This whole saga with Trump’s post-Charlottesville comments is entirely bizarre, but it’s bizarre for the opposite reason that everyone’s been saying it’s bizarre. We already knew that Trump was a casual white supremacist. I know people have short memories these days, but we saw this exact scenario play out in exactly the same way during the campaign. When David Duke endorsed him, Trump initially acted like it wasn’t any kind of deal, and was eventually pressured into making a formulaic and entirely unconvincing disavowal. The clear implication is that Trump doesn’t see his being supported by white supremacists as anything particularly notable. It’s true that he had a meltdown this time, presumably because his new job is forcing him to miss naptime and he’s getting cranky, but all that did was reconfirm what we already knew (for like the twelfth time). And this is all aside from the fact that his entire political appeal in the first place was a paean to “traditional” white identity. (This includes the whole globalization/economic anxiety angle. The anxiety is over the fact that white people are no longer guaranteed comfortable middle-class existences at the expense of everyone else. This is neither an either/or nor a both/and argument; they’re the same thing.) So what’s bizarre isn’t the fact that Trump sympathized with Nazis; what’s bizarre is the fact that anyone thought there was any possibility of him doing anything else.
The difference, of course, is that Trump is technically president right now, so he’s expected to “act presidential.” This is a con. It was obviously a con that first time he gave a “normal” policy speech and hack columnists started falling all over themselves to declare that he had “become president,” and it would be just as much of a con now, if he were competent enough to execute it. So it’s bizarre for someone opposed to Trump’s agenda to want him to make the “right” kind of statement here, because the only actual function of that would be to provide that agenda with political cover. This is exactly what’s happening with the rest of the Republican establishment: they are competent enough to recognize that neo-Nazis qualify as Official Bad Guys and that there is therefore no downside to denouncing them. By doing this, they are successfully distancing themselves from Trump and the alt-right, which is a bad thing, because a) the alt-right is a natural outgrowth of standard Republican politicking and b) mainstream Republicans have the power and savvy to actually execute policy (well, sometimes. I’m not crediting anyone around here with any real talent or anything). The Republican establishment has done far, far more to advance the cause of white supremacy than Trump will ever be able to. He would never have been able to get anywhere had white resentment not already been established as one of America’s primary vectors for political sentiment. He’s not creative enough to come up with something like that on his own. The fact that Trump has clarified this, has made what previously required decoding legible in plain text, is the one and only positive function he has ever performed in his life (and of course it’s entirely unintentional and the opposite of what he thinks he’s going for. He’s a bit dim, if you hadn’t noticed). You can’t have it both ways. You can either have a shallow patina of formal dignity camouflaging calamity or you can have honesty. I prefer honesty.
There’s also a tactical aspect at work, which is that, regardless of either policy or personality, the mere fact of the person who happens to be The President of The United States sympathizing with racists promotes racism. White supremacists have been pretty clear about the fact that they see Trump as “their guy” and that they consider his presence in the White House official validation of their beliefs, and they’re not wrong. This cuts both ways, though. The fact that he’s there at all indicates that those forces were already at work. It wouldn’t have been possible for any of this to happen in a genuinely anti-racist society. So there’s still the question of why anyone really gives a shit about what Donald Trump has to say. Specifically, Trump’s opponents don’t consider him a legitimate president for a variety of reasons, and they’re nominally on guard against “normalizing” his behavior. But that’s exactly what would happen if Trump were to cease acting like a stupid asshole: he would turn into a normal president. In order to make real progress, we need to make use of what’s happening here: now that it has become nauseatingly clear that the president does not speak for the nation, we should stop pretending like such a thing was ever the case. The tactical countermeasure to the potential harm of presidential statements is to stop imbuing them with undue significance.
So the whole “normality” angle is a huge problem, because it both implies that racism isn’t normal and states explicitly that the solution is for “abnormal” things to stop happening. Liberals don’t actually want to confront racism. The Obama years, when America was still a white supremacist country but we had a “respectable” person making “thoughtful” statements that made us feel like everything was okay when it manifestly was not, was the true liberal goal. The reason they got complacent in the middle of a crisis was because what little they had what was what they actually wanted. They wanted Daddy to give them life lessons and chase away the monsters under the bed and pat them on the head and tell them they’re good little boys and girls, and their primary objection to Trump is the fact that he doesn’t do this. He makes a scary world seem like it’s actually scary, he makes intractable problems look like they really don’t have solutions, and he makes a godless universe look like one where there really is no force of justice pushing things in the right direction and no one looking out for us. He makes us feel like we’re on our own.
