Given recent developments in Nazis, this is probably a good time for some real talk on the whole free speech thing. While this topic has been discussed to death, it’s attracted a truly staggering amount of dullardry in the process, so I feel the need for boring philosophical clarity.
First, there is no such position as free speech absolutism. You cannot begin understanding the issue until you understand this. We like to talk about “rights” as though they are unlimited, but that’s not how the concept works. In terms of moral philosophy, a right is something that you don’t violate for utilitarian purposes. There are times when killing someone might actually result in the best overall outcome, but you still don’t kill people in those cases, because you have the right not to be killed.1 But it’s for this same reason that you can and indeed have to violate rights in order to preserve other rights. In the real world, rights conflict, so you can’t always preserve all of them.2 This isn’t a novel interpretation, it’s just how rights work. Even Second Amendment zealots don’t argue that individuals ought to be able to own and operate intercontinental ballistic missiles.
When it comes to speech, there are already plenty of laws on the books restricting it on this basis. Ordering an assassination is not “protected speech,” because it violates the target’s right to life. And the restrictions aren’t only for extreme cases; lots of practical, everyday speech acts are prohibited in the same way. Credible death threats are illegal because they violate the target’s right to basic security. Shouting “fire” in a crowded theater is illegal because it causes direct physical harm. Libel is illegal because you have the right not to suffer harmful consequences based on falsehoods (of course, you do not have the right to avoid the consequences of truths, which is why only falsehoods qualify as libel. In other words, this is a specific instance of the right to due process). There’s even a legal category that’s actually called “fighting words,” referring to speech that directly precipitates harm or illegal action. The decision referenced in that link clearly conveys the balance of interests required in making these determinations:
It has been well observed that such utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.
Furthermore, speech not only conflicts with other rights, it also conflicts with itself. One of the problems with libel is that preemptive damage to the target’s reputation prevents them from being able to correct the record – one person’s speech restricts another’s. Similarly, highly provocative speech can prevent a discussion from taking place, and certain types of intellectual climates make certain ideas inadmissible. You can’t respond to these types of situations simply by picking the side with “more speech.” There can be valid speech on both sides, and you have to decide which side you value more.
In a broader and more important sense, this is the real problem with hate speech. It’s not that it hurts people’s feelings or even that it’s “harmful” in general. It’s okay and frequently desirable for harmful things to happen. Racists get their feelings hurt when people call them racists, but this is a good thing, because it’s correct for your feelings to hurt when people call you out for doing bad things. The problem is that hate speech is detrimental to overall human expression.3 Arguing that black people are inferior to white people necessarily reduces their effective ability to speak. The argument itself does this, even before anyone accepts it, because refuting the argument becomes a prerequisite to listening to black people. If you spend all you time arguing about whether black people’s ideas deserve to be taken seriously, you spend none of your time actually taking black people’s ideas seriously. This is exactly why the affected groups often try to shut these discussions down: because they have to, or they will never be able to say anything else.
So if you call yourself a “free speech absolutist” and refuse to make any determinations on the issue, all you’re actually doing is allowing existing forces to make those determinations on their own. The real world has a variety of conditions and constraints that allow certain types of expression to happen and disallow others, and a “hands off” approach means tacit agreement with the results. So you are not in fact an “absolutist” at all, you’re just a naive censor.
This also means that “maximizing speech” (as in “the solution to bad speech is more speech”) is not a coherent goal, because some ideas crowd out others. The idea that black people are inferior to white people and the idea that black people should be equal participants in society cannot just float around abstractly without affecting each other. They conflict on the basis of their inherent content. To the extent that one of those ideas is expressed more, the other is expressed less.
