Mary Trump, in her urgently important tract Too Much and Never Enough, reveals that the Trump paterfamilias, Fred Trump Sr., had a singular devotion to Norman Vincent Peale’s popular self-help manual, The Power of Positive Thinking. Peale’s mantra was that the disappointments and failures in one’s life were the effect of your worldview and the self-understanding that goes along with it. If you are a downer, depressed and floundering, this explains your failure. If you are a success, self-possessed and content, it is a sign that your attitude is correct. For Peale and his acolytes Hamlet was right, even if the prince was aiming to manipulate Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, when he opined “[There] is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” (Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2, 249–251) Thus if you are not who you want to be and — more importantly — things are not what you wish they were, change your attitude, otherwise you have no one to blame but yourself.
The kind of easy optimism expressed by Peale disguises an abyss of narcissism. Everything depends on how you think about things, and how you think about things rests on the attitudes you bring to bear on the world by sheer force of will. This is, frankly, insane. It’s solipsism. The outrage hurled by Conservative intellectuals at Postmodernists like Derrida and Foucault in the 1990s academic culture wars — remember them? — was directed at the wrong target: they should have had cracker-barrel solipsists like Peale in their sights. Whatever questionable assumptions were made by so-called Postmodernists, they were not solipsists. They may or may not be wrong to insist that there’s “nothing outside the text”, but none of them thought you could make of the text whatever you wished it were. Peale’s demented optimism of the will is not deconstruction or genealogy. It’s a schizoid fantasy.
The Trump family fabric is woven with such fantasy. It should surprise no one that hidden within Peale’s seemingly anodyne advice is a malignant obsession with power and control, but also a desire doomed to fail, since it refuses to touch base with the real. It advances a strangely worldless power and control. Any such triumph of the will is doomed to shatter when reality does not cooperate.
The dime-store pseudo-Nietzschean positive thinking peddled by Peale and Trump Sr. has wide currency in US culture. It jells nicely with our self-image as the iconic, indispensable, can-do nation. It infects not only Conservatives but Liberals and Centrists, and not a small number of Left-Radicals. But let’s pause for a moment and get real. Easy-going optimism is an evasion of responsibility, an unwillingness to acknowledge the claims that the world makes on us in real-time. Positive thinking is an infectious disease of the mind that destroys our intellectual and practical DNA. It turns kidding ourselves into a categorical imperative.
We need to cut it out and stop kidding ourselves. Especially on the following two issues.
1 — He IS a Fascist
For some odd reason, “14” seems to be a talismanic number for Fascism. The literary theorist and novelist Umberto Eco, in a 1995 essay in The New York Review of Books, listed fourteen characteristics of what he called “Ur-Fascism”, shared properties of all forms of far-Right nationalism. They included: the “Cult of tradition”, irrationalism, contempt for disagreement and dissent, blood-and-soil national identity as the only worthy form of identity, contempt for the weak, machismo and misogyny and loathing of all kinds of “softness”, and “Selective populism”, among many others.
Scan Eco’s list. Each of the earmarks of “Eternal Fascism” is operative here in the United States of America. It’s clear as glass.
In 2003, Political Scientist Lawrence Britt wrote an article, “Fascism, anyone?”, in the secular humanist journal Free Inquiry, which also served as a fourteen-point checklist for identifying Fascists and Fascism. I do not know if Britt knew of Eco’s list: while there is some correlation between them, they cite different attributes of Fascist regimes as well. As Britt does not reference Eco, I assume the former was not aware of the latter’s essay.
Among Britt’s Fascist items are: disdain for human rights, obsession with national security, scapegoating of minorities, religion and the regime’s ruling elite being tied together, the protection of corporate power, the suppression of labor, contempt for intellectuals and universities, rampant cronyism and corruption, fraudulent elections.
Now scan Britt’s list. Each of these was operative in the United States except the 14th point. But that item can be checked off as of yesterday, with the President’s tweet about postponing the scheduled elections on November 3.