This isn’t a good thing, though, because Trump is trying to have his second scoop of ice cream and eat it too. He wants to be a Big Important Man, but he doesn’t want any of the concomitant responsibilities. Concordantly, his entire life has been devoted to promoting the image of himself as a Big Important Man, without any achievements that might make such an image qualify as an accurate representation. All of his projects were empty advertising campaigns with his name plastered all over them and all of his news coverage was sleazy tabloid trash. This gambit has proven entirely successful. Not only was he treated like an important person his whole life, but the only reason he was able to present himself as a credible presidential candidate in the first place was because our conception of the presidency is precisely that of the Big Important Man. Trump’s “lack of experience” and “temperament” were always entirely beside the point: the role he actually inhabited, the fake one, was the only one that ever mattered. The image is what people actually want.
When liberals lament that Trump is degrading our national discourse, or making us look bad in front of the cool countries, or act like he’s going to end the world with a tweet, they are buying in to that image. Assuming he can do those things is what gives him the power to do them. Inflating his importance covers for him by masking the fact that he has no substance. Even his support for white supremacy does not actually rise to the level of political conviction. He lives in a country where white people are in charge, and he assumes that this is how it’s supposed to be simply on the basis of that very fact. He’s done any of the reflection or investigation necessary to form an opinion on the matter. All he has is the raw, unprocessed background ideology of his society.
The problem with attacking Trump for making a bad statement is that it implies that the Big Important Man role is in fact the role that matters, and that the correct thing for him to do is to play it according to the script. You’ll note that this doesn’t just apply to the current variety of extremely unhinged statements: whenever someone doesn’t respond to something soon enough, or when they say something that doesn’t emphasize exactly the right points, we get all outraged and demand an “apology” or whatever. (Actually, the “public apology” concept is a whole other level of bizarreness, but one thing at a time here.) We throw a tantrum because Daddy isn’t reading us our bedtime story on time.
The thing that we ought to be attacking is the script, not the actor. There are actually two completely different things that we refer to as the “president.” There is the managerial role of running the executive branch of the United States government, and there is the person on the TV who makes speeches and gets his (it’s still “his”) name attached to official actions and policy statements (recall how much Trump loves making a big show of signing things, regardless of whether they have any real effect). Assuming for now that the former role is necessary, it doesn’t necessitate the latter. That role is an artifact of the fact that the human brain is only really good at understanding the world through individual figures and personalities, and we’re ready to evolve beyond it. People complain about elections being reality TV shows, but as long as we continue to understand the world in this way, that’s the only possibility. If you’re electing a figurehead, then the election is going to be a contest over who’s the better figurehead. Again, this is the only reason why Trump, whose only ability is being a figurehead, was able to get anywhere near the process. It isn’t the president that’s the problem; it’s the presidency.
Regarding the initial instigatory issue of removing statues of Confederates, then, the implied approach is pretty straightforward: don’t fucking make statues of people. Trump had one of his rare moments of accidentally stumbling into the right angle from the wrong direction when he said that, by the same logic that says that statues of slaveholders should be taken down, statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson would also have to go. Obviously this is a shallow equivalency – there’s a pretty clear moral line between people who held slaves while doing other worthwhile stuff and people who are only historically notable because they fought directly for the cause of slavery – but the fact that people like Washington and Jefferson did a bunch of evil shit actually does mean that they should not be idolized. Moreover, the fact that pretty much nobody lives a blameless life logically implies that nobody should be idolized, so the concept of idolization is simply a bad concept. Specific achievements can be honored and specific evils denounced without crossing the line into judging historical figures as “good” or “bad” people. (Judging living people is a different matter, as there exists the possibility of changing their behavior.) Seeing as they’re dead, there’s no sense in which their moral status as individuals matters (or exists at all), but the things they actually accomplished, both positive and negative, still live on and affect the world we currently live in. And we really do have to remember the history of American slavery (not just the Confederacy; again, almost all of the “good guys” were also active supporters of the institution): we have to remember that it was one of the worst things that has ever happened, that it ranks among the greatest crimes in all of human history, and that we have not come even close to redeeming ourselves for it.
So, practically speaking, the thing to do is to have monuments to notable historical events rather than statues of notable people. Even for morally unimpeachable figures (if any; even Martin Luther King, Jr. was a womanizer), having a statue of them puts the focus on who they were, which no longer matters, rather than on what they did, which is the part that’s still important. And focusing on events allows you to address morally ambiguous and even incomprehensibly horrible history without collapsing into shallow judgementalism. Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial shows the promise of such an approach. Recognizing the inadequacy of mere information to convey the necessary enormity, the memorial instead creates an abstract experience that living people can walk into and feel. (I’ve never been, but my sister reports it to be deeply unsettling.) Names and dates are for textbooks; the value of memorials is that they collect the intangible mist of the past and turn it into something solid, something real that exists in the present and affects people. This is how you actually preserve history.
