As Masha Gessen sagely noted just after the election, “humans seem to have evolved to practice denial when confronted publicly with the unacceptable”. In a way this is a truism, as the unthinkable becomes the unthinkable precisely because we systematically put it out of our minds. Yet, so far, despite the shrillness of the media coverage since the inauguration, the vast majority of the chattering classes and working classes alike remain unable to contemplate the scope of what is happening in the country. The unthinkable is still not being thought by those most capable of stopping it.
What is this unthinkable event? That there is a kind of slow-motion coup unfolding in the United States, far exceeding the usual transfers and shake-ups of a presidential transition.
At least until the media is brought into compliance, many of the moves are clearly visible, at least for those willing to see it. Examples abound, and include Trump’s recent tweet about “sending in the Feds” just because Chicago’s crime rate is too high; his decision to elevate “Darkness is Good” politico Steve Bannon to the Security Council while kicking out military and CIA, and the general purging or resignation of lifelong nonpartisan officials in the Executive branch.
Then there is the Mexican border wall. But after all, a wall is just the beginning. By the admission of Trump’s own secretary of homeland security, the wall will have to be militarized, in order to keep people from just climbing over or tunneling under. Like “sending in the Feds”, such militarization would be another wedge that accumulates unchecked home-soil military powers in the President’s corner, carving out an ample grey zone for maneuvering around the Posse Comitatus Act. (If Trumpist policies backfire badly enough, it may yet transpire that the wall serves as much to keep Americans in as Mexicans out.)
What happens if the courts start trying to overturn or stay these wild orders? How will The Leader react to the prospect of losing face like that? Based on the already abundant precedents, it doesn’t take a doctorate in political science to hazard a guess: he will try to fire the judges, accusing them of disloyalty, and if that fails, will simply carry on as before. A court commands no army. At bottom, its authority depends on tacit agreements and good faith. Simply disregarding and minimizing them could convince enough people, and confuse enough others, for it to work.
Through all of this, the common denominator, besides Trumpism itself, is chaos; and chaos is the very mother’s milk of totalitarianism. With each disorienting, sweeping, ill-considered order from the presidential pen, the institutions of the government—which were already softened, like the steel of the Twin Towers, by a decades-long inferno of corruption and stagnation—become more confounded; the vaunted checks and balances get spun helter-skelter, and the opposition becomes fragmented or reduced to shrill and silly piecemeal demonstrations rather than effective thoughtful response.
Under such conditions it is almost easy for the one remaining united power—the Leader, the Executive—to swoop in over the wreckage, mop up the so-called “opposition” and offer the sweet soporific of order and unity to the applause of millions.
For all that Trump’s moves may seem drastic now, just wait until he has put all his pieces on the board. The executive orders and the sudden gag restrictions on certain federal agencies that are now issuing forth are just the beginning stages, the things he can do without any additional setup. Once those are out of the way, the path will become steadily easier and faster for him to remove others, in a kind of snowballing effect. Minions will be put in place at key positions; those who speak out or resist the changes will be dismissed or demoted, and the hangers-on will learn to exist in fear and deference. We are witnessing the rise of a new cabal of Hollow Men, a Courtier Class loyal only to The Leader.
Look for the outright or de facto abolition of the Education, EPA, Labor Departments, and anything to do with support for arts or culture. Look to a strengthening of military and police presences at home, an explosion of legal excuses for their use, and a concurrent weakening of the standards of conduct restraining them. Look also for a rapidly losing internal war fought by the sprawling and lavishly-funded but also dysfunctional and deadwood-laden intelligence community, as Trump hacks away at them in a kind of sweet revenge for their assertions about his Russian connections (about which, most likely, the real truth will never be known).
The psychology behind this merits consideration as much as the Machiavellian stratagems being deployed. For one thing, Donald J. Trump is not simply out to Make America Great Again; he’s out to settle scores. A lifetime of hate and resentment is now combined with almost unchecked power and the results cannot be pretty. But the man isn’t simply ambitious or vengeful; something is eating at him, and it isn’t really Islamic extremism, bad trade policies, or China. Those are just proxies for some hidden impotence or inadequacy: “we don’t win anymore”. That is what drives him.
