Those who yearn for the halcyon days of empirical statements and complete sentences in politics will find Barack Obama’s defense of the Iran deal a long-awaited balm. As well they should; Obama is an intelligent person with a genuine command of the issues and the ability to explain them clearly and concisely. Unfortunately, he’s also clever.
Read this passage carefully:
Second, the JCPOA has worked in rolling back Iran’s nuclear program. For decades, Iran had steadily advanced its nuclear program, approaching the point where they could rapidly produce enough fissile material to build a bomb. The JCPOA put a lid on that breakout capacity. Since the JCPOA was implemented, Iran has destroyed the core of a reactor that could have produced weapons-grade plutonium; removed two-thirds of its centrifuges (over 13,000) and placed them under international monitoring; and eliminated 97 percent of its stockpile of enriched uranium — the raw materials necessary for a bomb. So by any measure, the JCPOA has imposed strict limitations on Iran’s nuclear program and achieved real results.
Now answer this: before the Iran deal was established, was Iran building nuclear weapons? It sure sounds like it, right? It was “steadily advancing,” “approaching” the point where it might have achieved “breakout capacity.” Scary! Also, 13,000! That’s a big number!
The correct answer, however, is no. There’s no evidence that’s Iran’s “weapons program” was ever anything more than a bogeyman conjured up by people with political interests in facilitating an invasion of the country. One does not need “access to the intelligence” to be able to state this with relative confidence. Because the U.S. has been constantly scaremongering about this for years now, we can be sure that, if there really was hard evidence, we’d have heard all about it. You’ll note that Obama’s statement above is composed entirely of weasel words. The “raw materials” for a bomb do not constitute a weapons program, saying that something is “approaching” the point where it could be “rapidly produced” specifically means it is not being produced, and the whole thing is based on the conflation of “nuclear program” with “nuclear weapons program.” None of this is a mistake; Obama is obviously apprised of the real intelligence on the subject, and he is choosing these words deliberately.
(By the way, for anyone who’s not aware of this: the reason the U.S. government hates Iran is that they overthrew our puppet government there. It certainly doesn’t have anything to do with theocracy or human rights or terrorism sponsorship, since we’re still BFFs with Saudi Arabia, which is way worse on all possible counts. And of course it would be perfectly rational for Iran to choose to pursue nuclear weapons now, since it’s been demonstrated that the American mind only understands force.)
So this raises the critical question of what the hell Obama thinks he’s doing. Presumably, the argument in favor of the Iran deal is that Iran is not in fact part of an “axis of evil” and should simply be negotiated with normally. Indeed, one might have imagined that this was the entire point, that the deal was built on the recognition that the United States and Iran have no real reason to be in conflict with each other and should be working together towards deescalation and a normalization of relations. Should one hold such a belief, though, one would be in for some pretty strenuous disagreement from, for example, Barack Obama:
Because of these facts, I believe that the decision to put the JCPOA at risk without any Iranian violation of the deal is a serious mistake. Without the JCPOA, the United States could eventually be left with a losing choice between a nuclear-armed Iran or another war in the Middle East. We all know the dangers of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon. It could embolden an already dangerous regime; threaten our friends with destruction; pose unacceptable dangers to America’s own security; and trigger an arms race in the world’s most dangerous region. If the constraints on Iran’s nuclear program under the JCPOA are lost, we could be hastening the day when we are faced with the choice between living with that threat, or going to war to prevent it.
While I don’t normally recommend that anyone pay any attention to politicians, I really wish all the people slobbering about how rational and thoughtful Obama is would actually read what he’s saying here. He is explicitly saying that, if Iran obtains nuclear weapons, the U.S. would be justified in launching a war of aggression. In fact, he’s saying more than that: by framing the situation as a “losing choice,” he’s saying that the U.S. would be required to do so. (It’s always pretty hilarious whenever someone uses the phrase “all options are on the table,” because there’s actually only ever one option on the table.)
This is important because it illuminates what Obama’s actual goal here is. It is not peace. If it were, he’d be responding to the present situation by arguing that there’s no reason to invade Iran. Instead, he’s doing the opposite: he’s specifically arguing against the possibility of “living with the threat.” So the question is why exactly the two choices he presents are both supposed to be “losing” ones. The reason Obama thinks war is a losing choice is that he’s smart. He knows that war is the worst thing and, moreover, that, for all the destruction it causes in the name of “necessity,” it generally doesn’t even achieve it’s own explicit immediate-term goals (the Iraq War, for example, exacerbated the spread of terrorism rather than containing it). But the reason he thinks a nuclear-armed Iran is a losing choice is that, in that case, the U.S. government’s dominance over the region would be weakened. In both cases, then, that is what he’s actually after: the successful expansion of U.S. imperialism.
And Obama genuinely does deserve credit for being smart. I actually want to emphasize this. The Iraq War was evil in terms of intention, but it was also badly executed, which made it worse. So the fact that Obama took the “smart” approach to Iran is not something to be underestimated. The Iran deal was by far the best thing Obama did as president. It was an unambiguously positive development that prevented one of the worst available outcomes from occurring – the U.S. government’s constant saber-rattling means that war really was an immediate danger, and unfortunately now still is.
But objecting only to the “stupidity” of war means you agree with its goals. The tide of official opinion has shifted against the Iraq War, but not out of morality. Almost everyone objects only to the fact that Iraq became a “quaqmire,” and Obama is one of those people. Maybe he would have been smart enough not to go into Iraq in the first place. He did speak out against the war, but he was a political unknown at the time, so he wasn’t really under any pressure not to. More to the point, we know full well what he really believes from what he actually did as president: he not only maintained but accelerated the state of perpetual warfare by expanding targeted assassination and surveillance programs and constantly engaging in unilaterally-declared undebated military actions. In this sense he was actually a far more effective imperialist than George W. Bush, because he expanded the franchise without provoking any opposition – despite the fact that all the things everyone was supposedly opposed to were still occurring. “Smart” imperialism may not get us Iraq, but it does get us Libya and Syria.
The situation with the Iran deal is frequently framed as a matter of Donald Trump trying to “undo” all of Obama’s accomplishments, but it’s actually just a matter of him being a moron. He lacks the mental capacity to assess either the merits of the deal or the consequences of withdrawal. (For example, a lot of people noticed that reneging on the Iran deal would make negotiations with North Korea untenable, meaning it was a bad idea regardless of the merits of the deal itself. It’s clear that this problem never even entered Trump’s mind.) He isn’t capable of processing the situation on any level other than labeling the deal a “bad thing” and therefore getting rid of it.
So what’s critical to understand is that, while this is a real difference – we’re worse off without the Iran deal – it’s a difference of execution rather than intention. The motives on which he’s acting here are the same as Obama’s: he’s trying to advance U.S. imperialism. During the campaign, a lot of political analysts thought Trump was an “isolationist,” basically because they’re incapable of doing political analysis. His objections to the Iraq War were entirely circumstantial: it wasted a bunch of money and caused bad things to happen (specifically, it had become unpopular and it was indirectly associated with both Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, so it was a convenient attack vector). They were not moral; he was quite clear that his preferred approach to foreign policy was to “bomb them and take their oil,” which is precisely imperialism expressed in its crudest terms.
(I don’t totally understand why people think Trump is “evasive” or has “no ideology.” He’s entirely transparent. On second thought, I lied, I understand it perfectly well. The reason is that Trump only has the basic underlying ideology that most of the people talking about him implicitly share, so they don’t understand it as an ideology. (For example, Trump is obviously in favor of capitalism, and since most people don’t realize that capitalism is optional, they don’t understand that this is an ideological position. Same with imperialism.))
On Iran, Trump’s interpretation (generously defined) of the deal as a “bad deal” meant that it didn’t advantage America enough, and therefore did not exert the necessary dominance over Iran. This is the same motivation that lead Obama to pursue the deal in the first place: Iran having nuclear weapons would have allowed it to exert its own influence. This is the only reason anyone in the ruling class cares about anything. It’s exactly the same thing with North Korea: it’s only now that they’re beginning to acquire nuclear capacity and can therefore threaten our dominance over Asia that there’s suddenly a “crisis.” For anyone with the goal of peace, there was never an “Iran issue” in the first place, because Iran is not a threat to anyone – it has not been the instigator of any of the regional conflicts currently transpiring, and its involvement has been entirely defensive. Note that this is not something that the United States can claim.
Indeed, nuclear proliferation really is a vitally important issue, but not for the reasons you’ll hear from anyone in the media. For most of us, the reason nuclear weapons are a serious issue is that they can be used to murder millions of people in the blink of an eye – and they can just as easily do this accidentally as intentionally. The reason this matters to me is that Los Angeles is a priority target for anyone who wants to nuke the U.S., and there are a small number of people here whom I care about, and I refuse to accept that they can be instantly annihilated by the random whims of a tiny handful of sagging fleshpiles failing to play geopolitical checkers. (Also, blinding followed by irradiation doesn’t quite make my top 10 list of ways to die.) That’s my personal reason, at least. To be clear, the overwhelmingly more likely threat is the U.S. nuking someone else. Any other country that used nukes would be committing suicide, but the U.S. could potentially justify it and/or resist a beheading by the international community, not to mention we’re the ones with enough nukes to black out the sky, as well as the ones doing such a shit job of securing them that accidental global annihilation is actually a salient possibility. While I strongly resent my life being under this stupid of a threat, anyone being honest about this has to admit that America is the monster here, and it’s therefore everyone not being “protected” by America’s nuclear umbrella who has the real moral authority.
For politicians, though, none of this has anything to do with anything. They’re already murdering people on a constant basis; they don’t care about that. They’d be perfectly happy to kill everyone in Los Angeles if it would benefit them and they thought they could get away with it. We know perfectly well from the immediately available historical evidence that they will kill whoever they want for whatever reason they want and they will use nukes to do so if they think they can justify it. The only reason they care is because of power. Countries with nuclear weapons have the ability to resist U.S. dominance. Nobody can beat the U.S. in a straight war, but we can’t stop nukes, so a country with nukes can credibly threaten us – which is to say they can make the costs of invading them outweigh the benefits. Nuclear weapons give other nations the power to assert their own desires against the will of the U.S. government, and this is never acceptable under any circumstances.
Obama doesn’t actually want war. At least that much can be said for him. He’s not John Bolton salivating for violence, nor even John McCain singing about bombing Iran. But he is Barack Obama making jokes about killing people with drone strikes. What Obama wants is American dominance. He’s smart enough to realize that it’s better to have dominance without having to resort to war, but if we do end up having to kill a few million people here or there, he’s not going to lose any sleep over it. He’s “anti-war” only tactically, as a result of being moderately intelligent. Unlike the rest of the slack-jawed crocodiles that this country calls a government, he at least realizes that “violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.” But he’s totally cool with taking that refuge. Let’s dispel with this fiction that Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows exactly what he’s doing.
The thing about Trump is that opposing him is easy. Indeed, it’s difficult not to, which is why so many objectively terrible people are now doing so. This is because Trump is the worst possible person. It’s actually kind of amazing, like something out of the Twilight Zone. Almost everybody has at least something that could be said for them. Y’know, Hitler loved his dogs or whatever. More to the point, Hitler had real goals that he felt passionately about and he was skillful and determined in pursuing them. Obviously, this made the consequences of his life much worse than they could have been, but it remains the case that these are respectable traits to have as a person. One can at least view Hitler as a formidable villain.
But the thing that’s amazing about Trump is that he has nothing like this going for him. There are a few things about him that would seem to be positives, but he manages to make them into negatives anyway. For example, he doesn’t actually “speak his mind” and thereby get through the “media filter,” because he’s only capable of thinking in media tropes in the first place, and he only talks to draw attention to himself, not to express ideas. So he actually uses his impulsiveness and irreverence to play into existing media narratives, resulting in him being an even more conventional and obfuscatory speaker than the typical talking-point parroting politician.
Similarly, while it may seem that Trump is a dynamic person who takes action and makes a difference in the world, he doesn’t direct his energy at anything that actually matters. He started a whole bunch of different businesses and ventures and so forth, but none of them actually did anything – none of the products he hawked are still around and none of the buildings he promoted do anything significant, so what his “high-energy” personality actually means is that he wastes more time and money than someone who just sits around and does nothing.
This is even clearer now that he actually has formal power and is doing absolutely nothing with it. If he actually cared about doing anything, he could have, among other things, made an immigration deal such as the DACA-for-wall proposal that had bipartisan support or pushed for the big infrastructure bill he likes to talk about sometimes. These things would have broken out of the political stalemate and precipitated actual changes in the country, but because Trump doesn’t actually know how to do real things, they never even came close to happening. His “energy” is instead spent playing golf and yelling at the TV. He was entirely energetic and committed when he was running for president, and this was a bad thing, because presidential campaigns are bullshit spectacles that eclipse real issues. So the practical result of this was not that anything “changed,” but that Trump simply made the 2016 campaign an even bigger and more bullshit-filled spectacle than ever before. He only knows how to do things that aren’t real things.
Yet all of this actually makes Trump a less bad president than a lot of others, at least so far. He’s at least going to stay ahead of Bush Jr. as long as he doesn’t start a major war. And his total lack of policy understanding might actually lead to him not fucking up the South Korean president’s efforts at a peace treaty, which, given the current context of U.S. foreign policy, would qualify as a significant passive achievement. But this obviously doesn’t reflect well on Trump – it’s just a coincidence, or what philosophers call “moral luck.” It’s actually part of why he’s the worst possible person: being ineffective in an immoral situation results in better outcomes.
By contrast, Obama has plenty of admirable character traits, but these don’t necessarily lead to good results. I mean, Obama isn’t nearly as good of a person as people make him out to be. The fact that he immediately cashed in upon exiting the presidency really does reflect quite badly on him – anyone making excuses for Obama on this front is presumably unaware that Jimmy Carter exists. I mean, he’s, like, “nice,” but he’s clearly not any kind of moral paragon, so there’s really quite a lot of wishful thinking going on here. It would be nice if the “first black president” were a deep moralist and a bold, original thinker, but things that would be nice tend to not actually be the case.
Anyway, the point is that Obama applied his admirable skills towards the execution of his goals, so the actual results of his actions depend on what those goals were. In response to the financial crisis, Obama’s goal was to preserve the stability of financial capitalism, and that’s exactly what he did. A less skilled individual might not have been able to pull it off. But Obama did, so the speculators kept speculating, the entire value of the recovery went to rich fucks, and we now have a less equal society that retains all of the same problems that caused the crash in the first place, along with a “healthy” economy where no one can afford housing.
