There’s something to be said about the apocalyptic turn that commentary has taken since Donald Trump consolidates his place in the annals of history as the 45th President of the United States.
The protest and tumult that descended on the streets of not only Washington D.C., but in urban centers around the world, manifested at times in bewildered anger, or otherwise in hopeless despair, are the kind of phenomena that beg an explanation. They consist in the expounding of a rationale for what appears to be a kind of spasm of widespread cognitive dissonance by people who by and large have their hearts in the right place, even if clearly we can’t say the same thing about their heads.
Representatives, fellow travelers, and perennial agitprop foot-soldiers of what we can, somewhat tragically, refer to as “the left” all appear united in a collective state of shock at the realization that not only has their nightmare scenario materialized, but also that their worldview, as it turns, out didn’t command the universal assent they had assumed. They all labor under the assumption that the protests serve a necessary higher purpose, and as the ends always justify the means, their chosen rhetorical stance will ultimately be the anodyne for the sickness currently crippling the body politic, regardless of how unwittingly they may exacerbate the very problems they seek to solve.
The tragedy of this state of affairs of course is that, by tilting at the windmills of the “white supremacist patriarchy”, these groups merely contribute to the subversion of the political process, unconsciously adopting a distorted view of what civil engagement should be. It seems clear that the polarization in public discourse, the impotence of atomized individuals, and the soaring inequalities that characterize the West in late modernity are symptoms of a larger and more pernicious crisis.
Trump’s election is undoubtedly an episode in this crisis, but not in the way many instinctively perceive it to be.
Ideological factions and identitarian movements
A glance at the sheer variety of groups that surface in the pictures of the protests, however, is very revealing. If we were to attempt some cataloging of all the shades of grievance represented, it could be said that in many cases we had a true flowering of intersectional identity politics at play. It would be a deficient analysis the one which didn’t account for the genuine distinctness of these various factions, even if they all turned up for the same gig ultimately.
There are the black-clad anarcho-communists, who by and large seem to have been the ones at the forefront of the sporadic outbreaks of violence. This is a fringe element that arguably wouldn’t be content with either result of the US election, though predictably they were incensed at Trump, seeing as his person epitomizes the affluence of the bourgeoisie like no other, like some sort of three-dimensional Rich Uncle Pennybags who leapt out of the Monopoly board to assume human form by the incantations of the KKK.
We have feminists, of variable degrees of orthodoxy, who decided to abandon all sense of proportion to embark on a visceral crusade almost solely due to the Trump’,s “pussy-grabbing” remarks, regardless of the very real equally dubious conduct Bill Clinton is alleged to have engaged in, which were nevertheless not seen as blemishes on the Clinton brand.
Perhaps this is the faction which most surreally captures the schizophrenic condition of the current political scene. There appears to have been a memo going around in their circles to attend the call of arms against right-wing populism, internal consistency be damned. It is said that politics often make unusual bedfellows, but on this occasion this rendered some truly remarkable configurations, as some activists could be spotted holding posters depicting a Muslim woman with a U.S. flag wrapped around her head in the form of a hijab.
The irony was lost on them, some of whom no doubt were gleefully partaking in “slut walks” in a not too distant past. The newfangled appreciation of Islamic conceptions of modesty was accompanied too by an apparent lack of interest in women’s rights across the Middle-East, particularly the most draconian examples thereof in the Gulf States, most of which in any case were on the same side as the feminists in the election, backing Hillary Clinton.
Joining the fray on the side of the righteously indignant, were also certain “Black Lives Matter” advocates and sympathizers, who have as their raison d’etre the inversion of Martin Luther King’s dream that people should be judged on the content of character rather than skin color. Unconvinced by Obama’s election a few years back, this group maintained that implacable racism remains alive and well in contemporary America and can only be rectified by direct action.
Curiously, many in this category were undeterred by George Soros’ own “whiteness”, and gladly received funds from the multi-billionaire philanthropist in his efforts at aiding yet another organic grass-roots organization. Not to mention, although vocal about police shootings, the group demonstrated a surprising amount of restraint when it came to Hillary Clinton’s involvement in Libya, which culminated in the extra-judicial killings of thousands of black ethnic Africans in the country, at the hands of various radicals.
Our litany of the members composing the progressive anti-Trump front could go on, but I imagine these memorable mentions should suffice as illustrative of the paradoxical nature of these alliances, and the cause they congregated to support. In all fairness, it should also be noted that the in the larger scheme of things, their reception of the Clinton alternative is not very important. What is important here is the meaning of their emergence and the form with which their grievances take shape and are articulated.
In a sphere like politics, where presumably the common good ought to be the object of all action, debate, and mobilization, the proliferation of identity-focused groups belies a dangerous hollowing out of any shared values that might have once united individuals beyond concerns limited to self-preservation. What we are observing here is essentially the colonization of public discourse by tribal claims and allegiances, which can only subsequently lead to further societal disintegration.
This is very convenient for those at the helm of the neoliberal order of course, as atomized individuals divided by every conceivable identity reference point, squabbling over self-expression are hardly likely to mobilize as they historically did before, say in comparison to the trade union movement of the early twentieth century.
Corporate power in fact, is very conscious of this fact, which is why they actively take on the role of cultural revolutionaries, propelling further division. The misadventures of the Indiana state government in the gay marriage debate in 2015 are case in point, where a dangerous precedent was set for corporations showing representative government who’s boss. Regardless of where one stands on the issue, the fact that a boycott ensued to force the hand of democratically-elected legislators on the issue, aided by enthusiastic media support, is rather troubling. This was a scenario replicated elsewhere too.