One could quibble with either Eco’s or Britt’s checklists. But taken together, and set against the context of current events, such quibbling is getting harder and harder to pull off. It is comforting to think that however bad Donald Trump is as US President, he is nothing like Hitler or Mussolini or Franco or Pinochet. But this comfort is akin to Peale’s positive thinking. It is opium for the punditocracy. Trump is an ignoramus and a fool, yes. (Note, however, that many across the political spectra of 1930s Germany and Italy thought the same of their emerging leaders.) But he is clever, and a genius at one thing and one thing only: manipulating masses of people. He leaves the hard, intellectual grunt-work to Barr and Pompeo, each of whom zealously endorse all the items on Eco’s and Britt’s lists. We knew their ideological mind-set long ago: 2015, the year of the escalator-ride to hell. We have no excuse to keep kidding ourselves now.
It has been common among the commentariat to downplay Trump’s Fascistic rhetoric: “he’s just throwing raw meat to his base”, “He is incapable of any loyalty to an ideology since he only cares about himself”, “He is held in check by McConnell and other ‘adults’ in the room”. The first two excuses are irrelevant: even if he is just exciting his fawning base, or is simply playing the Fascist, the net result is the same, i.e., Fascism. And the last excuse lost its plausibility long, long ago.
Fascist-talk is disconcerting. Conservatives don’t want to utter the F-word because they fear it implicates them in its American dawn. (They are right.) Liberals and Centrists don’t want to utter it because it might backfire and damage their political and electoral prospects, and because it tarnishes their image of the United States as an imperfect union that remains sound at its core. And many Leftists don’t want to use it because it diverges from their ur-narrative that it is the Centrist Democratic Establishment that is to blame for making too many compromises with the Right, and for leaning-in to corporate interests. But this won’t wash anymore. To coin a cliché, it is what it is. Time to go there.
I have a great degree of sympathy with the Left argument about Democratic timidity and its embrace of corporatism, and that the problem that brought us Donald Trump antedates his entry into the scene of national politics. But I have scant patience with the tendency on the part of some on the Left to claim that Republicans and Democrats are morally and politically equivalent, and that purity-of-heart is to will one thing, i.e., the collapse of both parties in the face of America’s true affection for Left ideals. This is naïve — dangerously naïve — on two fronts. First, it assumes that political victory for progressives will come easily and without compromise; that all that is needed is a Sanders or Warren or “squad” to set Social Democratic/Democratic Socialist policies in motion. Second, it assumes that the USA is, in its heart of hearts, a center-Left nation, the aspirational republic of Whitman and Thoreau and Emerson.
The first assumption is naïve because politics is a long slog, and democratic politics demands compromise. You don’t always get exactly what you want, you give a little and take a little, and keep your focus on the long-term goals as you hack out the short-term ones. Put more bluntly: one should avoid eating shit, but if you refuse to eat shit even on the rare occasion, you will accomplish nothing. Unless you actually like to lose.
Now I too roll my eyes at the journalistic output of Conservatives like David Brooks and George Will, and Centrists/Liberals like Timothy Egan or Roger Cohen or Nicholas Kristof , just as the pure-of-heart Leftists do. But I am not going to dismiss their present political horror at the Trumpian nightmare as not worth respecting because not sufficiently “Left.” For now, they’re allies, or should be thought as such. The alliances won’t last. But you can make common cause with them for now. They are not Fascists, with whom you can’t and shouldn’t deal.
The second assumption is dangerous because it is sheer hubris. Even a cursory glance at American history shows that while every so often there are periodic episodes of progressive-populist sentiment, they last about twenty to thirty years and then disintegrate. Think: prairie populism, Wisconsin progressivism, New Deal, Great Society. America’s heart is not on the left, because its political culture is not deeply democratic, or liberal, or republican. Its political culture is guided by variations of acquisitive or possessive individualism, the idea that you get what you need in order to do as you wish, and then a little bit more for a rainy day or a night on the town. The American Dream, as it is usually expressed, is that each generation becomes more prosperous and thus more comfortable than the preceding one. This dream of eternal comfort is the key element of US mythology; like all myths, it’s aspirational, and rarely is it realized, and lots of people are permanently shut out from it. It is the “suburban lifestyle dream” which the President has tweeted out to oppose fair housing efforts, a barely-disguised appeal to innate racism and contempt for those individuals who possess less. But it is a vile dream nonetheless. It is the Cult of Wealth. This is what the Left is dealing with. It’s high time it realized it has a steep uphill battle with the majority.