Of course, stabilizing the economy was better than not stabilizing it, but that’s not much of a laurel to rest on. This is clearer in the case of Obamacare. While the law had a lot of negative consequences, such as the rise of high-deductible plans, the situation was already pretty well fucked, so it’s probably better that it passed. But while we may want to defend Obamacare on a tactical basis, we should still be opposed to it on a moral one, because it still supports a system in which people live or die based on how much money they have. This isn’t about demanding perfection. It’s perfectly rational to take what you can get, but it would be entirely irrational not to then continue on to pursue something that’s actually good. Indeed, it would precisely be an insistence on ideological purity at the expense of engaging with real conditions in the world.
And the thing is, if you try to do something like this, Obama is going to be against you. He’s against war with Iran, so if you’re engaged with the specific issue of trying to prevent a war with Iran, he may be effective as a situational ally. You know what they say about politics. But if you then move on to trying to stop U.S. imperialism, he’s going to be just as opposed to you as he is to Trump. More so, in fact, because in this case he will actually disagree with your goals rather than merely your methods.
Being against the worst thing in the world doesn’t make you a good person, and being the preferable alternative to the worst thing in the world doesn’t necessarily mean anything more than that you’re the second worst thing in the world. More to the point, there’s opposition, and then there’s opposition. If you’re against someone because you think they’re doing a bad job of implementing your goals, what that means is that you’re on their side, you just have some constructive criticism for them. Barack Obama is on Donald Trump’s side, not yours.
This is a hard thing to convince people of, because the superficial differences are so great – and, as mentioned, they’re things that actually matter, so you can’t just ignore them. But acting in the real world rather than merely indulging in comfortable fantasies requires doing things which are hard, such as drawing distinctions that aren’t readily apparent, and making choices other than those that are explicitly presented to you. Sometimes you have to cut against people’s instinctive personal reactions rather than indulging them. We don’t always have the convenience of our enemies manifesting themselves as sneering grotesques, broadcasting their vileness for all to see. Sometimes the ones who smile are the villains. The lines aren’t always clear or straight, either, and the complexity of any significant issue makes it easy to get things wrong. But I can say this: if you care about progress, if you care about equality, if you care about justice – indeed, if you care about anything at all other than the continued stability of the American Empire – Barack Obama is your enemy.
The Harvey Weinstein revelations have provided political operatives with a golden opportunity to do their absolute favorite thing in the whole wide world: accuse other people of hypocrisy. Accusations of hypocrisy are basically the coin of the realm in political discussions, so this isn’t exactly unexpected behavior. Given how impoverished such discussions almost always are, though, it’s worth considering whether the concept possesses any real value.
The idea behind hypocrisy is that identifying a contradiction between a person’s stated beliefs and evident actions demonstrates that the person does not actually believe what they say they believe. This is already a problem, because it means that the best we can get out of the concept is a one-time, surface-level, circumstantial criticism of a single person. It doesn’t penetrate through to the part that matters. In the classic example of the anti-gay crusader who secretly fucks men, one might presume that the recognition that gay behavior is naturally occurring would serve as an argument against the underlying ideology. But of course this never happens; the underlying ideology is not simply “gay sex is bad,” but is rather adherence to the entire patriarchal world order. If you believe that patriarchy is the correct way for the world to be, then the particular causes and details and distributions of gay behavior are of only instrumental importance. This is where “ex-gay” therapy comes from: the belief that, despite the state of the underlying reality, something must be done. This is the kind of response that hypocrisy actually generates, because hypocrisy does not target ideology.
It is inherent to the concept that hypocrisy is always an argument against a person and not against an idea. This is true at the most general level. Patriarchy supposedly requires exacting standards of behavior on the part of men. They’re supposed to be the moral, honorable law-givers; that’s why patriarchy is allegedly justified. But whenever a man sticks his dick somewhere he’s not supposed to, it always ends up being framed as some woman’s fault. The ideology endures the failures of its adherents.
Hypocrisy is different from incoherence. Hypocrisy is when an action you take conflicts with your stated values. Incoherence is when your stated values conflict with themselves. For example, if you complain about the Republicans obstructing Obama throughout his tenure and claim that they should have tried to compromise, but you also complain about people who try to compromise with Trump and claim that they should obstruct him instead, you’re being incoherent (assuming you actually believe that and aren’t just being tactically cynical). The problem with incoherence is that it’s impossible for anyone to take your advice, because you’re advocating two different incompatible courses of action in the same situation. When you state incoherent values, you’re actually saying nothing. Thus, pointing this out to people has, potentially, the useful effect of forcing them to pick a real side.
Still, it would seem that hypocrisy retains the limited value of arguing against certain in-the-moment courses of action. You should be able to use it to either get a sincere person to change their behavior to be more in line with their beliefs, or to expose a cynical professor of righteous-sounding beliefs as a fraud. In practice, though, its signal-to-noise ratio is pretty shit, and there’s probably an explanation for that.
The reason hypocrisy doesn’t help to change people’s behavior is that everyone is already trying to act out their values. That’s what having values means: they’re the things that you’re trying to do. If someone’s doing something that goes against their values, it’s because they don’t realize that it’s doing that. So what’s required here is a material explanation of how the relevant behavior counterindicates the relevant values. For example, if someone claims to be a feminist, but complains about women who act “slutty,” it’s probably because they’ve internalized ideas about women’s sexuality being a source of weakness and frivolousness. In other words, they think they’re helping, because they think women need to be less sexual in order for feminism to succeed. The truth, of course, is that the problem is not the particular types of sexual behavior that women engage in, but rather the idea that there is a “correct” type of behavior at all. Substituting one mandate for another continues to oppress women. While some behaviors are in fact immoral (anything that doesn’t involve consent, obviously; also particular behaviors are potentially open to aesthetic rather than moral criticism, but that’s a whole other topic), the mandating of specific behaviors for certain classes of people rather than the development of a general moral theory is in fact what oppression is. Calling the person a hypocrite, though, doesn’t clarify any of this for them. You have to give them a real explanation.
As for discreditization, that doesn’t have a great track record either. I’m getting pretty sick of the tendency to turn every political issue into a referendum on Donald Trump, but unfortunately that’s the move here, because Trump is the biggest possible hypocrite. As you may have read on the internet somewhere, the philosopher Harry Frankfurt draws a technical distinction between lies and bullshit. The liar is someone who wants to convince you that a particular fact is not in fact a fact. A criminal trying to create an alibi wants you to believe that they were in a certain place at a certain time, even though they weren’t; establishing that belief in contradiction to the facts is their goal. The bullshitter, however, doesn’t care about the truth or falsity of the relevant facts in the first place; their goal is to use the appearance of facts to establish something else entirely. Our primary vector for bullshit is advertising. An ad will make a claim like “American Moms’ #1 Choice” or something, which looks like a fact-based statement. Presumably there was some sort of survey of American moms and most of them chose the product in question. And the company may in fact have conducted such a survey and gotten such results, if only for the sake of legal plausibility, but conveying that factual information isn’t the point. The point is simply to associate the product with positive-valence terms such as “America” and “Mom” and “#1” and “Choice.” In other words, bullshit may very well be true, but it doesn’t matter, because the intent of the statement is something else entirely.
So, Trump, who only understands the world in terms of marketing, will say whatever gets a positive response at the time, and will take whatever action seems like it will inflate his brand. Because of this, and because he has no other motivations, his stated beliefs and actions are entirely disconnected; he is a perfect hypocrite. The times when his actions and beliefs do align are mere coincidences; some of his beliefs may in fact be “true,” but they’re bullshit either way, because he doesn’t believe them as facts, but rather as instrumental vectors for self-promotion. He never actually encountered evidence that his inauguration had the biggest crowd ever, that was just the thing he had to say in order to make himself seem more impressive (the fact that it had the opposite effect was lost on him, because, in addition to being full of shit, he’s not very bright). Even if he really had had the biggest crowd, he still would have been bullshitting.
Now, some people have recognized this dynamic and been confused by it, because it seems to sort people into one of two camps. Either you’re opposed to Trump’s stated beliefs, in which case you oppose him, or you’re in favor of his stated beliefs, in which case you should be opposed to his actions, because he’s a hypocrite and is therefore betraying your beliefs, meaning you should oppose him. Thus, his thoroughgoing hypocrisy should prevent him from having any base at all. But the opposite is the case: Trump has an extremely strong base of support that is pretty much guaranteed to stick with him to the particularly bitter end. So this already completely discredits the concept of hypocrisy on an empirical level, because if it doesn’t work in the most glaringly obvious case, it’s clearly never going to work at all.
We can still figure out why this is, though. In the case of political support, stated beliefs are what matter. The government is big and complicated, so you can never assign simple blame for any particular failure. During Obama’s term, liberals made excuses for everything he failed to do or did wrong, and conservatives are doing the same for Trump right now. This is actually reasonable behavior. The president’s actual function is mostly “setting the agenda,” and given the limited number of options, the only thing you can really do is support the person who’s mostly somewhere in the vicinity of what you’re after. Conservatives understand this perfectly well. As much as they like to grandstand about decorum and shit, they know that Trump’s their boy. He’s the one who’s going to give them their judges and agency appointments. As long as it benefits them, they’re going to keep supporting him until it becomes politically untenable. Among ordinary voters, it’s the same thing: Trump is the only person even pretending to speak to their concerns, and he actually is sort of moving the general political agenda in their direction, and since that’s all they’re going to get, they’re going to take it. This is hypocritical, but it’s also just a basic utilitarian calculation, which is the only sensible way to approach electoral politics. (Of course, this is also why electoral politics are not worth spending much time on.)
Trump is a somewhat different case; as mentioned, his claims don’t generally rise to the point of qualifying as “lies.” But there is one exception: the claim that he ever intended to act as a public servant at all. This was actually at the core of his campaign: he stated many times that he used to be a freewheeling capitalist, but now he was going to buckle down and serve the people. This, augmented of course by his unwavering allegiance to whiteness and masculinity, was the key to establishing in many people the perception that Trump was “on their side” and “the only one looking out for people like me.” Calling Trump a “hypocrite” does not attack this perception. It reinforces it; it makes it sound like Trump is trying his best but being stifled, which is exactly the excuse that his supporters are currently making for him. Undoing this perception requires targeting not his stumbles and gaffes, but the true center of his image: the fact that he’s a rich fuck. This is the relevant quality that ensures that he is never going to help anyone other than himself, but this cannot be seen by those operating under the notion that rich people are the “winners” of society, the ones who are the smartest and the most qualified. Hypocrisy keeps the dividing line in the same place, but attempts to position Trump on the wrong side of it. This can’t work, due to the simple fact that Trump really is a rich fuck; he really is a representative of the upper class, even if they’re all embarrassed by him. Turning people away from Trump requires redrawing the line where it really belongs. It requires, yes, class consciousness.
To address the specific recent issue, liberals are being accused of hypocrisy for acting all aghast about sexual assault while harboring people like Weinstein and Bill Clinton on their midst. It’s true that liberals are in the wrong here: they’re wrong to harbor predators, and they don’t actually care about sexual assault like they say they do. But neither of these things is an example of hypocrisy. What’s actually happening is that establishment liberals a) don’t really want to end patriarchy and b) care more about schmoozing and power-grubbing than changing society in any case. It’s not that there’s a contradiction between their beliefs and actions, it’s that their beliefs and actions are both morally wrong on their own terms. This line of analysis applies to basically any possible accusation of hypocrisy: the problem is never the contradiction; it’s either that the beliefs are wrong or the actions are harmful, or both. Ignoring hypocrisy doesn’t mean that things are “okay,” it means the opposite. The things that are really wrong are the things that should really be argued against. If, hypothetically, someone who claimed to care about gay people were to pose with the people responsible for Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act, it would make sense to call them out on that. But the reason it makes sense is not because it’s hypocritical. It’s because whitewashing history prevents us from understanding why things are wrong and therefore from being able to do anything about it, because fetishization of trendy causes harms those causes, and because making nice with evil people normalizes evil.
There isn’t actually anything wrong with liberals taking Weinstein’s money. The whole rejecting-the-tainted-donation pageant is actually really fucking annoying. Money is fungible, you dumb fucks! That’s like the entire point of the concept. There’s no such thing as “blood money”; money doesn’t change based on where it comes from. The money doesn’t magically “corrupt” you due to some kind of phantom influence from its source. In fact, it’s more virtuous to take bad money than it is to take good money. Bad people are probably going to use their money to do bad things, so taking that money and using it to do good things is doubly virtuous.1 Contrariwise, all those people donating $27 to Sanders’ campaign probably needed that money.
There is, of course, a real problem with having rich patrons, but it has nothing to do with hypocrisy. The problem is that having rich patrons is bad regardless of what you believe. Republicans also have rich patrons, but even though they aren’t hypocrites about this, because they believe that wealth itself has moral force, their situation is still just as bad. It’s still causing bad things to happen. The real problem is that establishing long-term relationships with rich fucks and relying on them as sources of support naturally entails adopting their values as your own. When you start thinking of rich fucks as your “us,” the question of “what’s good for the country?” becomes “what’s good for us rich fucks?” You start to see the world through their eyes, and to frame all problems in their terms. Hillary Clinton’s “no quid pro quo” defense against bribery was actually accurate: quid pro quo is not how the influence of wealth works in the modern world. Clinton’s problem wasn’t the money, it was the fact that she really was “one of them.” Her problem was that she wasn’t a hypocrite. Besides, the correct solution here is publicly funded elections paid for by progressive taxation, in which case it would in fact be rich people paying for political campaigns.
The ironic thing about hypocrisy is that it’s slung about like a vicious accusation, but it actually gives the target the maximum possible benefit of the doubt. Calling someone a hypocrite assumes that they’re not a liar or a con artist; it assumes that their beliefs are true and they’re making an honest attempt to live up to them, but that they just happen to be failing. Hypocrisy is always the weakest possible accusation you can make; there is always a better argument. Hypocrisy is like accusing a person of accidentally stubbing their toe, when the real problem is that they’re busy stabbing someone.
But it’s actually quite a bit worse than that, because there’s a real, vile reason why accusations of hypocrisy are the most common form of political discourse. They’re ubiquitous because they’re counterproductive. Conservatives obviously can’t argue against liberal sexism by being anti-sexist, because conservatives are also sexist. So, instead, they use accusations of hypocrisy to attack their enemies without actually engaging in any sort of discussion about ideas or behaviors. The goal is not to actually discuss sexual assault; in fact, it is to avoid discussing sexual assault in any real way. It is simply to take advantage of the opportunity to discredit one’s enemies while ignoring the real issue altogether. In other words, it’s bullshit. It pretends to be a political discussion, when it’s really nothing more than tribalistic sniping and noise-generation.