We have to ask ourselves, where should power belong in a liberal democracy? Should it reside with the people, expressed at the ballot box, and carried out by their elected representatives, or should it reside with unaccountable corporations, expressed by media conglomerates, and carried out by threatened representatives at their back-and-call?
Walter Benn Michaels has advanced very cogent argument related to this question, which I believe is particularly prescient for our times. In his book The Trouble with Diversity (2006), the author argues that neoliberalism in its current form has adopted the mantle of “equality” framed in identity terms as being sacrosanct, only to obfuscate more concrete manifestations of inequality, which exist in terms of class and wealth concentration.
As Michaels put it in an interview, reflecting on the abstract liberalism of academia, “professors don’t really worry about any form of inequality that isn’t produced by discrimination. We worry a lot about whether women are treated fairly in math classes but we don’t worry at all about that the salaries of the women who clean our offices”.
As the polis fades, now becoming a VIP-only pay-to-play forum, we retreat into our tribes, blissfully unaware that at the end, a house divided cannot stand. The left’s positioning as the advocate of sectarian forms of self-expression, for all intents and purposes, only signals its abdication from its historical motif, that of championing the interests of the working classes. As a colleague of mine once put it, rephrasing Marie Antoinette’s apocryphal saying, “They have no jobs? Give them transgender bathrooms!”
The deplorables’ storming of the electoral Bastille
Trump’s inauguration can’t be idly explained away as some bizarre and fearsome act in a cosmic Theater of the Absurd, brought about by the collective insanity of the perpetually bigoted and enraged. The “deplorables”, to use Hillary’s memorable epithet, are in a sense merely the casualties of a society that left them behind, deprived them of the means by which they could find purpose, and continually undermine whatever’s left of any sense of stability they might otherwise have.
Noam Chomsky poignantly noted in his latest documentary, Requiem for the American Dream (2015), that while back in the Depression of the 30s, conditions might have been subjectively worse than today, one tangible difference in the atmosphere is the loss of a sense of hope- that indeed things could, and will eventually, get better. In this observation he is very much right, and I believe this crucial for any genuine comprehension of the despair and alienation that fuels the wave of right-wing populism, not only in America, but the world.
Populism only emerges in circumstances of great crisis, when institutions and their functionaries are patently disconnected from reality on the ground if not directly or indirectly responsible for the advent such crises- this is the fertile ground for the demagogue to fill the vacuum, provided he can give voice to popular anxiety and offer an alternative vision.
There is a reason why populism has resurfaced in right-wing guise as a diffuse and varied amalgam of positions comprising but not limited to, economic protectionism, nationalism, cultural nativism, and in some corners, social conservatism. Necessarily, this is a phenomenon that arises in response to diametrically opposite currents espoused by the “establishment”.
Here lies the contradiction of left-wing agitprop that regardless of the fact that their causes are demonstrably championed by the moneyed classes enjoys media endorsement, and constitutes orthodoxy in academia, the refrain remains the same. The “David-and-Goliath” narrative of the left remains unchanged by the fact that they won the culture wars, and the 60s dream has triumphed. The only thing precluding a realization of this fact perhaps is that it turned out to be a nightmare after all.
The very nature of the protests, the #NotMyPresident tweets, the acts of resistance to this very rare if overwhelming electoral defeat speak of new and notable conception of “civil engagement” As with Brexit, we have what amounts to a destabilizing tantrum-throwing, a facile delegitimization of the political process. The left appears to have adopted a quasi-consumerist view of democratic mechanisms; not only is it content with bought influence (when it suits them), but on the occasion that they don’t get what they want, they’ll take to the streets to demand product-recall.
There is however, perhaps a more subtle explanation for the visceral response, which is the reluctance to accept that Trump, and by extension the other instances of right-wing populism, have only gained traction thanks to the left. To accept this is to shoulder a responsibility many would understandably recoil from.
We have to consider, even the most abominable factions in the ranks of the deplorables, say the alt-right white nationalists, are only singing from the same hymn-sheet of identity politics. The liberal bien-pensants, who not long ago were advocating race-based “safe spaces” or, indulging in the attribution of blame or privilege, articulated in racialized terms – what possible coherent objection can they offer to white nationalists who, in turn, are only doing the same thing? Similarly, what can the feminists object in the rise of MRAs and the such, when they themselves have introduced gender as some form of all-guiding, all-pervasive element of their political agency?
Trump is prima facie an unlikely candidate for being the people’s spokesman of course, for obvious reasons. His rise however is what I consider to be the necessary wrecking ball to the brick walls that have been erected over the decades of collusion, between free-marketeers and the identity politics Left. Trump never would have gotten where he is now, had not common folk been rendered atomized, politically impotent, and morally denigrated by cosmopolitan elites who themselves are self-styled radicals.
Trump’s one man political machine’s routing of the established two-party system, his disdain for the conventions of the mainstream media, his penchant for saying whatever comes to his head, and later turning these half-baked ideas into policy proposals, etc. are not the qualities one would, all things being equal, expect in a statesman. Nor would they be considered sufficient or apt to lead a movement.
Yet these are the very qualities that won him a legion of supporters, all eager to project onto the man their hope of a restoration for what has been lost.
Erick F. da Silva is managing director, editor, and a contributor of The Ivory Tower, which he co-founded. The mission of The Ivory Tower, according to its website, is “to provide a venue for the articulation and exposition of opinions and arguments pertaining to the matters of the day, guided by the principles of critical inquiry and unadulterated conviction.” Da Silva is a graduate in political science from Abersytwyth University in Wales, part-time writer and full-time social gadfly. Though essentially cosmopolitan in scope, he writes from the perspective of a Catholic, South American in Britain on a variety of subjects. His interests include ethics, metaphysics, political philosophy, and occasionally, poetry.