Partly due to this chip on the shoulder, these unquenchable resentments, this devouring frustration, I submit that Trump is best understood less as a “man of ambition” than as a kind of edacious expansionary spirit, a sort of “No-Face” which, until his ascent to the presidency, was confined, caged—in vast and gilded cage, but a cage still. Hemmed in by powerful enemies and rivals, ones with far more billions than he and far more political clout, he continually met his match and was thrown back from the bars, jostled to stalemate, or worse (hence the four bankruptcies and, just possibly, the still-gnawing inadequacies).
Now, having sprung himself into the new fertile ground of our rapidly composting political system, and surrounded by people and institutions that lack any “natural immunity” to his tactics, his character, or the peculiar emotional cunning whereby he lulls, deceives or confuses just enough to win through, he will devour all he can find, and amplify himself at a nearly explosive rate—without check, without reason, without self-understanding.
After a certain point, nothing will be able to stop him, not even the Republican Party majorities in Congress or the States. That is assuming the GOP even somehow snapped out of its pitiful authoritarian-servility trance and opted to oppose him decisively—perhaps in embarrassment at having to cover for his bald-faced distortions one time too many, or perhaps once Roe is overturned, the ACA lies in ashes and Trump’s and the Party’s goals finally diverge for good.
Even in that event, I would not even rule out Trump’s attempting to deploy the military against the other branches of the government, as by locking down the Capitol and preventing its members from assembling, should the tensions rise to a point where the Commander-in-Chief feels it his sad duty to protect the Republic from political “disunion”—his most hated word, the crux of his inner weakness.
What happens then is anyone’s guess, but it is simply shocking that we are now in a territory where it is genuinely imaginable that these kinds of ugly events, that we normally ascribe only to poor African countries or perhaps shady former Soviet republics, could make their way to our self-declared “exceptional nation”, the “Land of Liberty”. And yet the complacency and arrogance implicit in that shock gives part of the answer to the riddle of how it all happened. The sooner we start thinking about that nigh-unthinkable answer, the sooner we stop being “taken in by small signs of normality”, as Gessen says, the sooner a serious opposition movement can form.
* * *
Such a movement needed, of course, to happen long, long ago. “Unhappy the nation that needs heroes”, said Berthold Brecht, and it applies to our country. And indeed, what Americans needed even before 2008 was heroes—people of both good will and wisdom, coupled with good old-fashioned backbone who were willing to stand up for something at the risk of total exile and opprobrium, because it was what they believed in and the logical consequence of all that they preached. The nation was prepared to fall on its knees for such a champion, to pour out its love and its hopes for his (or her) success.
Barack Obama ran in the shape of such a hero, but when the time came, he had little to say that had not been put there by the bankers, or carefully sieved of any rash words or deeds that might actually have lived up to his promise of “hope”.
Bernie Sanders was much more daring, by actually speaking truths that touched on a huge majority of peoples’ experiences and that had been woefully absent from the political dialogue. He was on the threshold of being such a champion when, under effective sabotage at the hands of corrupt DNC elites, he backed down to throw his support the very epitome of the establishment he had so powerfully raged against, who then duly lost. He scuttled his own movement and his support to HRC, predictably, became like confetti on the winds.
Instead, the nation elevated a Machiavellian wild-card. Our stooping anti-hero president is in many ways a kind of collective Freudian slip, the ultimate in inverse reform: just as our own economy has become dedicated to extreme inequality, to the invention of money out of nowhere, to catastrophic debts, casual violence, to sensationalism and narcissism, to economic collapses and corruption, we have chosen a Leader who embodies all of these things to be our champion.
Trump was chosen perhaps not because he will fix America in any way (except maybe in the sense of ‘fixing’ a blackjack table), but because he represents with an oddly refreshing clarity what the country is really about now.