For us ordinary citizens, the problem is even worse. As people without power, we have no options other than to engage with society as it exists. This means that we are all necessarily complicit in whatever evils we are trying to destroy, no matter what they are. You can’t be against capitalism or sexism or racism without also engaging in capitalist and sexist and racist practices, because the entire thing about these things is that they’re social systems. They’re not mistakes that happen here and there, but are rather how the world we live in is constituted. So if non-hypocrisy is the condition for action, no action is possible. The concept of hypocrisy does not help us to distinguish between better and worse actions, because all actions are fatally contaminated in its eyes. The way to argue for or against actions is on the basis of material results, which can actually be analyzed rather than merely yelled about. This is the truly important reason we must jettison the concept of hypocrisy entirely. It forces us into a morass of fruitless defensiveness and scares us away from the real actions we’re capable of taking. It smothers us in self-righteous snobbery and prevents us from making real, bold arguments – the kind that might actually change something. One of the few genuinely important, non-bullshit functions of talking about politics as ordinary citizens is to get people to take stronger stances. Debating the merits of this or that policy is completely irrelevant for most of us, since we have no control over which specific policies actually get implemented. What we do have a non-zero amount of control over are our values and priorities, and it’s important to get these right.
This point might seem too simple to be worth making, but it is in fact the case that people use this line of attack all the time, against everything. If you use social media to criticize social media, you’re a hypocrite. If you buy a shirt with an anti-capitalist slogan on it, you’re a hypocrite. If you’re an anarchist, anywhere, ever, you’re a hypocrite. Again, there is potentially a real argument that can be made about the likely effects of certain actions; if there’s a readily available alternative to a company that uses sweatshop labor, or an easy vegan substitute for a meat dish, it can be helpful to point those things out. But they still exist in context: all consumption supports the economy that relies on sweatshop labor, and all food is part of the production chain that tortures animals. This is the difference between sincere progressiveness and reactionary accusations of hypocrisy: one aims at the best that can be done in this world, the only place where things can happen, and one is simply a shouting-down of any possible action at all.
Also, global warming.2 We all believe that the planet should continue to exist, and we’re all engaged in the behavior that’s destroying it. We’re all hypocrites. Like, seriously, we suck, okay? It’s great if you’re all self-actualized or whatever, except it’s actually not, because the world’s still being destroyed, which means you actualized yourself wrong (or at least prematurely). Quit trying to act cool.
These are the truly pernicious “purity politics.” They are the ones that come from the amoral center, striking against any possible alternative to the world as it happens to exist at this particular moment. If the problem is hypocrisy, then the solution is to stop expressing political beliefs – or, more dishonestly, to claim “nuance” and accuse your opponents of being “purists.” Hypocrisy motivates people to change in the wrong direction: away from proclaiming their values openly and honestly, and towards the most tepid and inoffensive actions. We want people to feel comfortable stating their beliefs as strongly as possible, because that’s the only way we can have a real conversation, and we want people to act like they mean it, because that’s the only way anything is ever going to change.
There is, then, a necessary solution, which is to be a hypocrite. You should say what you really believe and value, rather than saying that thing that makes you sound the most “reasonable.” You should then try to figure out what actions will be the most effective at advancing those beliefs, rather than which actions will expose you to the least criticism. Given the current state of the world, doing this will cause various people to hate you for various reasons, and it will leave you open to accusations of hypocrisy. The correct response is to not care. If someone has a real argument against you, that’s great, you should listen to them, but if it really is a real argument, hypocrisy won’t enter into it. In a world of ersatz rationality, where human potential is locked down by false certainty, the recklessness of hypocrisy is our best weapon against the worst future. The only worthwhile political stance is to be a first-world anarchist.
(It’s also a useful defense against taking yourself too seriously.)
Besides, it’s obvious that none of the people making accusations of hypocrisy care when the same accusations are leveled at them. If you don’t think accusations of hypocrisy are significant when they’re directed at you, then accusing others of hypocrisy as though such claims were significant is itself hypocritical. That’s not why it’s wrong, though. It’s wrong because it’s useless either way.
So, yes, for the record, Lisa Simpson is a total moron in that one episode. ↩
I’m starting to feel like this phrase should be mandatory in any article about anything. ↩
Now that our long national nightmare is formally underway, it behooves us to review the specific parameters of the current situation. This is a war, you know.
Back when this was all just a particularly unpleasant hypothetical, two potential silver linings were foreseeable. One was that Trump’s signature blend of cluelessness and incompetence would prevent him from getting anything significant done. He has no idea how to run a government, no ability to learn, and no convictions that he would ever feel the need to press forward on. If he actually did “drain the swamp” in any significant sense, he’d just wind up with an administration full of equally ineffectual toadies. In short, his term would merely be a period of stagnation. The other possibility was that his fundamental emptiness would relegate him to the role of figurehead, with the Republican establishment doing all of the actual governing and thereby advancing their standard-issue conservative agenda. This would be very bad, but it would be the type of badness that is within the usual operating sphere of American politics. It’d be the same as if any of the other Republican contenders had won.
What we’re looking at now is the worst of both worlds. Republicans have officially commenced with the ramming through of as much of their reactionary wishlist as is ram-through-able in however many years this is going to last, and Trump has also been shoving into his nascent administration the maximum attainable number of goons and cronies, as well as charging on with his own irrepressible instincts towards petty grasping and childish blundering. So what we’re looking at is basically the existing Republican dystopia smothered in low-quality Trump-brand steak sauce. And it’s not like we were doing fine before any of this happened. We were and are facing a large number of vitally important challenges that require drastic remediation yesterday. So we’re now in the worst possible situation at the worst possible time.
The Muslim ban is a great example of how this works in practice. It’s the type of thing that Republicans wanted to do anyway (recall that Cruz wanted to put every mosque in the country under surveillance, which kind of sounds like a big government program to enforce political correctness, but never mind that), but Trump managed to do it in the stupidest possible way. Anyone else would have gone through the necessary layers of lawyers to make sure that the order was basically defensible, but Trump’s Brute Squad just slapped something on his desk for him to sign. And the thing is, doing it this way caused more harm. It fucked up green card holders and other legal residents, who would not have been included in any competently drafted order, and the general uncertainty meant that a lot of people were just randomly detained for excessive periods of time, and even now many people are afraid to travel simply because no one can tell how this is going to shake out. And even with the laudable amount of opposition, the whole thing still has the effect of normalizing animus against immigrants.
More specifically, though, what we are in is the worst possible version of the same previously-existing situation. We were already ramping up inequality and failing to respond to global warming and arbitrarily murdering people at home and abroad. Indeed, even on the specific issues of deporting immigrants and admitting refugees, the United States under Obama was notably zealous and deficient, respectively. The rallying cry du jour is that we need to resist “normalizing” Trump, but you’ll note that this tactic has a rather vicious double-edge: if it is Trump specifically that is not normal, then everything else, the actual agenda that his administration is advancing, is business as usual. Oddly enough, the current sticking point is the opposite of “it can’t happen here.” It’s that people are unable to process the situation through any lens other than “it’s the Nazis again.” So, y’know, we’re all concerned about the rough beast slouching towards Washington to be born, but the fact of the matter is that the center has held, and that’s not really all that encouraging. It is not that our political system’s accommodation to Trump demonstrates that it is capable of holding up even against extreme destabilization. Rather, the fact that a neo-fascist uprising is able to resolve itself into business as usual proves that the potential was there all along. The violence was always inherent in the system.
I have no objection to labelling Trump a fascist. We came up with that concept for a reason; it’s useless unless we use it. But there’s a difference between throwing the F-word around and actually figuring shit out. Specifically, if we’re going to compare Trump to Hitler, we ought to note the obvious difference: Hitler had a plan. He had something that he wanted to achieve. Y’know, unlike Trump, Hitler actually wrote his own book, and it was about ideas instead of just being a self-promotional pile of dubious business bromides. Trump is the exact opposite of a mastermind. He’s a shark – all he can do is move in one direction, on mere instinct. Like, the reason Trump goes after the press is not that he knows an adversarial press is a cornerstone of a free society and he needs them out of the way in order to autocratize in peace. It’s because media criticism undermines his ability to act like a big man on the TV. That’s it. That is the sum total of his political orientation on the subject.
So because nothing about Trump is novel (in the substantive, non-spectacular sense of the term; that is, he’s a “novelty,” but he’s not novel), getting rid of him accomplishes nothing. Indeed, Trump is already impeachable on account of the emoluments thing, and the Republicans probably will want to wash their hands of him at some point. Even as president, his brand is becoming increasingly toxic, and turning against him will be an easy way for mainstream Republicans to reestablish their “Reasonable Adult” credibility. The potential future here is not exactly shrouded in mists: Trump crashes and burns, the Democrats prop up some gutless party hack like Cory Booker, who spends his terms tweaking and formalizing all the hideous policies Trump put into place, the discourse shifts ever rightward, and eight years later the Republicans get one more chance to finally destroy the world for good. This is the real danger that must be avoided. We cannot afford to get distracted by the particular grotesqueries of Trump himself. (He’s only going to be around for so long in any case. Trump’s health is getting surprisingly little attention: he’s the oldest person ever elected to the presidency, and he obviously doesn’t exercise or eat well. A random heart attack or stroke is entirely likely.) Caring about politics means fighting for a real future.
This is not to say that Trump is a fluke, or that he doesn’t matter. Quite the contrary, the point is that he is the logical conclusion of the line of reasoning presently embodied by the Republican Party. For example, if you’re concerned about Trump’s administration ignoring the normal processes of the government and overriding checks and balances and soforth, you’ll want to recall that it was the boring old pre-Trump Republican Senate that categorically refused to confirm any Supreme Court nominee put forth by Obama, and it is for that reason alone that Trump now gets to fill that seat. Let’s also recall that the Republican Party’s descent from bad faith into outright idiocy was pioneered by Sarah Palin, who was introduced into national politics by Captain Straight Talk himself, John McCain – the same John McCain who is currently trying to front like he’s got some kind of principled opposition to Trump, despite the fact that he’s not actually doing shit about anything. Let’s try to avoid falling for this obvious of a con.
Still, Trump clearly isn’t a “normal” Republican, so there’s a bit of a paradox to resolve here. One of the reasons people initially thought that Trump would be largely ineffectual was that he wouldn’t be able to work with the rest of his party, on account of heterodoxy. He was constantly clashing with the Republican establishment during the campaign, as well as making inconvenient promises like not cutting Social Security that people are now expecting him to follow through on. Indeed, if Trump really were serious about trying to become a popular and successful president, he would want to follow through on those promises, even if he had to fight the rest of his party in order to do so. He wouldn’t be able to pull it off, but it’s not like he’s ever shied away from wasting his time on a big dumb pointless fight. So it really does seem like it should be one or the other: either Trump is a dangerous eccentric, or he’s an empty ideologue. How, then, can it be both? Why isn’t there any real conflict between these things?
Abortion is one of the more visible issues in American politics, so that example should help us clarify things. As you know, one of Trump’s first actions upon entering office was to reinstate the Global Gag Rule, a longtime mainstay of the anti-abortion project. This marks him as a typical Republican: the same thing has been done by every Republican president since abortion became a big national issue. So we can refocus the question by asking: why does Trump give any number of shits about abortion? He infamously defended Planned Parenthood during the primary, he sure as hell doesn’t have any religious motivation, and the idea that he has any kind of opinion on the science of the matter is as laughable as the idea that he doesn’t want to fuck his daughter. When liberals rattle off their obligatory list of Trump’s transgressions, they usually include the time he said women who get abortions should be punished. But this isn’t really justified, because he obviously didn’t mean it. It’s an easy shot to take, but people who want to be able to credibly complain about “fake news” and “post-truth politics” need to hold themselves to a slightly higher standard of intellectual honesty. He never raised the issue himself; it only came up under repeated direct questioning, and his answer was obviously a guess. He figured that it was what he was supposed to say, and he walked it back as soon as someone informed him that it wasn’t. Certainly, this doesn’t mean he secretly supports abortion rights. It means he doesn’t care; he had literally never thought about the issue before the question came up, which is why he was completely unprepared to answer and had to resort to a “tough”-sounding guess.
It’s been justifiably speculated that Trump has probably paid for an abortion or two in his day, and if we go ahead and assume this is true for argument’s sake, you’ll note what it actually illustrates: Trump believes abortion is a man’s prerogative, not a woman’s. Trump is “pro-abortion” in the sense that he thinks women should be able to have abortions whenever their men tell them to. (The fact that poor men can’t afford to force their women to get abortions is irrelevant; I don’t think Trump is actually aware that there is such a thing as a poor person. The entire premise of Trump University was that anyone can just start conducting real estate deals whenever they want to. That’s how it was for Trump, after all.) This is closer to the pro-life position than it is to the pro-choice position; ergo, Trump is a Republican.
In fact, it’s exactly the same as the pro-life position. See, the pro-life position actually is about controlling women; the idea that abortion specifically is among the most important elements of the Christian faith is baldy implausible outside of the American political context. So the reason Trump and the Republicans are in sync here is quite simple: despite surface-level differences, they believe the same thing. We saw this quite clearly when Trump bungled his “Two Corinthians” reference at Liberty University. Why would people for whom Christianity is the most important part of their lives forgive such a blatant transgression? Because their Christianity as Christianity is merely window-dressing for their real beliefs, and they can tell that Trump’s underlying real beliefs mirror theirs perfectly well. Really, the fact that anyone thought that Trump wouldn’t be able to gain evangelical support just goes to show how shallow our political discourse really is. It doesn’t even account for the fact that people have beliefs that go deeper than basic demographic identification.
This same dynamic applies equally well to everything else. Trump does not actually dissent from Republican talking points, he just expresses them badly. The particulars of Trump’s positions differ from Republican orthodoxy only because Trump is an unsophisticated political actor. The Republicans have spent decades figuring out how to advance a reactionary agenda under the cover of “common sense” and “principles”; Trump has had no such advantage, which accounts for the difference in his messaging. But his underlying ideology is exactly the same. It may briefly disorient you to realize that Donald Trump is not a creative thinker. Everything that he has proposed is something that is already happening. We already have a border fence. We’re already surveilling Muslims. We’re already deporting massive numbers of people. We’re already killing suspected terrorists’ families.
People like to talk about how Trump is “manipulating” the media or “gaming” the system, but that’s not what’s happening at all. Trump’s messaging is completely naive; he lacks the protective layer of cynicism that someone like Obama uses to communicate to multiple distinct constituencies at once. Y’know, the fact that Obama was able to present himself as an anti-racist savior while also placating scared white people is exactly what manipulating the media looks like (and you’ll recall that the media actually does suck (for the opposite reasons from why Trump thinks it does), so there’s some ambiguity as to whether this is a good thing or a bad thing). Trump is an inveterate liar in terms of actual information, but the reason for this is that everything he says is driven by ideology. He says whatever has to be the case in order for his beliefs to be true. It is because of this that he is the exact opposite of the family-friendly and mass-appealing Obama: Trump is an unambiguous, crystal-clear image of one particular ideology, so you are guaranteed to either love or hate him. He tells it like it is.
