment and conviction or the 25th Amendment (suddenly relevant, because anyone that clueless is clearly mentally incompetent), prepare for a new “stab in the back” legend to gain currency on the nationalist Right. This is already shaping up in the rhetoric of Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and the pundit-bullpen of the Fox echo-chamber. Trump and others let the white nationalist genie out of the bottle long before 2016, and it found a sizable audience in resentful, self-satisfied suburban baby-boomers, and (occasionally) the unjustly ignored denizens of the rust-and-farm belts. This condition is not going away with the Trump administration: there are others, far more articulate, consistent, and mentally-organized than he to take his place when the political vacuum pulls them there. The idea of a “President Tucker Carlson” should give pause to everyone gleeful about the possibility of an end to the Trump era. The era will long outlast him.
Third: I think it is time to put to rest the Biden doctrine that Trump was just an anomaly, and that his ouster will usher in a return to the normal politics characteristic of the Obama era and, reaching back further, US politics as it essentially is — bi-partisan and infused with good-feeling. This is sheer silliness. Trump is simultaneously an anomaly and a foregone-conclusion. There is no contradiction between saying Trump is off the scales and the result of long-standing problems inadequately dealt-with or completely ignored. For example . . .
From Reagan clear through to the Clinton and Bush-2 administrations, economic inequality has run roughshod over the bottom 90% of the population (yes, neoliberalism is a “thing”, and an ugly one at that). Ayn-Rand-on-steroids has been a dominant ideology for power elites, except of course when the corporate world, in particular the finance sector, needs a bailout; then, of course, it’s socialism-for-the-rich.
This “it’s-the-economy-stupid” narrative of what’s wrong with America is true enough, but misses or downplays another elephant-in-the-room: racism and white supremacism. This explains the success of propaganda campaigns in right-wing media that the somewhat-comfortable-yet-precariously-so are afflicted not by rich and powerful elites but by the “others” — blacks, Latinos, Muslims, immigrants, city-folk, unpatriotic “libtards”, “bitchy” women, LGBTQ people, and so on. For the propaganda to have taken hold as it did, its audience had to be at least somewhat receptive to its message (yes, racism and sexism and LGBT-phobia are also “things” and not mere epiphenomena of an economic base). And its receptivity is, I think, due in large measure to a kind of idolatry of the nation and its default ideologies, and the idea that they, rather than the others, constitute “real America.” And this is precisely what exceptionalist “nationalism,” as opposed to “patriotism,” means.
Conservatives and liberals alike, when not simply gloating over the sheer awesomeness of global American economic and military power, have parsed “American exceptionalism” as a matter of the United States being “a nation of ideas” as opposed to a Völkische nation of blood and soil and ethnic heritage. This is largely bunk. Whiteness, however it may have morphed over time to include those not North European and Protestant, is baked into the national identity from its true beginnings in 1619, when the first slave ships arrived. But to the extent that the “nation of ideas” trope is true, it is even more alarming, especially if those ideas, steeped in what the political theorist C.B. MacPherson called “possessive individualism”, are taken to be “self-evident” universal ideals. If this kind of necessary universality of American values is true, the national charter is one that all nations should and in their heart of hearts do aspire to. Which means, more often than not, we have a right to bomb or arrest or silence those “others,” deemed hostile to those ideals, into gratitude.
Any successful post-Trump epoch needs to acknowledge that Trump was not just a blip on the national screen. It needs to be as self-reflective, and self-reproaching, as the national soul-searching undertaken by Germans after the horrors of Nazism and the Holocaust. Americans need to knock themselves off their pedestal and acknowledge that we are not God’s gift to the planet, that despotism can happen here, and that, in fact, it did. The aspirational tyranny of Trump and his orcs was very much in the American grain, however over-the-top it was. It traded upon the poisons of white nationalism and xenophobia, traits that have, if not defined the nation, at least generously stained it. The U.S. citizenry has long confused patriotism, a love of country because it is one’s own, warts and all, with nationalism, an idolatry of one’s country as perfect in principle and without qualification.
Moreover: MacPherson’s “possessive individualism”, the notion that “the political” is a realm where self-interested individuals clash and negotiate to be able to do what they can to get what they want, is an ideology for idiots, in the original Greek sense of “idiocy” as the belief that one can and should live and prosper outside a political community. The cult of wealth — the worship of money and power that flows from it — is a key element in American idolatry, sadly not limited to the wealthy and powerful. The conviction that a nation can solve its problems by the application of technical expertise to the goal of unlimited and directionless economic growth (bypassing questions of justice and true human flourishing and common decency), is an unmitigated evil — the idolatry of the economic. It is a sad testament to the chokehold of possessive individualism on the national imagination that of all the current Democratic candidates for the presidency only two of them, Senators Sanders and Warren, address the cult of wealth as a serious problem. It needs to be rejected as the rank idolatry it is.
What is needed for a true political reversal of fortune, then, is a cultural change — the emergence of a genuinely democratic culture. This will be incredibly difficult since cultural changes are glacial in pace, and subject to frequent setbacks. But unless the citizens of The United States of America push in that direction, painfully yet persistently, the Trump fiasco will re-emerge, in time, over and over again. As John Dewey once put it, democracy itself is less a system than a culture, a way of life. That way of life may have been realized only fitfully in the past, but its reinstatement is as urgent as it would be welcome. We can ill afford to fail in this effort by narrowing our vision to a mere “return to normalcy.”