Now, our need for heroes is greater than ever, but in the noise of the months ahead even that aspiration may be drowned out. Our generation, it seems, deals only in anti-heroes; redoubtable characters with the resonance and endurance of a Sanders, a Nader, or a Chomsky are strangely lacking, or strangely silent. Even the boldest would-be villains were born long, long ago (Trump is 70). Some vital fortitude, it seems, has ebbed out of our experience, and so it seems that, tempting as it is to dismiss as sentimental or propagandistic pap, the idea of “the Greatest Generation” may have some grain of truth to it after all.
One crucial question is the vast numbers of federal employees that are likely to be judged “redundant” by the Leader as his slashing of the government continues. Will they be kept on for good appearances, or could we be facing massive federal layoffs around the corner? Our “greatest jobs president ever” will surely have no trouble convincing himself (for convincing himself is his greatest talent, the key by which he convinces others) that those he does fire will soon be back to work in the booming economy, doing better than ever, and all thanks to him. Naturally it is very unlikely that it will turn out that way, and so it is imaginable that these discarded employees will form the nucleus of a movement of sorts. Maybe the heroes we need will come from among them.
* * *
It is part of the nature of human structures that the combination of long-term stability and privilege often breeds stagnation and narrow-mindedness. In those conditions, the Establishment—whatever or wherever it may be—tends to have an incentive to reward cowardice and un-thinking, and to push away any who might stand up or make waves. For such free-minded people, however minor their position, may thereby greatly endanger the stability and privilege of the wider organization, not only by their actions themselves but by the precedent they set.
Yet this selection effect also makes the organization even more unstable and fragile, more insulated; and so when some unapologetic pugilist finally does come along, someone who is, if not evil, at least willing to bulldoze his way to what he wants, to bend the rules at will, there are none left with the guts or even the wits to oppose him—for the culture has by then discarded all but the most servile and broken personalities, those who know only procedures. The organization that thought itself quite clever, a self-perpetuating ne plus ultra, realizes only belatedly that it was shaping itself all along into a throne.
This does not only apply to the overgrown coral-reefs of bureaucracy that characterize so much of American government and businesses (despite the latter’s cherished maverick self-image); it also goes for the “progressives”, the sometime (but note, not all-time) guarantors of equality, rights and what Popper called the “open society”. They too have quietly became decadent, victims of their own procedure, immobilized by a contradictory mixture of self-pity and self-reproach, all while quietly shoring up their privilege under a petulant kind of self-righteousness built mostly out of genital– and identity-obsessions. They too fell, benumbed, into the trance of political lip-service, material comfort, and digitized entertainment that is the most ubiquitous opiate here in early 21st-century America. They found their own already-confused consciences were easily virtualized into empty symbols and networks, and in this way, just like the Establishment they claim to abhor and the conformist power-brokers they claim to antithesize, they unwittingly laid themselves prone for their own domination.
Virtualization, and the atomization that comes with total focus on the Self, wrought the world we are now witnessing, as much as the increasingly undeniable faltering of growth. The result is that nearly everyone on the progressive side wants to chide and complain, or re-live a romanticized memory of the 1960s—but almost no one wants to deal with heavy scary words like Consequence, Sacrifice, or Organization, for these words cannot be comfortably virtualized, detached from the terrifying world of actions. Until that inner limitation is overcome, there will be little effective resistance from the progressive part of the spectrum.
This has been happening for some time, long before Trump, and while it was done softly or in the name of their “allies”, most progressives were comfortable with it or called it something more soothing and put it out of their minds. Now that the threat of it is in the open, there is an upwelling of mostly confused objections. There is passion. That there is any strong reaction at all is a good thing. But this passion, if it remains unchanneled, uncouth and self-indulgent, or obsesses on achieving a comprehensive ideological purity of its own, will do nothing but turn people against it or provide a pretext for crackdowns. The difference between mere tantrum-throwing and courageous, thoughtful, well-organized resistance is a dramatic one, yet it has been largely disposed of in the name of protecting (or indulging) peoples’ feelings; it must be remembered, and fast, if there is to be any major lasting victory.