In other words, what’s happening right now is not that an alien presence has descend upon our previously-innocent political system, corroding it from without. It is that Trump is giving us a glimpse behind the veil; ordinary, unsophisticated observers are finally able to see clearly the invasion from within. So you can see why, for anyone who actually wants to do anything about any of this, the whole “this is not normal” thing is kind of unbelievably fucking annoying. Liberals now have the perfect foil, someone who single-handedly justifies their entire ideology as well as a man for whom “foot” and “mouth” aren’t even separate concepts, and they’ve taken the opportunity to stab themselves in the chest.
The critical point is not that Trump is not a threat, or that we don’t need to resist him. It is that we can’t miss this chance. If we merely remove Trump himself and leave everything else the same, we will be doing nothing but drawing the curtain back again, reconcealing the truth. Given the stakes, we cannot allow this to happen. We must accept the deeper truth behind these events; we must walk through the threshold and into the lair of the beast. If this really is a “never again” type of situation, then the only way to make that so is to avoid jumping at every possible shadow, and to instead hunt down the thing that caused this and make it die.
Specifically, what the fuck is all this shit about Russia? I’m really not interested in litigating the details here, so let’s just assume that the allegations we’ve heard are uncontroversially true. Russia hacked both the DNC and the RNC, released the DNC information to damage Clinton, and held onto the RNC information to blackmail Trump after he won. If this is the case, what it means is that the Russians provided true, relevant information to the American voting public, who then used it to make an informed decision. (While drawing moral equivalencies is always tiresome, it bears repeating that the U.S. does way worse shit than this every day before breakfast. We’ve overthrown democratically elected governments, for god’s sake.) The idea that this constitutes “interference” that “tainted” the election is deeply disturbing – again, people who think “fake news” is a problem really need to get their heads in the game here.1 You either care about the truth or you don’t. In fact, the theft and release of this information was more than simply justifiable, it was actively moral. That information is ours by rights. What possible argument can there be against letting people know how the political parties that claim to represent them actually operate? If the Democrats lost due to the truth about them being revealed, there is very obviously only one way to interpret that situation: the Democrats are doing a bad job. There’s no point in helping them win elections absent a justification that makes them deserve to win.
Furthermore, if Trump is being blackmailed, what that means is that Americanselected a blackmailable candidate. It’s still our fault. I mean, the question at issue here is not particularly rhetorical. The reason for these histrionics is that liberals are embarrassed as hell that they lost to a personified temper tantrum, and they’re looking for someone, anyone else to blame. They’re trying to recast the threat of Trump as something foreign, something from out there rather than in here. The truth, of course, is exactly the opposite. Even assuming that the worst is true regarding Russia’s intentions and actions, they didn’t make Trump rich. They didn’t make him a celebrity. They didn’t establish a pattern of scapegoating immigrants, promote a culture of anti-intellectualism, or create a discursive structure in which sexual assault can be dismissed as a minor personal foible. I mean, I’m sure they’ve done all of that for themselves, but we didn’t need their help to do it here. That was all us, baby. America, home of the brave.
There’s no getting around the facts here. Lewis Black once joked that even Michael Moore’s harshest critics couldn’t possibly consider him un-American, simply because, as a fat white loudmouth in a baseball cap, no other country could have produced him. The same observation goes triple for Trump. He’s a doughy, ignorant, gauche, small-minded trust-funded bad investor with fake hair, an oversized tie, and a suit that doesn’t fit. Come on. You couldn’t get more American than that if you baked a baseball into an apple pie and shoved it up a bald eagle’s ass. Say literally anything else you want to about him, but “un-American” is just not in the cards. This is the real reason people can’t stop paying attention to him. He’s us. He’s the part of ourselves that we hate. He’s a puppet, but he’s not Russia’s puppet. He’s our puppet. He is doing the things that our society implicitly tells people to do, and he is being rewarded for it in the way that our society implicitly tells people they will be rewarded if they do those things. He’s the monster, but we’re Dr. Frankenstein.
It’s not just the tacky surface-level stuff, though. This is the part that’s really important. The reason Trump won a national election in America is that Trump is the exact embodiment of American ideology. People are having real trouble with this, so it merits a substantive explanation. Trump’s primary character trait is his absolute unreflectiveness on all subjects. This explains the way he talks, for example: he never thinks about what he wants to say before he says it or considers the right way to convey a point to a particular audience, he just immediately barfs something out. And it explains his famous difficulties with basic facts: as soon as he feels like something is true, it becomes one of his basic assumptions, and he never reexamines it. This same dynamic operates on the level of ideology. Each of Trump’s beliefs is simply the unrefined version of something that American society tells people to believe. Capitalism allocates money meritocratically, so the richest people are therefore necessarily the best. Women should be defined by their utility to men, so sexual assault isn’t a real issue as long as you keep it quiet. Society should be organized to implicitly favor white people; any other arrangement would be “playing identity politics.” America is more important than other countries, so what “foreign policy” is actually about is using the rest of the world to benefit America as much as possible. As unhinged as he is, Trump has never once introduced a new concept into American political discourse. Everything he’s ever said has simply been particularly bilious regurgitation of established reactionary phobias and fetishes. It is beyond critical to understand that everything Trump says and does is merely the channeling of our existing social prejudices and the amplification of them up to 11. (Incidentally, the explanation of why 11 is louder than 10 is basically the distilled form of all of Trump’s arguments.)
“When Schwartz began writing ‘The Art of the Deal,’ he realized that he needed to put an acceptable face on Trump’s loose relationship with the truth. So he concocted an artful euphemism. Writing in Trump’s voice, he explained to the reader, ‘I play to people’s fantasies. . . . People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration—and it’s a very effective form of promotion.’ Schwartz now disavows the passage. ‘Deceit,’ he told me, is never ‘innocent.’ He added, ”Truthful hyperbole’ is a contradiction in terms. It’s a way of saying, ‘It’s a lie, but who cares?” Trump, he said, loved the phrase.”
No offense to the guy, I’m sure he’s lost a fair amount of sleep over all of this, but his interpretation here is completely backwards. Hyperbole is always truthful; the definition is literally that it’s an overstatement of the truth. And that’s exactly what Donald Trump is. He’s capitalist hyperbole. He’s a ridiculously overdone version of something that is nevertheless true.
The fantasy of capitalism is that what’s good for business is good for the individual, and Trump is a complete prisoner of this fantasy. That is, the idea behind capitalism is that money is a heuristic: it isn’t itself valuable, but it represents value. Being rich isn’t good for its own sake, but because the way you get rich is by doing things that are genuinely worthwhile, by making the world a better place (this isn’t actually true, of course; the real situation is closer to the opposite, but that’s the idea). Most people, even capitalist diehards, understand this implicitly. Like, Steve Jobs didn’t take a salary, and Bill Gates has his charity foundation; these things aren’t redemptive, but they’re evidence against naivete. Rich fucks of this ilk understand that they have more money than they deserve and they’re trying to do at least a little something about it, which means they understand that capitalism is not a source of moral values. Donald Trump does not understand this; he is incapable of understanding anything in any other terms. This is why, when Trump was asked what he had sacrificed for the country, he answered that he had created jobs. He didn’t understand the question because he couldn’t, because in capitalist ideology there is no such thing as sacrifice. Everyone does best by doing what is best for themselves. That’s exactly what the “Trump brand” represents: the raw, dumb force of the empty heuristic of money. Similarly, the reason he’s fixated on his vote margins and crowd sizes is that he can’t get behind them to the thing that they are supposed to represent. If he actually wanted to do something as president, he wouldn’t have a problem, because he’s already there; he could just do it. But what he actually wants is the accolades without the substance; rather, he doesn’t understand that there is such a thing as substance behind surface indications of success and popularity. And the reason he gains support for acting this way is that his supporters believe the same thing, and this is not surprising, because this thing they believe is exactly the thing that everyone in America gets taught in middle school: that money is your score in life, that the “invisible hand” magically makes everything work out so long as everyone makes sure to act as selfishly as possible – and, furthermore, that history is defined by which white men are the toughest and have the biggest ideas. They think that Trump is going to “get things done” because they have been told their whole lives that people who look and act like Trump are the kind of people who get things done.
But America isn’t that bad, right? Doesn’t our current American society also tell people to be charitable and racially sensitive and respectful to women and soforth? Yes, exactly, which is why Trump thinks that he does those things. Our society does not tell people to, for example, understand racism as a structure and think about how their actions might unwittingly perpetuate it despite good intentions. It does not tell men that horniness and privilege are not justifications for overriding women’s humanity. You have to figure things like that out for yourself, and Trump does not figure anything out for himself.
Ergo, support for Trump is the same thing as support for these underlying social ideals, the kind that people are normally not gauche enough to state out loud. Hence the claim that Trump “tells it like it is”: he doesn’t state these ideas literally, because he thinks he believes in things like equality and freedom, but he conveys them without applying the usual layer of politeness to smooth them out. He cannot appear other than as he is.2 And in the same sense, opposition to Trump is the same thing as opposition to these ideals – or rather, it should be, except that liberals are doing their best to fuck the situation up.
Okay, that’s an overstatement. People get that Trump represents resurgent bigotry and soforth. In fact, there have been a number of encouraging signs in this regard. Opposition to the Muslim ban was both immediate and correctly focused: everyone knew it was about attacking Muslim immigrants, so they responded not by litigating the particular details of the order itself, but by expressing their support for Muslim immigrants. Things don’t usually go this well. During the run-up to the Iraq War, for example, the principled opposition to it (which very much existed) didn’t get much of an airing in the mainstream. There was a big dumb debate about the whole “weapons of mass destruction” thing, which was always just a smokescreen. People didn’t get, at first, that the Iraq War was about imperialism. But everyone got immediately that the immigration order was about racism. This represents progress. Americans in general are now less deluded about what politics is really about than they were ten years ago.
But we’re still not quite where we need to be yet. As mentioned, people keep trying to construct Trump as a foreign threat or a chance anomaly, rather than trying to figure out what it is about our society and our politics that caused this. And people keep talking about how Trump is doing things that are “unconstitutional” and harping on his administration’s “incompetence” and “disorganization” – as though the situation would be better if Trump were playing by the rules and implementing his policies effectively. None of this is to downplay the threat posed by Trump’s administration. Far from it; our moral responsibility at this point is to play up the threat that has been with us all along.
The ongoing drama over Trump’s cabinet appointments provides a good example of the distinction. What we’ve been hearing over and over again is that these nominees are “unqualified” for their respective positions. In fact, while each of them is unqualified for what liberals imagine their job is supposed to be, they are all supremely qualified for the jobs that they are actually going to be doing. I wasn’t totally clear on this at first; I was particularly confused by Tillerson. Certainly, a horrible choice; putting an oil executive in charge of foreign policy is like putting a meteor in charge of dinosaur outreach. But it seemed weirdly random, like Trump had just picked the name of a rich executive out of his rolodex. However, if we make the simple assumption that these choices were all intentional and not mistakes, things become less mysterious. Trump hasn’t stocked his cabinet with random nobodies; he’s taken the termites that were already crawling around in the woodwork and given then more to gorge on. Regarding Tillerson, as this article explains, he was, as an oil CEO, essentially acting as a de facto Secretary of State already:
“In Kurdistan, during the Obama Administration, Tillerson defied State Department policy and cut an independent oil deal with the Kurdish Regional Government, undermining the national Iraqi government in Baghdad. ExxonMobil did not ask permission. After the fact, Tillerson arranged a conference call with State Department officials and explained his actions, according to my sources, by saying, ‘I had to do what was best for my shareholders.'”
Tillerson’s previous job was to open up foreign markets to the American oil industry, and as the official Secretary of State, he’s going to be doing exactly the same job. DeVos’s life’s mission has been to destroy public education, and that’s exactly what she’s going to continue doing in a more formal capacity. Pruitt made a career for himself out of suing the EPA to block environmental regulations; he is now being given an opportunity to cut out the middleman. Carson is going to be a do-nothing black figurehead in charge of urban development because the only interest Republicans have in urban development is in using it to ward off charges of racism.
Not only does lining all this up correctly help us to understand what’s going on here, but we’ve also just seen what the consequences of getting this wrong are. Puzder’s nomination was withdrawn not because he was going to be a Labor secretary intent on crushing labor, but because of “controversy.” So now Trump is going to find some other goon to do exactly the same job. This is not a “win” in any sense; no progress has been made, and no danger has been forestalled. So yes, unqualified blanket resistance to Trump’s agenda is the correct approach, but if we simply oppose these things because the ethics paperwork hasn’t been properly filed, we’re merely delaying the inevitable. We have to cut along the veins in order to draw blood.
You may be anticipating that my point here is that we need to focus on the “real issues” and not get distracted by petty cultural trivia. In fact, this is a perfect example of a wrong line to cut across, and the reason for this is that culture is a real issue. It’s the realest issue. As explained, that’s where all of Trump’s horrifying beliefs come from: he absorbed them from the culture. And that’s the real danger of Trumpism: that it’s going to change the culture for the worse, that it’s going to make our society a worse place to live. The arithmetic here is pretty simple. If the threat posed by Trump originates from the fact that he’s nothing but a writhing blob of unexamined ideology, and if that ideology is in fact the general ideology of American society, then the idea that we need to “defend American values” against this threat is exactly wrongheaded. We need to erase and rewrite the parts of the story that led to this particularly nauseating plot development.
This is why Clintonism leads naturally to Trumpism. It’s not a matter of “failing” to win an election; it’s a matter of logical implication. If your entire philosophy of government is to just give constant handjobs to corporations, that opens the door for someone like Trump to come in and say: why bother with “rational” administration at all? Why convolute things unnecessarily? Why not just let businessmen do whatever they want directly? Indeed, why not? If we don’t have a substantive answer to that question, we don’t have a real argument against Trump. We just have our cute little insults and nicknames.
Again, the common framing wherein we must avoid “normalizing” Trump is severely deficient. First, as explained, Trump is already normal. Like, he was already a celebrity and a media draw. That’s why he won despite being completely incompetent (and despite not even wanting to win in the first place). It was Clinton, the one insisting that we respect women and care about structural racism, who was the freak.3 Liberal fantasies notwithstanding, anti-racism hasn’t yet been normalized for real. What we might call the John Oliver Strategy, simply insisting to yourself that “this is not normal,” accomplishes nothing. It doesn’t matter what you think. What matters is whether Donald Trump is actually considered a normal American. Norms are not personal fetishes. They are social conventions, and the convention right now is to treat Trump as though he really is a valid occupant of the office. Because of course he is; he’s actually sitting in the chair right now. If that strikes you as wrong, even sickening, you have to make it wrong. This is work yet to be done. Liberals assumed that an overt predator and blithe racist could not possibly gain enough support to win the presidency; they assumed that racism and sexism had already been denormalized. This is not the case. And now, in their confusion, they cling to the notion that what’s happening now is “not normal,” that if we can just make it go away (or worse, wait it out), everything will eventually go back to how it’s “supposed to” be. There is, of course, no “supposed to.” History will be what we make of it – or what we fail to make of it.