The Left needs to embrace its status as marginal and work inwards from this periphery. It could become mainstream, yes, and the surprising success of Sanders and Warren and “Squad” attests to this. But this won’t happen overnight, and it won’t happen by vague appeals to the will of the people. Between 35% and 40% of “the people” aren’t listening. At least not now. Contempt for forging alliances with anti-Trump forces not on the periphery — I am speaking of Lincoln-project Republicans and Democrats who are comfortable with the Biden candidacy — will only ensure that the Left will remain there.
2 — He CAN get away with it.
After the President tweeted that it might be wise to postpone the November election, given Covid-19 and the purported corruption of mail-in voting, the prevailing sentiment of commentators was — “relax, we got this.”
So we have heard much of the following verbiage. “The election date is set by law for the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. It can only be changed by a Congressional ruling, and Nancy Pelosi is never going to let that happen. Besides, the Constitution itself mandates the end of the Presidential term on January 20th, at 12pm. If Trump refuses to leave, the Secret Service will escort him out of the White House. The tweet is just noise, a distraction sent just at the moment of the announcement that the GDP experienced the greatest drop in history during the second quarter of 2020, that Joe Biden leads in the polls, that troops were being pulled out of Germany in a Trump-hissy-fit, etc. Don’t sweat it. Relax.”
An alternative narrative, a shade more nervous, went like this: “this is an effort to set things up for an attack on the legitimacy of the November 3rd election, not an attempt to circumvent it. It’s serious enough to push back — to ensure wide access to mail-in voting, to legally challenge attempts at voter suppression by Republican districts, and to ensure a massive turnout at the polls to show a decisive Biden victory and mandate. So, yes, worry. But our Constitution is still functioning.”
These hard and soft versions of “relax, folks” are false counsels. Trump’s tweet is alarming, less noise than a shot across the Constitutional bow. It is the equivalent of a camera-drone scouting the terrain of the Rule of Law to determine its weakest points. When a founder of The Federalist Society — the Federalist Society! — writes an op-ed in The New York Times affirming that the tweet itself is grounds for impeachment and conviction, you know we have passed through a portal into a new reality. Fascism is no longer looming up in the ether watching from a safe distance: it is circling around and focusing on the front door.
Masha Gessen, in her book Surviving Autocracy and elsewhere, has cautioned Americans to believe what the aspiring dictator says, and to realize that institutions will not save us. Maybe the aspirational tyrant has neither the brains nor the brawn to pull off a Putsch, but that certainly does not mean he will not try. Trump, with this tweet, and the mobilization of a Federal secret police in Portland and elsewhere, is trying. Now.
And US institutions, however noble and worthy of preservation, will not save us because they have normative force only to the extent that citizens acknowledge and respect them and will defend them in a crisis. The Liberal-Democratic-Republican practices these institutions preserve and protect need to be shored up by a shared commitment to the rules, norms, and ideals written up in the Constitutional charter. But none of this ink-on-paper means a thing unless one respects a certain conception of politics — a political culture that is, above all else, Liberal, Democratic, and Republican. This is something that the USA has long had difficulties sustaining.
There are many different conceptions of politics relevant to our present predicament. One traces its ancestry back to Thomas Hobbes, and in its most recent incarnation is most forcefully represented by Carl Schmitt, the far-Right German legal scholar who not only made his peace with the Nazis but provided them with a legal rationale for their crimes.
Schmitt’s basic thought is that politics rests on the hard-and-fast distinction between “friend” and “enemy”. Political action is agonistic: one advances the cause of one’s friends, and one seeks to dominate and subdue one’s enemy. Politics is civil war — sometimes literally, more often metaphorically, but it is always a matter of winning and losing. It is a zero-sum transactional game. If this sounds like the Lebensphilosophie of the Trump family and their cronies in government and business, well, it is.
Moreover, for Schmitt, political legitimacy rests on how one plays one’s political hand in marginalizing the enemy. “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception”, as Schmitt puts it in the opening sentence of his tract Political Theology. In Schmitt’s day, the exception was the Reichstag fire; following that Adolf Hitler played his hand and played it well. The enemy — all the other Weimar political parties — was dissolved, and the SA and SS made sure that the body politic was compliant.