In particular, nothing will get fixed until there is a trans-partisan realization and organization around this simple fact, with which few in the general population disagree: both sides of the party system in this country are useless, both sides are corrupt, and both sides are committed to driving the discarded 99% of the population into servitude and penury.
A third party is the most natural way forward: it will not Green nor libertarian, nor liberal nor conservative, for these categories are melting away and trading places, shedding their forms as they take on newer and newer expedients. The more the Democrats and Republicans both are made irrelevant by Trump’s radical policies the more plausible this often-derided possibility will seem in the years ahead (if the political freedoms necessary to construct such a party remain in effect). Those who continue to believe that the old rules (or parties) still guard the path to an answer to the deep problems exposed by Trumpism, or wait to see them bite back for justice or even normality, are either asking to be left behind by events, or are opening their arms to the new serfdom.
* * *
As for the executive order temporarily banning immigration from 7 majority-Muslim nations which has caused such tremendous uproar in the media, such umbrage among business figures, and of course a spate of ultra-visible protests around the airports, I agree considerably with James Howard Kunstler’s recent thoughts:
“I think borders matter and they need to be protected. […] I believe we are under no obligation to take in everybody and anybody who wants to move here. I believe we need an official time out from the high-volume immigration of recent decades. I believe we have good reasons to be picky about who we let in.”
Indeed, though it was carried out with incredible negligence and even cruelty—by failing to specify exemptions for visa and green-card holders from the get-go—and produced still more (useful?) chaos, in its basic aims I think this is one of the more rational of Trump’s executive orders so far.
The countries in question, by and large, have populations extremely hostile to the US (if sometimes understandably), or are known to contain large numbers of violent Islamist elements (ISIS and Al Qaeda), or are so chaotic and dysfunctional that no reasonable background check could be carried out, or all of the above. Why wouldn’t it be admissible to call a time-out on unrestricted travel from these areas, in order to assess and revamp the screening procedures?
Legally, the US has no obligation to take in anyone, from anywhere, at any time, simply because they want to be here, without consideration of the security risks that may pose–nor has that been the historical norm. Provided, again, that the USA upheld its obligations to those already holding green cards and visas, a reduction or temporary halt in immigration from these areas would be far from unreasonable or maniacal—an attitude, incidentally, that is shared by a wide majority of the US population.
Yet the traditional liberal players (both economic and social) seem to have chosen this particular executive order as the decisive battle, instead of the far more worrying plans to gut environmental protections, subject all science to high-level political review, intimidate and demonize journalists, nullify objective reality (or muddle it beyond recognition), destroy diplomatic relations with some of our closest allies and neighbors (and some of the most powerful nations), and dismantle a healthcare system that, flawed as it is, is now relied upon by tens of millions, etc. etc.
In short, there many other trends in the still-young Trump Administration that are far more irrational and far more blatantly power-grabbing… and yet somehow it is a 90-day ban on immigration from some of the world’s most dangerous and unstable areas that unleashes the choruses of outrage. As Kunstler notes,
“The furor seemed rather out of proportion to the people inconvenienced by Trump’s administrative blundering: about 300 green card holders out of 300,000 travelers admitted over the weekend — even after the White House walked back its green card miscue on Sunday. And it gives the impression even to someone who is allergic to conspiracy theory (yours truly) that some organizing principle is behind it.”
The motivation of these protests seems not to be the attacks on liberty or checks and balances, but rather a rage against any development that strikes at the thesis of human interchangeability. This thesis has become so overpowering in our day among both social and economic liberals that any perceived affront to it draws far more attention than other measures that may be far more objectively menacing, those that directly attack the civic freedoms and self-determination of American citizens themselves.
Any resistance or protest, provided it is peaceful, is to be lauded. But by choosing the issue with the weakest popular footing for the largest protest—both in terms of legality and popular support—it is just possible the protestors have chosen the wrong hill to defend.