“There died a myriad, /And of the best, among them, /For an old bitch gone in the teeth, /For a botched civilization . . .” Ezra Pound, (Thus proving again the old adage that a stopped clock is right twice a day.)
As I write this, 114,669 people in the United States of America have lost their lives to the COVID-19 virus. Over 2 million people have been infected since the virus made its initial appearance in February. (Perhaps 40% of those deaths would have been avoidable if federal and state officials did their job and, like the governments in Iceland and New Zealand and South Korea, conducted widespread testing and contact-tracing.) Unemployment soared to 14% in April, the largest increase in a single month since such statistics have been compiled. Evidence emerged that Michael Flynn, whose case the U.S. Justice Department wishes to drop, assured Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak that the incoming Trump Administration was not disturbed by their interference in the 2016 election and would not push the issue. A policeman in Minneapolis knelt on the neck of an unarmed, handcuffed African American man, George Floyd, and killed him. Protests across the US against Floyd’s murder and police brutality, mostly peaceful, were met with police decked out in military gear reminiscent of Robocop. When some protests turned violent, the President tweeted alarm about “the thugs” and repeated a racist tweet lifted from the rhetoric of George Wallace and his ilk, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts”, pouring gasoline on the fires of rage and violence. The US has withdrawn from the World Health Organization, in the middle of a pandemic that still rages. The Trump administration has revised out of existence an Obama-era definition in the ACA that protects LGBTQ individuals from discrimination in healthcare. And a Trump rally scheduled for June 19 — Juneteenth — in Tulsa, the site of a massacre of black citizens by a white mob in 1921 was hastily rescheduled for the next day only when it became clear that it would be more likely to hurt his re-election prospects than boost them. I could go on…
About a month ago, in an article in The Atlantic, George Packer, the erstwhile cheerleader for US adventurism in Iraq, had a welcome epiphany about the pandemic and, scales falling from his eyes, concluded that the United States of America is now a “Failed State”:
Despite countless examples around the U.S. of individual courage and sacrifice, the failure is national. And it should force a question that most Americans have never had to ask: Do we trust our leaders and one another enough to summon a collective response to a mortal threat? Are we still capable of self-government? . . .
. . . Trump came to power as the repudiation of the Republican establishment. But the conservative political class and the new leader soon reached an understanding. Whatever their differences on issues like trade and immigration, they shared a basic goal: to strip-mine public assets for the benefit of private interests. Republican politicians and donors who wanted government to do as little as possible for the common good could live happily with a regime that barely knew how to govern at all, and they made themselves Trump’s footmen.
Like a wanton boy throwing matches in a parched field, Trump began to immolate what was left of national civic life. He never even pretended to be president of the whole country, but pitted us against one another along lines of race, sex, religion, citizenship, education, region, and — every day of his presidency — political party. His main tool of governance was to lie. A third of the country locked itself in a hall of mirrors that it believed to be reality; a third drove itself mad with the effort to hold on to the idea of knowable truth; and a third gave up even trying.
What to do with a failed state? Packer realized that it cannot be mended with “business as usual”, but is remarkably vague about the details of what is to replace it:
The fight to overcome the pandemic must also be a fight to recover the health of our country, and build it anew, or the hardship and grief we’re now enduring will never be redeemed. Under our current leadership, nothing will change. If 9/11 and 2008 wore out trust in the old political establishment, 2020 should kill off the idea that anti-politics is our salvation. But putting an end to this regime, so necessary and deserved, is only the beginning.
Agreed. But what next? How can the Republic be saved?
I think it is time to go where nobody really wants to go: maybe it can’t. And even if it can, it’s probably not worth saving. At least not in its present form.
Moreover, will we even get the chance? The Attorney General and the President have seized upon the moment to declare “Antifa” — a vague catch-all term for an open-ended collection of groups on the Left that oppose, well, Fascism — a domestic terrorist organization. Ruminate on that for a while: the anti-Fascists are the “domestic terrorists”, not the “fine people” in Charlottesville or those who occupied the Michigan statehouse opposing the statewide coronavirus lockdown — not, well, the Fascists.