Some obvious objections present themselves: Clinton won the popular vote, American culture cannot be reduced to one simple ideology, opposition to Trump is widespread and popular. All true; the problem is that these aren’t actually objections. All of this is the case, and Trumpism is happening anyway. There must, then, be a missing link: something that we think we’re doing right, but we’re actually dropping the ball on.
This is where is gets a bit subtle. The uncharitable interpretation is that most people’s opposition to Trump is merely aesthetic. They don’t like Trump because he’s an uggo and he talks dumb, whereas they liked Obama because he was pretty and he talked fancy, and neither opinion was based on any real convictions. This is exactly half right – the aesthetic angle is half bullshit and half serious fucking business (it seems like this is always the case with aesthetics). So it’s important to clarify which half is which. We’re all aware that Obama was and is subject to a ridiculous amount of celebrity worship regarding such qualities as his handsomeness or his cute family or his good taste in music or his “inspirationalness” or whatever, and this is all bullshit, and to the extent that opposition to Trump is simply the flip side of this, opposition to the fact that he has bad hair and lacks culture, it is equally bullshit. People aren’t robots, though. It’s not just a matter of checking off the correct policy boxes. There is, underneath all the tabloid fluff, a real distinction here.
To make this clear, let’s look at one of the more trivial recent comparisons: Trump’s and Obama’s behavior at the inauguration. Barack and Michelle waited for each other and walked together, while Donald ignored Melania, who was later helped along by the Obamas. If we interpret this incident as the Obamas being “nice” people and Trump being a “mean” person, it is completely meaningless. We’re talking about the Presidency of the United States here, not the Miss Congeniality award. But if we think about what type of behavior we’re looking at, and what it represents, we get to the part that actually matters. What we’re talking about is the way husbands treat their wives, which means we’re talking about one of the basic distinctions upon which we construct our gender ideologies. The Trumps’ marriage models the ideal of the rich man who buys a hot trophy wife as decoration and isn’t really aware she exists outside of that role, while the Obamas’ models a partnership between two different but morally equal humans (I’m not trying to give them any special credit here, but people do perceive them that way). This is a real, substantive distinction. The latter conception of romantic relationships is the type of thing we want our society to move towards. I’m not really willing to call it feminist, since the entire concept of the “first lady” is already irredeemably sexist (and I’d actually prefer de-normalizing romance, but that’s another story), but it’s at least less bad. It’s gesturing in something like the right direction.
In addition to the fact that seemingly trivial things can point to real issues, “official” political problems are frequently bullshit. One of the big things people are still tripping over their own feet on is the issue of Trump’s tax returns. Releasing your tax returns is an important part of the Official Democratic Process, so it’s a Real Issue that Serious People care about. It doesn’t actually matter, though. Trump’s conflicts of interest are way down the priority list of things we need to care about right now. Furthermore, there’s no point in litigating this issue any further, because we’ve already lost. Pushing the issue during the election would have been a decent tactical move to prevent Trump from being elected in the first place, but nobody bothered, and now it’s too late. Trump has absolutely no incentive to release his tax returns, and he already knows he can get away with not doing it, so he’s not going to. That’s it. Further furthermore, even if you get the information and get Trump impeached or whatever, all you’ve done is gotten rid of one guy. You have had absolutely no effect on the underlying issues, and you have done nothing to prevent a version of Trump with clean tax returns from gaining power in exactly the same way.
Again, though, there is a non-bullshit version of this issue, which is the version that applies to our social dynamics in general rather than solely to one person. That version is this: Trump gets extreme benefit of the doubt based on the fact that he’s rich (and white and male and etc.; you can apply this line of reasoning the same way in other cases, but one thing a time here). The assumption behind this is that our society allocates resources justly – that people without money are not worth listening to, whereas people with money are necessarily better than everyone else. This is, of course, the exact argument made in Trump’s favor: sure, he’s a ridiculous jackass, but he’s rich, so he must be doing something right. And when liberals argue that Trump is a “failed” businessman or a “fake” billionaire, they are actually making this same argument: that’s it’s only because Trump is not a real rich person that he is not worth listening to. A “good” businessman who wasn’t “corrupt” and who really “earned” their wealth by building “successful” casinos would be the kind of person we should have as president. Now, more than ever, we are obligated to advance the exact opposite ideal: anyone who gets rich in this society must be doing something wrong. So the focus on tax returns specifically masks a deeper and more important issue: rich fucks should not be president. The correct situation would be almost the opposite of what we have now: anyone whose tax returns are so complicated that reading them would actually reveal anything should be automatically disqualified from participating in the government.
In short, we need to split aesthetics down the middle in order to separate the wheat from the chaff. Ignoring aesthetics is both undesirable and impossible. Aesthetics are how people see the world. Understanding this gives us a clear opening: we can show people a better view.
One important consequence of this is that we should not forsake insults, but rather start getting our insults right. Certain types of people like to claim that insults are always wrong, that you should always address the issues and not the people, but there’s no real justification for this (plus there’s an obvious ulterior motivation to this argument). Ideas are made of people, which is why insults are the exact tool required to drag self-important blowhards down into the muck that the rest of us have to live in. The catch is simply that, like everything else, insults can be executed well or poorly; good insults are truth-apt. Insulting Donald Trump for being fat and ugly is not truth-apt, because plenty of fat and ugly people are decent human beings, and plenty of slim and attractive people are fascists. However, pointing out that Trump is a rich person who eats garbage food and can’t seem to find a suit that fits is truth-apt, for a particular reason. That is, it’s not that there’s something wrong with you if you dress poorly or like KFC. Everyone sucks at something, and that doesn’t make you a bad person. But the justification for wealth is that being wealthy is better than not being wealthy in an absolute, substantive way; this distinction is pretty much Trump’s entire argument for himself. So, if that’s not true, if wealth isn’t really enough to buy you a better life, if care and discernment earn you more of a return than throwing money around, then that justification falters, and that argument fails. The fact that Trump is a rich person who nevertheless has no culture or discernment demonstrates that wealth by itself is not necessarily any good. And of course this goes further: the fact that we have a society organized around accumulating wealth and not around cultivating traits that are actually worthwhile is why people who are conventionally successful within current social parameters are bad people.
In other words, good insults, like good aesthetics, go somewhere. Trump’s obvious boner for his daughter, for example, is entirely within bounds, because it illustrates the fact that patriarchy is disgusting. Such behavior follows naturally from the assumption that women are required to present themselves in a manner that is sexually gratifying to men. It is the same assumption as that behind diet crazes and ass implants and pornographic pop music videos. If, then, you feel that Trump’s behavior toward women is disgusting, that means you have your head on straight. Being disgusted by disgusting things is the aesthetically correct reaction. But you have to realize what it is you’re actually disgusted by. You’re disgusted by Trump’s deviance from norms of politeness, but also by his adherence to norms of gender relations. Your resolution, then, should be to follow your disgust through to its necessary conclusion. When you’re doing it right, hate is a productive force. If you really hate someone, surface-level pokes and jabs don’t cut it. You don’t pick fights that you aren’t willing to see through. The only thing that suffices is to get inside the thing that they really are, deep down, and destroy it for real.
The most common narrative that has arisen from the election results is that Clinton lost by playing up “culture war” issues and ignoring “economic fundamentals.” Now, obviously, the Democrats have abandoned labor and this has been both electoral suicide and a moral catastrophe. I don’t think anyone’s confused about that. But this is not a dynamic with any specificity to this election; it has always been the case. I have never known a world where labor had real political influence. Furthermore, Trump obviously didn’t win on economic policy, because he did not have an economic policy. All he did was jump up on a platform and hoot “bring back jobs!” over and over again like a badly-trained baboon. In short, the people claiming that Clinton lost by relying on non-white and female identity politics are missing the rather glaring point that Trump won by relying on white male identity politics. This is evidence in favor of identity politics: it proves that this is something that people really care about, that white men still have this advantage, and that there remains work to be done here.
There have been a lot of people pointing to “culture war” issues like nonbinary pronouns or whatever and saying “this is why the Democrats lost.” These people are either cowards or traitors. If they’re only willing to take a stand on an issue when it’s popular, they’re cowards. If they are pretending to care about things like gender equality when they actually don’t in order to gain credibility, they’re traitors. Either way, these people are the real threat. They are the ones who are trying to stop us from fighting the battle that actually matters. This is why god invented the guillotine.
Exactly this was Clinton’s true fatal flaw: she failed to make this a real fight. For instance, during the first debate, Clinton baited Trump by bringing up Alicia Machado, a pageant contestant whom Trump had publicly degraded. This was clearly an intentional gambit, as Clinton had the name at the ready and brought it up pretty much out of nowhere. And it worked: it led to the man who is currently President of the United States advising the nation to “check out sex tape” at three in the morning. So why didn’t it matter? Well, because it was just one more dumb controversy in an already insufferable election full of them. Why do we care about Trump being mean to some random lady? It’s not because we care about her personally, but because no one should be treated that way. Specifically, we care because this sort of behavior is part of a general pattern of sexist degradation, which affects all women. Ergo, the fact that Trump engages in this type of behavior demonstrates that bullying and misogyny are among his basic values, and that his administration would be harmful to women.
Indeed, shortly after this happened, the Access Hollywood tape came out, providing clear evidence that Trump was not merely a brash and unrestrained type of guy, but in fact a serial sexual predator. Again, Clinton brought this up in the next debate to score a point, and then dropped it completely. She never actually advanced the argument that Trump should have been disqualified from the presidency on feminist grounds rather than just because of all the “qualifications” bullshit that no one cares about. For example, those ads where women repeated all the mean stuff Trump said about women do not actually rise to the level of being feminist. They’re just claiming that Trump is a bad person who says bad things. It’s actually impossible for an argument of this type to be convincing, because only people who were already opposed to that stuff will find it to be affecting (indeed, people who agreed with that stuff in the first place may come out with their convictions strengthened). If you want to make an issue of something, you have to raise the issue.
It isn’t that Clinton overplayed her hand here, what with the glass ceilings and the empowerful messages to little girls and soforth. It’s that she played the right card on the wrong trick.4 She didn’t have the temerity to actually make the argument that voting for a woman to beat Donald Trump was the morally correct course of action. But she should have, because that was always her best argument. Contrary to tired denigrations of “vagina voters,” the vagina opening should have been made bigger. Consider: if we actually took sexual assault seriously as a society, this whole thing – everything that is going to happen because of this – would have been prevented.
So this is not a limited point about how one person could have won one election, nor is it my own personal advocacy for the kind of politics I would like to see. It is the only way to save the world. People have been going on a lot about our “democratic institutions,” and whether they’re “strong enough” to resist Trump’s attempts at autocracy. This question is entirely irrelevant. State institutions can’t stop fascism, because fascism is a state phenomenon. It’s what happens when the state stops fucking around. Like, the fact that Hitler is a dictator doesn’t mean that he goes around personally telling each Nazi solder which Jews to kill. He uses state institutions to do that.
Since Hannah Arendt is currently popular among people who buy famous books so that they can pretend like they’re intellectuals, let’s try engaging with something she actually wrote. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, she discusses a period towards the end of World War II, in which Heinrich Himmler attempts to halt the Final Solution, imagining that this will put him in a better bargaining position with the Allies. Himmler, Eichmann’s superior, orders him to stop transporting Jews, and Eichmann ignores the order, believing it to be against the will of the Fuhrer and therefore “criminal.” As Arendt explains, this situation inverts our normal conception of “legal orders”:
“The extensive literature on the subject usually supports its case with the common equivocal meaning of the word ‘law,’ which in this context means sometimes the law of the land – that is, posited, positive law – and sometimes the law that supposedly speaks in all men’s hearts with an identical voice. Practically speaking, however, orders to be disobeyed must be ‘manifestly unlawful’ and unlawfulness must ‘fly like a black flag above [them] as a warning reading: ‘Prohibited!” – as the judgment pointed out. And in a criminal regime this ‘black flag’ with its ‘warning sign’ flies as ‘manifestly’ above what normally is a lawful order – for instance, not to kill innocent people just because they happen to be Jews – as it flies above a criminal order under normal circumstances. To fall back on an unequivocal voice of conscience – or, in the even vaguer language of the jurists, on a ‘general sentiment of humanity’ (Oppenheim-Lauterpacht in International Law, 1952) – not only begs the question, it signifies a deliberate refusal to take notice of the central moral, legal, and political phenomena of our century.”
Opposing something like the Muslim ban on the grounds that it is an “illegal order” begs the same question. Immigration policy and national security are explicitly the President’s job. If you’re just trying to be a good American and uphold cultural values, you’re going to follow those orders. The people who opposed the Muslim ban did not simply look up the correct thing to do in their book of official regulations. They came to their own interpretation of the situation and made their own choice. The fact that the order was issued in so rushed and haphazard a manner clarifies this point: because there was not a big legal infrastructure built up around it, the only reason it was ever enforced at all was that some people made the individual choice to do so. And some people didn’t.
“We’re turning a blind eye—we’re pretending we haven’t seen the Syrian passport.”
And in that very same link you can see the problem:
“’Policies don’t execute themselves by magic. They actually have to be carried out by people,’ he said. ‘This travel ban…is not just horrific and unwise, but it’s illegal. It’s requiring the people who execute it to break the law.’ If you’re a government official—CBP, ICE or otherwise—and you’re being asked to do something that violates the law, he said, just don’t.”
Okay, so, if the order didn’t “violate the law,” if it was issued “wisely,” then that would be just fine, right? Like, the reason Rosa Parks is a hero is because forcing black people to move to the back of the bus was an “illegal order,” so she was just standing up for traditional American values when she disobeyed it, right? The fact that the people who stood up to the ban were praised by its opponents for “upholding the law” at the same time as they were attacked by its supporters for “failing to uphold the law” proves exactly that there is no “unequivocal voice of conscience” in this matter.
This applies on a much more basic level. Trump is the president right now. That’s just the fact of the matter. So it’s also a fact that anyone who wants to play ball has to deal with him. And yet people like Elon Musk get criticized for serving on official advisory committees – for following the rules and doing their job. If you’re opposed to that, if you think the fact that some jackass has a fancy title imparts no obligation on your part to respect or accommodate them, then what you are actually opposed to is the concept of formal authority, and hence the idea of the presidency itself.
To put it simply, you can’t praise “American values” and the “rule of law” and “process” and soforth as the source of everything just and righteous while also advocating resistance to “illegal orders.” It is incoherent for the United States to say “you must follow our orders at all times, unless they are illegal, in which case you must not follow them,” because the United States itself is what determines what’s illegal or not in the first place. (Retreating from legality to morality does nothing to resolve this problem; replace “the United States government” with “United States cultural norms” and you get the same contradiction.) This is, after all, what totalitarianism means: the state determines everything. Obviously, then, the only way to oppose it is to have standards and values that are independent of the state, and that are therefore capable of contradicting it. It is not our institutions that have to stop Trump; it is us. It is you and me, personally.