[Addendum: For more examples, here’s a pretty great collection of slavery memorials. Note that the ones representing individual personages are boring, while the ones with metaphorical content are actually affective. There’s even some in the U.S., so it’s not like this is beyond our abilities.]
And this isn’t just an aesthetic issue; turning all issues into referenda on individuals carries heavy practical consequences. A concrete and also terrifying example is the nuclear situation. There’s been a lot of talk about the dangers of having a madman with his finger on the big red button, but disturbingly little about why that button is there at all. From what I understand, it’s basically a Cold War relic; the worry was that a Soviet first strike could take out our chain of command and remove our ability to retaliate, so the “solution” was that a formal order to launch basically gets carried out immediately with no oversight. In other words, our priority as a society is to preserve above all our ability to destroy the world at a moment’s notice. Recall, for example, the furor raised when Jeremy Corbyn said there was no situation in which he’d push the button. How dare he refuse to commit genocide in order to make white people feel safe. Clearly we can’t have someone like that in charge. It would just be irresponsible. The fact that we’ve made and continue to make this choice about our priorities as a society is far scarier than any bogeyman Trump can conjure up. Having a “rational” finger on the trigger should not comfort us – the truly disturbing part is the existence of the trigger. Insisting on electing someone “responsible” to administer this vile function is suicidally short-sighted. The correct thing to do here is to make it so decisions of such overwhelming consequence are not made by one person. I mean, the correct thing to do here is to not have this decision be available at all, because jesus christ, but in general, the point of designing a system is so that it’s not subject to these sorts of arbitrary whims. Nothing should ever come down to one person being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Unfortunately, people like it that way. They don’t want to make decisions and hold responsibilities, they just want to have the Right Person in charge taking care of that for them. Conservatives think a tough-minded businessman is going to lay down the law and single-handedly reverse worldwide economic trends, and liberals pine for Obama’s ability to lull them to sleep with friendly smiles and full sentences.
The good news is that this half of the dynamic is under our control. We have very little influence over the specific machinations of the government, but the culture we live in is something we all create together, continuously. It’s a precept of American mythology that the country was based on the idea of not having a “king” and instead having a government “of the people,” but this is total horseshit. We act like we’re all enlightened becasue we have a “president” instead of a “king,” but then we go ahead and treat the president exactly like a king anyway. Furthermore, Americans use “king” is a general-purpose positive metaphor (the semantics of “queen” is a whole other story): we look to suit-wearing leaders and official statements to understand anything, we consistently privilege the perspectives of the charismatic, wealthy, and well-connected over everything else, and we’re thirsty as fuck for celebrity gossip. Americans fucking love worshipping people who they perceive as superior. In fact, as the rise of microcelebrity demonstrates, we actually create the perception of superiority just so we can have something to worship. Lacking a god to fill the role, we just start worshipping every stupid thing we run into. And, more relevant to our present purposes, demonization works the same way: we inflate an enemy into a larger-than-life figure so that we can safely rail at it in the abstract and feel like we’re doing the right thing, even as we avoid engaging with the material conditions that that have real causative power.
We can solve the problem by ceasing to do these things. We can stop making up fake form and start understanding real function. And it’s the nature of the issue that we – meaning you – are going to have to do this while the rest of the culture goes on babbling about mission statements and Twitter beefs and thought leaders and red carpet dresses and, yes, presidential speeches. That stuff is going to keep happening as long as you keep validating it. This is your fault, and you have the power to make it stop.
Certainly, the importance of someone like Trump is not illusory, but it’s not illusory in either direction: it’s not phantasmic, but it’s also not fantastic. There are certain things that he’s capable of doing and certain things that he’s not. He’s not capable of dominating the discourse without our consent. And regarding the things he is capable of doing, we need to seriously consider whether anyone ought to be capable of them. If we’re really that scared of what he might do, the only real solution is to design a society where nobody can do those types of things. I know it’s hard to get past just being disgusted by all of this, I’ll be as glad to have it off my mind as anybody, but that doesn’t change the fact that we have a job to do. Cleaning up the pus and bile after this is over won’t resolve anything. We have to carve into ourselves and excise the beliefs that make things like this possible. Let the head that wears the crown mouth off as it pleases; our mission is to destroy the throne.