A cursory glance back at history shows that this should not be all that surprising. The Reichstag fire in 1933 was exactly the pretext Hitler and the Nazis were looking for to outlaw opposition parties and decisively seize absolute power. While Trump’s polls are in free-fall, and there seems to be a groundswell of opinion against both the current institution of policing in the US and the Trump Administration, it does us well to be reminded that autocrats are nothing if not crafty and opportunistic, and that it is not beyond imagination that Trump and his minions would seize the moment and plant their jackboots in America’s face. The Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt began his early work, Political Theology, with the infamous quote: “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.” Schmitt’s political thought is toxic, to be sure, but it defines our moment, just as it defined the Führer’s in 1933. To think that Trump and his cabinet lieutenants are not aware of this autocratic script, no less salivating at the opportunity to follow it, is willful, culpable ignorance.
This is not a counsel of despair, but it is a counsel of realism. Packer is right: putting an end to this regime is a necessary beginning, but only the beginning. And the follow-through will require a deconstruction of much that has made The United States of America the decadent and violent acquisitive empire that it is and, frankly, has been throughout most of its existence.
It is not a simple matter of “holding America to honor its ideals”. We need to parse through those ideals and determine which of those ideals are worth honoring. Many of them are not. In particular: its exceptionalist idolatry of the nation as “a city on a hill”, its cult of wealth disguised as “the American Dream”, and its self-congratulatory oblivion of its history, steeped as it is in violence, racial and class domination, predatory capitalism, and white supremacism. In many respects, though not all, we need to stop being American — to stop identifying with the polity and instead identify with what the public sphere ought to be.
I realize this sounds extreme, an echo of what Richard Rorty once denounced, with ample reason, as the tendency of some on the Left to participate in “the America sucks sweepstakes.” It is easy to engage in facile hatred of the political status quo: easy because abstract, and abstractions always come on the cheap. Rorty wanted to elicit the kind of Left-wing patriotism he found in Eugene Debs and Irving Howe from those who are critically of the actually existing project called The United States of America. The rehabilitation of patriotism as commitment to a shared project was also shared by an otherwise very different philosopher from the atheist pragmatist Rorty: the quasi-Marxist-Thomist Alasdair MacIntyre, in his important but ill-understood essay “Is Patriotism a Virtue?” How, MacIntyre asks, can patriotism sustain any dissent — even revolutionary dissent?
The answer is: the nation conceived as a project, a project somehow or other brought to birth in the past and carried on so that a morally distinctive community was brought into being which embodied a claim to political autonomy in its various organized and institutionalized expressions. Thus, one can be patriotic towards a nation whose political independence is yet to come-as Garibaldi was; or towards a nation which once was and perhaps might be again-like the Polish patriots of the 1860s. What the patriot is committed to is a particular way of linking a past which has conferred a distinctive moral and political identity upon him or her with a future for the project which is his or her nation which it is his or her responsibility to bring into being. Only this allegiance is unconditional and allegiance to particular governments or forms of government or particular leaders will be entirely conditional upon their being devoted to furthering that project rather than frustrating or destroying it. Hence there is nothing inconsistent in a patriot’s being deeply opposed to his country’s contemporary rulers, as [Charles] Peguy [the French essayist] was, or plotting their overthrow as Adam von Trott [the German dissident involved in the plot to assassinate Hitler] did.
MacIntyre, however, closes his essay with an important caveat: the national project that legitimizes patriotism as a moral virtue needs to be coherent in the first place, otherwise its politics will be “civil war carried on by other means”, a Hobbesian free-for-all incompetently managed by state power, a nation-state that masquerades as a repository of sacred and universal values, “which from time to time invites one to lay down one’s life on its behalf…. [I]t is like being asked to die for the telephone company.” Is this a fair description of the American project? If so, should the project be critically transformed, or should one frustrate or abandon it?
The struggles of the next few months will answer that question.
In the meantime, we would be unforgivably complacent if we think that the mere ouster of the Trump regime would set the American project gently back on its rails. If the US project is not a dead letter, it can only be sustained by the kind of radical opposition that MacIntyre has shown to be one way of being a patriot, a patriot like Adam Von Trott or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, rather than an anti-patriot. The Republican party deserves to be routed and its misdeeds exposed to the disinfectant of clear daylight, but it would be a gross dereliction of duty, patriotic or otherwise, to leave it at that. The Republic that emerges from the muck of the past four years — the past four decades, actually — will need to look very different from what it was. It will not be a pleasant or an easy task. Nevertheless, it’s time to go there.