And it is you and me who have not been doing a very good job of this. People keep pointing to shit that has been happening this entire time and being like “welcome to Trump’s America,” like that means anything. Like, can you believe that America is racist now? And that we have an incoherently aggressive foreign policy? And that we’re stockpiling nukes and inflating the military for no reason? And that the government spends all its time making sweetheart deals with corporations and ignoring real problems? As a particularly dramatic example, Trump’s first approved military action killed an eight-year-old girl, so of course this is evidence that the American military has just now become a horrible child-killing monstrosity. Yet, in a disgustingly poignant twist of fate, that eight-year-old girl was Nawar al-Awlaki, whose equally innocent brother, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, was killed by Obama in pretty much the same manner. If you care about one of these killings and not the other, you are not engaged in politics. You are acting in a reality show. You’re the puppet.
Rhetoric also matters here. Both Trump’s RNC address and his inauguration speech were criticized for being “dark” and portraying America as a bad place where lots of bad stuff is constantly happening. News flash, assholes: America is a bad place where lots of bad stuff is constantly happening. That’s exactly what liberals are supposed to care about. Like, when liberals need to signal their support for Black Lives Matter, we’re in an emergency situation and the police are fascists and there’s death in the streets and racism is intractable, but when they need to signal their opposition to Trump, then America is a wonderful land of magic and opportunity, and anyone who thinks it needs some kind of fundamental change must be some kind of crazy person, probably a demented narcissist. The reason this dynamic is really pernicious is that liberals have ended up arguing against things that are actually good, simply because Trump happens to be standing in the general area near them. For one thing, the fact that a political outsider won a national election by appealing to common sentiments and attacking received wisdom is unambiguously a good thing. It removes barriers to entry, allows new ideas into the conversation, and creates the possibility for change. More importantly, we really are in an era of “American carnage,” but it’s not because of terrorist immigrants or gang violence or political correctness or lack of competition. It’s because of America’s murder-driven neocolonial foreign policy, because of police brutality, because real political values are subordinated to media-friendly horse-race vapidity, and because capitalism has developed to the point where it’s now devouring itself. We must have the courage to articulate the true response to “make America great again”: the past was bad. Coal mining was bad. Child labor was bad. Jim Crow was bad. Marital rape was bad. And, to the extent that these things from the past still exist in the present, the present is also bad. The only thing that holds the possibility of being good is the future, but that can happen only if the future is something different from both the present and the past – something new.
Fucking this up is how you get shit like this (the first paragraph is from Trump’s inaugural, the second is some liberal trying to criticize it):
“At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction, that a nation exists to serve its citizens. Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families, and good jobs for themselves. These are just and reasonable demands of righteous people and a righteous public.
In 1960, John F. Kennedy famously said, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.’ In the first three minutes of his presidency, Donald Trump has already eviscerated that notion.”
Breaking news update, assholes: Trump is right and JFK was wrong. Liberals have gotten so deranged over this whole thing that they are now arguing against the idea that the purpose of a nation is to serve its people. When you don’t have principles, when you think the problem is that there’s a “bad guy” and you have to “stop” him, your arguments end up incoherent. People object to Trump’s insistence on the centrality of a single strong leader, but they do this by wistfully reminiscing about how great Obama was. People object to Trump’s cheap appeals to patriotism, but they do this by claiming that he’s going against American values. In short, the liberal argument against heavy fascism is simply to advance light fascism as the preferable alternative – as the only alternative. But being able to hold more than one idea in our heads at a time is the advantage we have over people like Trump. It’s tempting to retreat to the basics in the face of scary situations, but it is precisely times like these when we require the power of our best tactics.
Furthermore, trying to pin everything on Trump himself is itself the thing that we’re supposed to be arguing against: the idea that rich white men should always be the center of attention. Obviously, Trump has a huge amount of formal power right now, and we can’t just ignore him. But we also don’t have to hang on his every tweet and obsess over every quirk of his phrasing. We have better things to do with our time – not just things that are far more enjoyable, but things that matter more. Trump fronts like he’s the big dynamic decider man who does whatever he wants, and the media abets him in this by portraying him as a black swan. We have to stop doing this. We have to stop pretending like he matters as a person, because he doesn’t. He’s not a black swan, he’s a white swan. He’s the whitest possible swan. He’s a white swanpremacist.
This is what it actually means to take the high road. It does not mean staying positive or playing nice or following the rules. Playing nice in a situation like this is more accurately referred to as cowardice. What taking the high road means is doing the thing that is right rather than the thing that is easy. It means adhering to the truth absolutely, no matter how inconvenient it is, no matter what advantages it requires you to forsake, and no matter what it forces you to do. Mocking Trump for being dumb and incompetent is easy. Attacking the underlying causes of his support and developing a substantive alternative is right. The reason fascism extends naturally from capitalism is that capitalism is an empty ideology, and fascism, say what you will about its tenets, is at least an ethos. It’s not so much something to believe in as it is anything to believe in. There’s no point in “stopping Trump” is you don’t have something that you’re stopping him for. Ergo, our very straightforward task is to create something better to believe in – and, given the causes of this situation, this has to be something better than “progress,” better than “success,” and better than America.
Of course, we can’t simply do this ourselves. We have to construct a common framework that goes beyond easy digs and makes all of this make sense. Assuming that our reasons for opposing Trump were the same as everyone else’s is what made the election results “surprising.” Remember, being surprised doesn’t mean that something “weird” happened; events themselves are not “weird” or “normal,” those characteristics come from our interpretations of them, so what being surprised means is that your understanding of the situation is lacking. The fact that everything’s going so wrong now does not mean that we’ve gone astray and we need to get back to where we were before. Understanding Trump as hyper-normative rather than merely grotesque reveals that events are unfolding according to their own internal logic, and it also reveals the necessary character of any possible resolution. Avoiding this conflict is indistinguishable from surrender. “Winning” will not mean anything unless and until this becomes a real war.
And yet you still get motherfuckers claiming that Russia “hacked” the election, when there has been not even the suggestion of any such thing. And of course these are the same people who rend their garments every time Trump talks about illegal voters, lamenting how, oh how could our glorious political process ever have descended to the depths of such tawdry accusations. ↩
This is what the term “authenticity” refers to, and I encourage you to take this opportunity to consider whether authenticity is actually a good thing. ↩
Yes, Clinton is a grasper and was never really going to follow through on any of these things. That strengthens the point: even insincere, token acknowledgment of these points is too much for “normal” Americans to handle. ↩
Americans like to talk a big game about how politicians work for the people and we can “fire” them and so forth1, but we’re completely full of shit. Sideshow Bob had it right: the only things we care about are low taxes, vicarious violence, and the safe, comfortable feeling of being ruled. But the situation is actually worse than that, because there’s a particular behavior that we engage in with renewed intensity every four years, which goes beyond foolishness to become completely unconscionable: we look to politicians for leadership.
It’s correct to treat elections like morality plays – that’s the only way to extract any value from the spectacle. Elections aren’t about the issues, obviously, but they’re a time when everyone’s talking about politics, so it’s a good opportunity to, you know, talk about politics. Even people who use elections as opportunities to argue against involvement in electoral politics are taking advantage of this dynamic. So as annoying as this all often is, it’s ultimately a positive thing. The problem is that we’re bad at it. When you hear someone arguing that Hillary Clinton is “qualified” and will therefore “get things done,” you have left the realm of politics and entered the realm of fantasy football. The questions of “qualified for what?” and “which things?” are the entire substance of what we’re supposed to be talking about, but we’ve become so alienated from our values that we’ve forgotten how having values actually works. So we instead fall back on lazy shorthands, a prominent recent example being the framework in which Clinton and Sanders are politically equivalent except that one of them is “idealistic” and the other is “pragmatic.”
It’s just as easy to turn this around. Clintonian triangulation is precisely what led to the current situation; to advance it now as a solution can hardly be called “practical.” Clinton’s belief that starving people can be placated by effective management is an article of faith that has been disproven by the facts. This is even clearer in the realm of foreign policy, where Clinton is the last living hawk. If the history of the 21st century so far has taught us anything, it has surely been the folly of attempting to export stability through the American military. Even the ruling class is starting to back off from this approach, or at least clean up its image, or at least avoid the issue by focusing on domestic policy. Yet Clinton clings to her belief in American exceptionalism like a rosary, praying for the day when our bombs and bullets will finally kill chaos. She’s an idealist.
Meanwhile, the only reason Sanders ran as a Democrat is that he knew it was the only way he’d get any media attention. He never gave Jill Stein the time of day because he knew that associating with her would have been a political death sentence. Furthermore, none of his policy proposals were either outside the current limits of political discourse or particularly radical. They’re basically all either obvious things, like raising the minimum wage and taxing rich fucks, or things that have been implemented successfully in other countries, like universal health care and subsidized college education. The Sanders campaign was nothing more than the pragmatic approach to making things slightly better, given where we are right now.
This explanation is just as facile as the alternative; the point is that framing political conflicts in this way drains them of their substance. There’s not really any such thing as “idealism” or “pragmatism” – every action is based on beliefs and tends towards a goal, and every ideal represents itself practically as a set of steps taken in the real world for the purpose of moving towards it. The actual conflict in the Democratic primary was very simple: Sanders was attempting to return the party to the era of welfare-state liberalism, while Clinton was attempting to rally the ruling class around inclusive neoliberalism. Clinton won, and, thanks to improbably favorable circumstances, now has the near-unanimous support of the political establishment. That’s the story.
Yet this misunderstanding is not entirely the fault of gutless, drama-craving media types; Sanders’ support was largely grassroots, and it is his hardest-core supports who understand this the least. They’ve created all on their own the narrative that Saint Bernard is our last hope to save the American Dream from the clutches of the Email Demon. Everything from dumb memes about how Sanders is a cool hippie while Clinton is an “out-of-touch politician” to exhausting focus on Clinton’s “scandals” and “corruption” has the effect of turning political discourse into pageantry. Those stupid shirts with Sanders’ hair on them are tombstones, marking a spot that was once political and is now merely fashionable. This is the actual reason that “Bernie or Bust” is a stupid idea: if you’re relying on one specific person to save you, you’ve already lost. The issue is not that, god forbid, some people might not vote for Clinton, it’s that we’re all being insufficiently idealistic. I mean, come on. This whole thing is based on the idea that one brave honest man is going to march into the White House, roll up his sleeves and start getting down to brass tacks. You call that an ideal? I’ll tell you what my ideal is: I want us to stop dropping everything every four years so that we can elect a Boss of America to tell us all what to do and what we should believe and then immediately go back to sleep as soon as the party’s over.
The whole “corruption” thing is actually really important here, because it’s the kind of thing that sounds like a political issue while actually being entirely irrelevant to almost everything. Case in point, there’s a recent bit of scandal about favorable arms deals being made to countries that donated to the Clinton Foundation. That’s, y’know, a bad thing, it’d be better if that wasn’t happening, but fixing that problem won’t even slightly impede the imperialist death machine that’s slowly grinding the Middle East into a big pile of exploitable resources. Again, Clinton’s agenda here is not subtle: she’s entirely open about being an interventionist; we don’t have to uncover any secret emails to figure that out. Focusing on corruption here implies that an “uncorrupted” version of Clinton would be the ideal candidate – that Clinton has the correct agenda. This is why arguing based on corruption is always a garbage strategy: it cedes the entire debate as its first move. Political corruption is like an inverted iceberg: the part below the surface is minuscule compared to the massive problems that loom in plain view. The scandal is always what’s legal.
Indeed, if Clinton really were the amoral weathervane she’s so often portrayed as, wouldn’t that actually be the best possible situation? Wouldn’t that mean that she would adopt any position that her supporters pressured her towards? Isn’t that exactly what we want out of democracy: a candidate who is perfectly responsive to the people’s will? Clinton initially resisted the call for a $15/hr minimum wage, but, due to popular pressure, she’s since adopted it to the extent that it’s now one of her official bullet points. This is the kind of thing that gets her called “conniving,” but isn’t that exactly how the political process is actually supposed to work?
What Sanders holdouts have largely failed to realize is that Sanders didn’t actually do anything. He didn’t run a particularly effective campaign or offer any kind of insightful take on the issues. His remarkable success was due to the fact that he simply hammered on the issues that people already cared about. What his success actually demonstrates is that there is a broad base of support waiting for anyone willing to advance a politics that actually tries to help people, so the proper response is to get on with it.
Many people have complained that Clinton was essentially appointed as the nominee by the DNC, that the primary amounted to little more than a “coronation,” but like, no shit. Why would the Democratic Party ever have done anything else? What possible incentive would they have had to produce and support candidates who would have been genuine threats to the existing political establishment? Indeed, the only reason we saw such candidates this time around is that the necessary work had already been done. The reason Sanders was able to get anywhere was that he was responding to existing demands; he did not convince anyone that he was right, he gave people what they were waiting for. And it’s the same situation on the other side: Honky Kong’s climb up the Empire State Building has nothing to do with how big of a monkey he is and everything to do with the road that has already been paved for him by the past eight years of escalating reactionary psychosis.
Closely related to all of this is the criticism that Clinton doesn’t seem “authentic” or “human,” and that’s what really gets to the heart of the issue. What people actually want out of politics is a “leader,” someone who is “strong” and doesn’t “flip-flop,” and who is “convincing” by virtue of being authentically human. What people really want is not to see their values instantiated; it is to be told what to think. Consider the fact that Obama never had to deal with any of the shit that Clinton is currently navigating; he was hailed as a literal messiah for advancing exactly the same agenda. The only difference is that he looked good doing it. The problem is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that, when Obama finally got around to leading from behind on gay marriage, many Obama supporters shifted their opinions along with him (and vice versa) – as though one’s opinion on the actual issue were a mere coincidence. And the vehemence of Obama’s opposition demonstrates the very same thing. It is entirely unrelated to his anodyne policies; the motivation is also that Obama is seen as a powerful leader (let’s dispel with this fiction that he doesn’t know what he’s doing), but one of the wrong type; hence, the Antichrist. Most famously, Mitt Romney’s health care plan suddenly became the end of the American Dream when it was a black guy what done it. People who can be influenced in this way are people who don’t actually care about the substance of the issues. They can be led into any position by someone who talks good on the TV.
David Foster Wallace, as usual, expressed this tendency very well while completely failing to realize that he should have been interrogating it (italics original):
“[T]he electorate . . . seems so paroxysmically thankful for a presidential candidate somewhat in the ballpark of a real human being that it has to make you stop and think about how starved voters are for just some minimal level of genuineness in the men [sic] who want to ‘lead’ and ‘inspire’ them.”