It is not hard to see the Schmittian parallels at work in the USA today. Trump has assembled his own private Schutzstaffel and Gestapo in the DHS personnel and Military Police occupying Portland, Seattle, and “coming soon to your city”. Protesters are being re-described as anarchists and “the radical left-wing mob”, and “mail-in voting” is fraudulently re-described as itself a fraud. The coronavirus provides a measure of cover for this internal policing of borders: it is a deterrent for sustained mass protest, along the lines of the Arab Spring, Orange Revolution, and the Puerto Rican movement against Rosselló. And it provides a rationale for a grab at complete sovereignty, the only kind of sovereignty worth having from a Schmittian perspective.
There are alternatives to Schmitt’s conception of politics. One of them is James Madison’s constitutionalism: a written constitution sets up institutions that ensure a separation of powers and assemble the machinery of policymaking and governance. Madison’s project, however, is glued together by respect for the institutions and their norms. Once they have been subverted, the machinery is useless. The machinery of Madisonian government could be re-assembled and tuned-up, but only if there is a groundswell of respect for it. Madison’s project is in shambles.
Hannah Arendt viewed politics as a space where citizens can debate and, in their freedom, create new forms of association, new projects to pursue. John Dewey viewed politics as flowing from a genuinely democratic culture, where the well-being of individual and community are dialectically intertwined, and the pursuit of the common good realized through dialogue and cooperation. John Rawls viewed politics as a “social union of social unions”, where public reason establishes the ground-rules for individuals to pursue their own idiosyncratic “comprehensive visions” of the good. There is much to be said, in praise and criticism, of these visions of the political sphere. But they only make sense, as plausible options, when the political atmosphere is not Schmittian. For the Schmittian knows only victory and defeat. An inclusive polity, where citizens not only debate policy but meta-debate different visions of what the political sphere could be, is for the Schmittian a contradiction in terms.
US Politics, thanks to the efforts of Newt Gingrich, Fox News, and the Trump cabal, is now utterly Schmittian. This may be reversible, but that’s not a foregone conclusion.
The dilemma that the citizens of the United States of America face is this. How does one conduct one’s public life in a Schmittian polity when one is not a Schmittian? If you grasp the first horn of the dilemma, you become what you do not want to be — a player of the ugly zero-sum, friend/enemy Schmittian game. If you grasp the second, you remain faithful to the norms and ideals of Liberal Republican Democracy, but you will fail because the Schmittian does not play by those rules. Is there a way between the horns of this dilemma?
I remain unsure about how to answer this question. But it is clear to me that we cannot force the Schmittians to “play fair”, on neutral ground. There is no neutral ground for the Schmittian. I have been trying to argue that while not all Schmittians are Fascists, all Fascists are, in some way, Schmittians. As are Trumpists. And Schmittians take no quarter.
Resistance movements, such as Black Lives Matter, need to be aware of this, and the example of the late John Lewis is instructive. Lewis led protesters across the Edmund Pettus bridge, and had his skull fractured by the Selma police goon-squads in the process. But the non-violent resistance that he and Martin Luther King practiced bore fruit: segregationists may have had a tactical victory but suffered a strategic defeat at the hands of their enemies in the Civil Rights movement. It is no accident that the key political event of the 1960s was the Civil Rights movement, however incomplete its success. King, Lewis, and their fellow dissenters knew that they were not facing fellow citizens ready to engage in debate with good will toward all. They were facing their enemies because the segregationists saw them only as the enemy. They squared off against the Selma police as a movement of colleagues confronting a common enemy, because they had no other options in a Schmittian stand-off. But Lewis’s success, and his nobility, rested in the way in which he confronted the enemy — not with hatred, but with a kind of sacrificial love, a willingness to suffer injustice for the sake of a better nation, a more perfect union, and the possibility of converting at least some of the enemies into friends.
So, let’s stop kidding ourselves. This is serious. We know who thinks of us as the enemy. And we know who the enemy is. We need to acknowledge this, and not succumb to the dormitive power of positive thinking. And to resist with justice and sound judgment rather than rage.