This is precisely how most people feel about politics, and it is an unproductive and bad sentiment to hold. You may recall that the politician Wallace is referring to here is John McCain, which, come on. Any theory that leads you to support friggin’ McCain is not well-calibrated. And of course this problem is all over the place: liberals will, in the same breath, mock conservatives who voted for Bush because he seemed like a guy you’d like to have a beer with and gush about how much better Obama is because he’s so hip and attractive. So while the fact that Clinton is a bad campaigner is convenient at the moment for people who oppose her policies, reliance on this dynamic represents an extreme danger. Remember, ol’ Honky Kong is getting quite a lot of support based on the fact that he’s “not a politician” and he “tells it like it is.” The road to hell is paved with sincerity.
(Actually, this is something that leftists need to be particularly worried about. It’s easy to assume that fascism/totalitarianism and socialism/anarchism are “opposites,” that anything that leads a society towards one pole necessarily leads it away from the other, but there’s no real reason to believe that this is the case. Fascism and anarchism share at least one very important trait in common: they both want power dynamics to be raw and transparent, bureaucracy to be a tool rather than an ideology. If you’re sick of “stalemate” and “gridlock” in the government and you want to bring in someone who will “shake things up” and “change the system” – someone who will make the trains run on time – you are in fact advocating a dictatorial coup. Fascism is capitalism with a human face.)
Despite our big talk, we’ve managed to get all of this completely backwards. We give politicians the right to be human, while we sink ourselves into the muck of politicking: yelling at people about how to vote, preemptively triangulating positions based on “feasibility,” endlessly compromising our own values into oblivion. The simple fact of the matter is, when you perceive a politician as being ahead of you, when you find yourself looking to them for guidance, you have failed in the task of politics. We must demand the opposite: fewer inspiring speeches, smaller ideas, less leadership. To look to a politician for leadership is among the most vile inversions a human being can make, worse even than looking to a lawyer for morality or to a businessman for expertise.
Evidence of this inversion is everywhere. We talk about government spending as though it were a family budget – we humanize the government. Spending is “irresponsible”; taxes are “punitive.” And this is more than just politics, of course (which is to say that politics is more than just politics). We read self-help books and “lean in” to turn ourselves into more effective workers; we program ourselves with the correct political opinions to smooth out our social interactions; we perform “life hacks” to “maximize” our “productivity.” We humanize the machine while automating our own lives. The obligation to support evil in order to avoid catastrophe is precisely the psychic violence that our political system inflicts on us. There may be more or less that each of us can do on a material basis, and we may disagree on tactics in any event, but we can all – we’re all morally obligated to – resist psychic death.
Politicians ought to be seen like lawyers: despicable people upon whom we foist a sordid but necessary job so that the rest of us don’t have to do it. Our role is not to do their job for them; our role is to hold the line, to cleave as strongly as we can to what is actually right, regardless of what kind of short-term compromises we have to make for the purpose of self-defense. I appreciate how Eric Foner described this:
“Here’s the point. I am a believer in the abolitionist concept – that the role of radicals is to stand outside of the political system. The abolitionists said, ‘I am not putting forward a plan for abolition, because if I put forward a plan, people are just going to be debating my plan. ‘Oh, it’s going to be two years, five years, seven years.’ No: I’m putting forward the moral imperative of dealing with slavery.’ And if people are convinced of that, then politicians will come up with a plan to do it. That means politicians are eventually going to pick up those ideas and use them in other ways and turn them into political strategies.
. . .
Our job is to put out new ideas, different ideas, pressure people, and I don’t care fundamentally if Obama or Hillary gets the nomination in 2008. Sure I have an opinion about it but I don’t think that’s our job to worry about it. All of this maneuvering, ‘Oh, what do we do in this or that election.’ We are not politicians. Politicians do it better.”
So yeah, by all means vote. You might as well lean away from the volcano’s edge rather than towards it. Just remember that, in allowing our politics to come down to a choice of ruler at all, we have failed in a far more significant sense than we ever could by simply electing the wrong person. So don’t pretend like voting for “the right person” is at all morally laudable, or like it counts as “progress.” Don’t let the fact that voting is “something you can do” confuse you into thinking that that’s where the action is. Don’t forget whose side you’re really on, and don’t forget who your hands were made for. Most of all, don’t forget that the real issue is and always will be the fact that people are being slaughtered, poisoned, enslaved, and mutilated, every second of every day, and that all of this is happening for no reason. Or, to put it in classical terms: ask not what you can do for your country; ask what your country has been doing to you.
There was an Aaron Sorkin clip I vaguely remembered that I was going to link here to illustrate this point, but I watched it again and lol no. Just use your imagination. ↩
I’m doing my best to avoid contributing to the noise vortex surrounding the Tangerine Muppet, but as some people have pointed out, the real story is what this whole cowboy cosplay convention reveals about the values of a disturbingly large number of Americans. So let’s talk about that.
People have been more willing than usual to throw around the r-word recently, which is nice. Yes, it’s largely an empty signifier at this point, but if you can’t call a racist a racist, you can’t really do anything. The problem is that there’s this persistent idea that race is an “identity” issue, that it’s sort of an add-on to the “real” political issues like jobs and taxes. Specifically, the story is that economically disadvantaged white people who are “low-information voters” are being “fooled” into thinking that people of color are the problem and are therefore “voting against their own interests.” All of these terms should trigger maximal skepticism. People know what their interests are, and you don’t really need a whole lot of information to make basic political decisions. Furthermore, racism is severely off-putting to all decent people; if there was a candidate with really good policies who also happened to be a Klan member, few of us would be able to overlook that and support them. So the only honest conclusion is that people who support racist policies do so because they’re racists.
This conclusion is supported by history. The two political parties as currently constituted are defined by their attitudes toward racism; the historical shift was finalized in response to the Civil Rights Act. And the “Southern Strategy” wasn’t just a marketing gimmick – basically all of the “conservative principles” that supposedly define the Republican Party are actually just restatements of racism. Most famously, opposition to “big government” isn’t really something that makes sense on its own. Nobody actually thinks there’s a correct “size” for the government to be. Rather, everyone has certain specific things they think the government should be in charge of. Nobody argues that we should defund the military in order to make the government smaller. Also, Republicans obviously don’t support “small government” in any sense; whenever they’re in office they run up deficits, inflate the military, and expand executive powers (Democrats also do all of these things; the point is that there isn’t a difference between the parties on these issues). The truth is that, for Republicans, the part of the government that’s “too big” is just the part that helps black people. This applies equally to just about every other conservative shibboleth: universal healthcare, welfare, and economic stimulus spending are all bad things because they mean spending money on black people. Recall the old insult “tax-and-spend Democrat” – you’d think that both taxing and spending would be the budgetarily responsible thing to do, but it’s a different story when it’s white people being taxed and black people being spent on.
Recent history also bears this out. The Tea Party arose in response to Obama’s election, rather than any actual policy he advanced. In fact, Obama hasn’t really done anything dramatic enough to have credibly provoked a backlash – it’s cliched by now to note that Obamacare was originally Romneycare. And there’s plenty of pure nonsense like the claim that Obama is secretly a Muslim, when he clearly comes from a typical black Christian tradition (there was that big controversy regarding his minister, remember?). The only explanation for this is people projecting stereotypes – either about scary black Muslim radicals from the 60s, or modern-day “Muslim extremists.” So, racism. The people who claimed that Obama’s election heralded a “post-racial era” were obviously morons, but it’s important to understand just how wrong they were: not only is racism as strong a political force as ever, but Obama’s visibility as the most powerful black man in the world has made race an even more salient issue.
What all of this adds up to is that racism is and always has been the central issue in American politics. In other words, the fact that one of the primary motivating factors in people’s political alignment is now vulgar racism and nothing else is the least surprising thing that’s happened in recent history. What this election cycle represents is actually a return to normalcy. We’re no longer pretending that we all share the same fake centrist consensus; we’re finally beginning to regard our enemies as enemies. Or at least we’re getting closer. Racism as a concept has been permanently hexed; people still make transparent excuses about how banning Muslims is about “national security” and building The Wall is about “the economy.” But anyone operating with a basic level of honesty can clearly see the bright line dividing the two sides of the current debate: you either think that the government is for everybody, or you think it’s only for The Right Kind of People.
White people don’t like to think about racism this way. They like to think of it as an issue where certain “backwards” people just don’t like certain skin colors for inexplicable reasons (the adjective “ugly” is often applied to racist opinions, as though the issue with them were merely cosmetic). This impulse is understandable – at first glance, discriminating against people based on their ethnicity doesn’t really seem to accomplish anything (as a contrasting example, there’s direct motivation for sexism: men want control over sexual access and the reproductive process). When a person is facing the issues of a) losing their job and not having enough money to live on and b) encountering non-white people on a slightly more frequent basis, it seems like one of those issues would be the obvious priority. But that’s assuming that everyone has the same standards of value, and it’s also assuming that race and class are actually different issues.
Historically, it’s obvious that the function of racism has been to create an underclass. This serves two very important purposes. The first is economic: it creates a group of people who can be exploited with maximum efficiency, due to the fact that they lack both legal protections and public sympathy. This doesn’t just apply to black people; we saw the same dynamic with the Chinese immigrants who built the railroads, and we see it today with the Mexican immigrants doing our farm work. The second function is psychological: when it comes to social standing, people are motivated above all else to not be on the bottom of the pyramid. People care more about relative standing than absolute standing; we would rather make things worse off for everyone while preserving a tiny advantage for ourselves than improve the general condition while resigning ourselves to not being special. Racism puts white people on the side of the ruling class by promising them that, no matter what happens, they will always have someone to look down on.
This dynamic is required in order for capitalism to survive. Marx’s argument that capitalism would inevitably destroy itself was based on two important assumptions: that there are only two classes, and that the members of the working class would naturally develop solidarity. Racism undoes both of these assumptions. It essentially turns non-rich white people into a buffer class: one that is still mostly exploited, but which understands itself as a beneficiary of the status quo. This understanding is not entirely illusory. Being white actually is enough of a real advantage that many white people will fight to preserve it, out of rational self-interest – the same self-interest that created racism in the first place. Everyone knows that America was settled via genocide and slavery, but it’s crucial to understand that these crimes were not “mistakes.” They were foundational: America would not have existed without them. This is why Malcolm X said that you can’t have capitalism without racism.
And this is what connects current socioeconomic conditions to the modern resurgence of racism: white people are no longer confident that the old bargain will continue to hold. It seems absurd when racists claim that because of things like affirmative action and minority-targeted scholarships, white people are now the group without any advantages, because these things are obviously amelioration-based policies that don’t actually harm white people. But this perspective starts to make sense when you think of it in terms of psychological superiority: if people of color have any advantage that white people don’t have, then white people are no longer special. We’re all just different people with different advantages and disadvantages, trying to get by in a fucked up world.
So, since attempting to hold on to white superiority is, of course, the wrong solution, the right solution can only be to negate the advantages that white people have accrued via white supremacy. Thus, a general economic solution, one that appeals to everybody by attempting to lift all boats equally, cannot work because of racism – because such a solution would maintain white superiority. Affirmative action may be a hacky band-aid solution, but in this sense it’s at least a step in the right direction. The fact that it aggrieves racists is actually how you can tell it’s a good idea: logically, racists will be aggrieved by any anti-racist policy. A policy that “we can all agree on,” that racists feel comfortable with, can, under present conditions, only be a racist policy.
Ergo, reparations. If our goal is to end white superiority, then there’s no reason to beat around the bush. If we don’t want white people to be advantaged over black people, then we should take the advantages white people have historically accumulated via racist exploitation and give them to black people. The fact that such a policy would feel unfair and would make white people feel attacked is the point; making peace with racists necessarily means supporting racism. Racists don’t need to be negotiated with, they need to be convinced where possible and defeated where necessary.
This is what Ta-Nehisi Coates was getting at when he criticized Bernie Sanders for dismissing the possibility of reparations. Ever since Coates started on this angle, people have been pretty consistently missing his point (intentionally or otherwise). The issue is not that there’s a “correct” policy that everyone should support; the issue is that we have not yet reached the point where anti-racist economic policy can be articulated. And the problem with comments like Sanders’ is that they prevent us from getting there.
“Reparations” by itself is not one policy, which is another point that Coates has made and that not a lot of people have picked up on. Rather, taking the idea of reparations seriously would result in multiple different sets of demands, each of which would have to be assessed on its own merits. There could certainly be such a thing as a bad reparations policy, but we can’t start talking about policy until we’ve decided the moral question. This is not stereotypical leftist squabbling over minor points of procedure; there is a bright line dividing the idea that the past is past and we should just try to create the fairest policy based on current conditions from the idea that we occupy a historical system of injustice which must be dismantled, even when doing so requires sacrifice.
In fact, this is the same bright line as the one dividing the idea that capitalism is sometimes “corrupt” and should be made more “fair” from the idea that capitalism is fundamentally based on exploitation, and that even the fairly accumulated resources of the rich should therefore be reappropriated. The difference between improving current conditions and remaking society is supposed to be what defines radicalism. The point of revolutionary thinking is that, when the problems you’re facing are interlocking parts of a self-sustaining system, the only solution is to address everything at once.
So part of what matters about a reparations program is actually calling it reparations. A program of the sort that Sanders advocates – taxing rich people, who are mostly white, and using the money to invest in impoverished communities, which are disproportionately populated by black people – would have a partial reparations-like effect, but by casting the problem as a matter of general inequality, such a program avoids confronting racism. It lets white people off the hook. And because racism is baked in to our society, leaving it alone allows it to perpetuate itself. What’s required is a reckoning, using the exact literal meaning of that word: a settling of accounts.
We like to think of racism as though it were an evil demon from a fairy tale: it used to be a vicious tyrant, but the heroes of the past defeated it, and the evil that remains today is merely its shadow, a fading darkness that only weird cultists still worship. The truth is that the demon has been severely weakened, but it is far from dead, and its power is still enough to provide real advantages, both material and metaphysical, to white people. And because this is the case, it’s inevitable that reactionary sentiment will flare up in times of uncertainty. Overt racists are not fringe wackos, they’re just the least sophisticated manifestation of the real enemy. We should do ourselves the favor of taking them seriously.
This is from Obama’s last State of the Union address (via):
“And most of all, democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some special interest.
Too many Americans feel that way right now.”
As though they were wrong, as though feelingthat way were the problem rather than, you know, the actual problem. This sort of feint is characteristic of Obama’s rhetoric. He identifies a real problem only to blame people who didn’t cause it for being “cynical” about it. The implication being that the whole thing is actually our fault for not hoping hard enough. This concept is the referent of the title of Obama’s campaign-hyping memoir The Audacity of Hope, and he occasionally likes to refer back to it by using the word “audacity” in this sense.
The problem is that this is the bad kind of audacity, and the bad kind of hope: not perseverance through adversity based on the belief that your efforts will eventually amount to something, but adherence to what you know to be a lost cause based on the fact that you have no other options. This is the kind of hope that precisely prevents problems from getting solved.
It’s the same hope that, among other things, motivates people to play the lottery. The lottery is not, as is often claimed, “a tax on people who are bad at math.” This implies that people who play the lottery are actually doing an expected value calculation, getting it wrong, and choosing to play on the basis of the results, which is clearly ridiculous; it also ignores the obvious non-linear utility of money. The people who come up with wacky stats about things that are more likely than winning the lottery are merely engaging in the standard college-educated-liberal tradition of pretending to be wise and thoughtful while actually just sneering at poor people (poor people foolishly gamble, rich people prudently invest). The truth, in fact, is worse: the lottery is a tax on hope.
Desperation is one thing, but much of the lottery hysteria comes from middle-class people who are actually fine but are still looking for their “big payday.” This is why attacking the lottery from a rational economic perspective misses the point: people like the lottery. I recently overheard someone saying that winning money is “the best feeling in the world.” One assumes/hopes this was ironic hyperbole, but this was a person who actually was playing the lottery; the sentiment was genuine. The fantasy, of course, is not really about money, but about being saved, about something else swooping down from the sky and solving all of your problems forever. This is why the “winning” aspect is important: what’s enjoyable is precisely the fact that you didn’t earn it.
Hence, the “American Dream” ultimately amounts to the desire to be able to fuck off and do nothing for the rest of your life. This is what people are actually dreaming about when they dream about winning the lottery. And if the only thing you really want out of life is to have “no problems,” to be “free” in the most trivial sense of the term, you’re a nihilist. Most Americans really can’t imagine anything more worthwhile than free money.
(Speaking of which, Patti Smith had her finger on this pulse 40 years ago. “Free Money” addresses precisely this fact: that money is only desirable to the extent that it actually lets you do things. The song’s fantastical positiveness negatively highlights the fact that money is not freedom, but rather lack of money is coercion.)
There is/was a lottery commercial where the powerballs or whatever they are are raining down from the sky, and somebody catches the winning one while faux-gospel music plays in the background. This literally portrays winning the lottery as salvation, which would seem to be as absurd an inversion as there ever was. But as with all commercials, what’s sickening about it is that it’s true: this is what Americans actually believe.
People who argue against the idea of America being a “Christian nation” are missing the forest for the trees. It doesn’t matter what percentage of people follow which religion, or what religion the “founders” were, what matters is that our national mythology is Christian mythology, adapted to the world of politics. “Manifest Destiny” is the same thing as the “Kingdom of Heaven.” Obama’s ascension was portrayed by liberals in explicitly messianic terms (and by conservatives in explicitly apocalyptic terms, which amounts to the same thing). He was the person who was going to “transcend” politics, to save America from itself. Recall, if you can stomach it, this asshole:
“Obama’s finest speeches do not excite. They do not inform. They don’t even really inspire. They elevate. They enmesh you in a grander moment, as if history has stopped flowing passively by, and, just for an instant, contracted around you, made you aware of its presence, and your role in it. He is not the Word made flesh, but the triumph of word over flesh, over color, over despair. The other great leaders I’ve heard guide us towards a better politics, but Obama is, at his best, able to call us back to our highest selves, to the place where America exists as a glittering ideal, and where we, its honored inhabitants, seem capable of achieving it, and thus of sharing in its meaning and transcendence.”
The truth is that liberals actually did win the lottery when Obama was elected. They got their messiah. The reason Obama didn’t save the world is not because he wasn’t “tough” enough or because he “compromised” too much, but because there was no salvation to be had.
In Christian mythology, the second coming of Jesus, the culmination of history for which the world endlessly waits, does not herald an improvement or a revelation or even a purification. It heralds the end of the world. The great dream of Christianity is that someday, at long last, the world will stop existing, and the faithful will never have to worry about anything ever again. American politics subsists on this same hope: that one day a great leader will “fix” the government, such that everyone will agree on everything, and we’ll never have to engage in politics ever again.
Of course, this is impossible. Conservatives actually have a leg up on liberals here, because they recognize that conflicting politics cannot be reconciled. Liberals persist in the delusion that conservatives are “misguided,” that they’re being “mislead” by “demagogues,” that they’re “voting against their own interests.” The truth is that conservatives know exactly what they want. They don’t want economic security or health care or global stability. The reason they pursue symbolic victories is that they want a symbolic victory.
This is why the outcome to be hoped for from the primary elections is Sanders vs. Cruz. This would be a real battle, a genuine conflict of values. America would finally be forced to stop hiding behind civility and show its true colors. Yes, an extreme reactionary candidate would present a huge danger to the country. That’s the point. One who values truth courts danger, confident that the truth is strong enough to win through. Anyone who supports a candidate based on “electability” is a coward.
Playing the lottery is essentially the same form of cowardice. The winner gains the ability to circumvent their problems and not address them (obvious disclaimer: none of this applies to people who actually don’t have enough money to survive on. Meaning is a luxury; survival is the law). If you actually won the lottery, you’d tell your boss to fuck off, bask in a haze of giddiness for a few weeks, and then settle into a routine of obsessive money management on top of the usual life-wasting activities that you already engage in with your current amount of free time. You will not be saved.
Obama did a thing about guns. It was very serious and emotional, because Obama is very serious about this issue and he’s seriously going to take serious actions about it, while also having emotions about it.
(Quick hit about the crying thing: Gawker’s headline for this was “Barack Obama Just Cried on National Television“, which falls squarely into the category of Not Helping. Gawkeristas are presumably the type of people who believe that crying is normal human behavior and that we should allow public figures to be honest with their emotions, but by making this the lede, let alone hamming it up for the headline, they’re implicitly portraying it as aberrant behavior. The way you help normalize something is, by definition, by not making a big deal about it.)
Obama is better than most politicians at saying the right thing, and the right thing he’s said about gun violence is that this is a problem that exists in America and in no other comparable nation.
Here’s Obama in the New York Times saying this, and another right thing:
“Every year, more than 30,000 Americans have their lives cut short by guns. Suicides. Domestic violence. Gang shootouts. Accidents.”
These things are how gun deaths actually happen in the numbers that they do. Roughly 60% of gun deaths are suicides. This makes suicide alone the primary issue with gun violence – more important than all types of homicides and accidents combined. Mass shootings specifically are not actually a big deal, policy-wise. As with terrorism in general, the threat from mass shootings is subjectively dramatic but statistically negligible.
And this is why all of Obama’s proposals are useless at addressing this issue on the level of the epidemic that it actually is. Specifically, the four proposed actions are: the usual shibboleths of “background checks” and “mental health,” “making our communites safer,” which apparently consists of, um, a phone call from the Attorney General, and “safety technology,” which is a particularly bizarre thing to focus on, for reasons we’ll get to later.
The great volume of talk about “background checks” and “reasonable restrictions” to keep guns out of “the wrong hands” is all a massive dodge. Let’s be serious. When politicians yammer on about “mental health,” they aren’t talking about depression. They’re scapegoating people with mental health issues as crazy killers, as though the only possible explanation for arbitrary murder is “craziness,” as though a proper patriotic American could never dream of doing something as unseemly as taking a life. They don’t want to admit that killers are in fact acting in accordance with American values.
It bears repeating that people with mental health issues are not more likely to commit violence; there’s no entry in the DSM for “psycho killer.” Mental health as politicians talk about it has fuckall to do with gun violence. As for depression and suicide, they’re never seen as real issues, since the only harm they do is to remove unpleasant people who we’d rather ignore anyway.
Now, regarding this, one of the actions is:
The Administration is proposing a new $500 million investment to increase access to mental health care.
Which is great. Money well spent (and it should of course be done regardless of gun violence). Except for the word “proposing,” and the fact that $500 mil on the federal level is chump change (it’s about 0.013% of the total budget, and 0.05% of expenditures on health care. Can you name 2,000 issues that are more important than mental health care? Probably not, seeing as suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in America). The issue isn’t that any of these proposals are bad things. Assuming they actually result in some sort of action, they will save a nonzero number of lives. But Obama is pushing these tepid policies while simultaneously playing up the dramatic horror of the issue. You don’t treat an epidemic with aspirin.
There are two real things that could be done. One is to treat guns like cars, dangerous objects that we allow people to own under the condition that they are licensed, trained, and insured. This is a perfectly reasonable course of action that is well within the confines of neoliberal political discourse. The fact that it is 100% impossible for this to happen in America illustrates the way in which American society is actually deranged.
But this still wouldn’t solve the problem. It would reduce gun deaths somewhat, just by making it slightly more onerous to actually get a gun. Actually, the most effective thing would probably be the insurance part, since it would actually create a corporate disincentive to spread guns around, and corporate incentivization is the only thing that actually makes things happen in America. But all you need to kill yourself is whatever the weakest type of handgun is and one bullet for it (and this applies at basically the same strength to killing other people; the “assault weapons” angle ignores how fantastic even basic handguns are at killing people), so any proposal that still allows people to get any kind of gun under basically any reasonable conditions will not solve the main issue.
This is why the second thing that could theoretically be done is the only way to actually improve the general situation. That thing is to ban guns.
The most charitable version of the argument against this is: you can’t uninvent guns, and a person without a gun is helpless against a person with a gun, so allowing gun ownership is the only thing that provides the possibility of self-defense. This isn’t wrong, argumentatively speaking, but it’s practically irrelevant. It’s not just that perfect safety is a fantasy, it’s that you really can’t protect yourself at all from the overwhelming majority of lethal threats that you face every day. You’re in far more danger driving a car onto the freeway than you ever will be from gun violence.
Also, there’s no need to argue hypothetically; we already know that this isn’t a real problem. As Obama didn’t quite get all the way to pointing out, other countries have banned guns and they’re doing just fine. We know for a fact that it is not the case that British cities are controlled by roving gangs of gunhavers while ordinary law-abiding citizens desperately try to defend themselves with kitchen knives.
The other accidental point that gun advocates make is that gun violence is the cost of a free society. This is true, assuming you count “freedom to own guns” as part of what “free society” means. You don’t have to do that, though. There’s no comprehensive definition of “freedom” such that a society that meets it is “maximally free.” Every freedom entails a corresponding restriction. Free speech entails people being harmful assholes. Free trade entails economic exploitation. And free ownership of lethal weapons entails death.
There’s a popular liberal saying, “my rights end where yours begin,” but this doesn’t actually mean anything, because defining where that line is is the entire question. A society where face-punching is illegal is a society where you are free to walk down the street without the threat of being punched in the face, but you are not free to punch somebody in the face if they’re annoying you. A society where face-punching is legal is a society where you are free to punch people in the face for arbitrary reasons, but you are not free to avoid the possibility of being punched in the face yourself. The question of which of these freedoms we value more is a real question that we really have to answer. In this case it’s not particularly controversial, but the issue with guns has exactly the same dynamic.
This is the real point that is missing from the mainstream debate about guns: we are choosing what kind of society we want to have. Everyone pretends like the issue has a “solution,” like if we find just the right combination of regulations we can have a society where everyone owns a gun but there’s no gun violence, or at least not so much that we have to read about it in the paper sometimes and get sad. But the truth is that it is a choice; the truth is that we’ve alreadymade this choice, and we’ve chosen guns.
But it’s not just guns, this same point is missing from literally every mainstream debate about everything. The idea of choosing values does not enter into the neoliberal conception of politics as a process of optimization. This is why neoliberalism is the invisible ideology: it only talks about means, pretending that it doesn’t have ends.
This is where the technology bit comes in. The proposal here is that we can develop “smart guns” that have fingerprint locks or whatever, and this will prevent thefts and accidents and soforth. Let’s assume that this is true, that we can develop guns that are 100%, uh, “safe” (see, just talking about this is bizarre). The actual effect of this will be basically dick. First, there are already an unbelievable shitton of non-magic-robot guns floating around, and they aren’t going anywhere unless we, you know, ban them. Furthermore, there will obviously continue to be a demand for non-magic-robot guns, since being dangerous is the point of guns and because guns are overwhelmingly bought as fetish objects (since they do so little for actual security); buying a safe gun is almost exactly like buying censored porn.
This is why technology cannot solve political problems. Political problems are problems of competing interests. All technology can do is give people more capacity to fulfill their desires (the fact of your desires becoming fulfillable can also change them, which is an actual problem with technology, but let’s keep this simple); it does not resolve conflicts, because nothing can fulfill competing desires simultaneously. It is to obscure this point that neoliberalism so zealously imports the language of technology into political discourse. As another example, some politicians have called for the development of new encryption technology that is more secure but also allows the government’s intelligence agencies to do whatever they want with it. This is not possible; encryption is either secure or it isn’t. The point of such a proposal, of pretending that there’s a technological “solution” that addresses all concerns, is precisely to elide the fact that the government wants to be able to spy on people, because politicians would rather not have to actually make that argument.
In the same way, this is the actual function of the Constitution in American political discourse. It provides us with a readymade set of values, such that we never have to think about issues on that level. You see this all the time in gun control debates: the Second Amendment is always the stopping point, and we poke and prod at the exact meaning of its comma placement as though that matters, as though the question were not precisely whether we agree that gun ownership ought to be constitutionally protected. There is only one serious gun control position: repeal the Second Amendment.
Of course, this applies just as well to the entire Constitution (notwithstanding the fact that the Ninth Amendment exists; you’ll never hear that one brought up in a political debate). By setting unassailable limits on political discourse, the Constitution acts as a bulwark against radicalism. It allows us to pretend that we’ve got it all figured out already, that a bunch of rich slave-owning rapists solved the problem of values for us, that all we have to do is flesh out the implementation details. This is why Constitution fetishism is another of neoliberalism’s weapons of choice.
And this is why Obama, who is in many ways the apotheosis of American politics, raises big issues but only ever talks about them in terms of reform. It allows him to avoid the responsibility of actually advocating for a system of values – which would, of course, entail attacking those with opposing values instead of fantasizing that every issue can be solved through compromise. I recently read Jimmy Carter’s so-called “malaise” speech for the first time, and I realized why everyone got so pissed about it: he actually had the audacity to suggest that Americans examine their values and modify their behavior accordingly. (Of course, he got the direction wrong: he thought the problem was that Americans needed to commit more strongly to their traditional values.)
As convenient as it is to pretend otherwise, there’s actually no such thing as not having ends. If you’re not consciously aiming your actions at chosen ends, your ends will by default become whatever the actual results of your actions are. So if neoliberalism actually succeeds and we end up locked into an optimization process without an awareness of what it is we’re optimizing, the end result really will be a perfect society – one that is perfectly in accord with a value system that no human would ever have chosen.