This is compounded by the fact that there is a limit on how much speech can actually exist. We are finite beings living in a finite world, so we can never inhabit a situation in which we are expressing and considering “all” ideas. (When someone says “all options are on the table,” they really just mean that an option that would make them look bad if they directly argued for it is in fact being argued for.) The space of potential ideas is infinite, and choosing which are worthy of consideration is a large portion of what it means to be an intelligent lifeform. Not all expression is of equal quality. Putting forth an argument that has been widely rebutted is inferior to a new version of the same argument that takes the rebuttals into account, or to an entirely new argument. Substituting one of the latter options for the former increases overall quality of expression. The way that the 24-hour news cycle effectively forces some new thing to become the Most Important Thing every day is anti-free-speech behavior, because it restricts the ability to distinguish between levels of real importance. Furthermore, context matters. It matters that the New York Times has completely godawful op-ed columnists because lots and lots of people read the New York Times and take it seriously just because it’s the New York Times. The fact that better ideas are free to exist elsewhere doesn’t cancel this out. Ideas being expressed in more prominent venues matter more.
I’m being pedantic; this is really all just the basic stuff we do when we communicate: we try to understand things and make useful contributions to the discussion and say things that are right instead of wrong. We try to get useful ideas expressed in the places where people can actually hear them. We criticize the elevation of trash, not because we think people don’t know better, but because there are better uses of our limited resources.
Obviously, we do not want to respond to this situation by censoring any idea that someone deems “not good enough.” But that’s exactly the point: the only question here is how we’re going to manage speech. In terms of what we want to accomplish, increasing the overall quality of ideas expressed is the only thing that makes sense. We don’t want a “robust discussion” about fascism, we want a discussion where nobody is arguing for fascism.
But whoever is ready to grant to the government this power would be inconsistent if he objected to the demand to submit the statements of churches and sects to the same examination. Freedom is indivisible. As soon as one starts to restrict it, one enters upon a decline on which it is difficult to stop. If one assigns to the government the task of making truth prevail in the advertising of perfumes and tooth paste, one cannot contest it the right to look after truth in the more important matters of religion, philosophy, and social ideology.
Of course you can. I think it’s pretty obvious that the slope between banning poisonous toothpaste and banning political opinions is not particularly slippery. There are specific reasons why the government is (potentially) competent at the former but not the latter. First, the government has an obvious bias regarding which political ideas get expressed, which makes it an incompetent judge of which ideas deserve suppression. As the entity that manages power distribution, the government has the strongest possible vested interest in regulating ideas. But the government is just as capable as any other entity of running tests to determine what’s poisonous, and it has no vested interest in the results4. So the problem here has nothing to do with “big government,” it’s simply a matter of competent discrimination.
Second, because the government is the entity with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, ideas prohibited by the government are absolutely prohibited. It’s okay to ban one brand of toothpaste, because that’s not a significant restriction on anyone’s choices (if the toothpaste really is significantly harmful, it’s actually an enhancement of people choices, because it prevents them from accidentally making a decision they never would have made based on real information). But ideas are more complicated. Even an obviously bad idea might have positive effects through clarifying arguments or inspiring counterpoints. So, unlike being poisoned, which is something you never want, bad ideas are not absolute negatives. You might want to restrict them in particular times and at particular places, but you don’t want them absolutely restricted. Since people obviously disagree about ideas, discrimination is properly applied on the level of voluntary groups – that is, organizations can decide individually which ideas are worthwhile for them and which are not.5 And while there are in fact ideas that deserve complete eradication (again, fascism), this has to be done organically. Ideas are not magic; they have physical causes. If you try to banish an idea without addressing why it came about in the first place, it’s inevitably going to regenerate at some point. That’s exactly what’s happening right now: everyone thought we had gotten over fascism, when in reality all we had done was to shove it into the category of “Bad Things” without doing anything about its real causes. But once you’ve processed an idea and moved into a new situation where it no longer applies, artificially preserving it restricts speech. It prevents you from moving on to the next stage of discussion.
So these are the two actual criteria that matter for assessing speech restrictions. The first is accurate judgment: whether the idea is being restricted on its own merits or out of other motivations such as prejudice or political interest. The second is breadth: whether the restriction is being applied at the correct level. It’s fine for one explicitly capitalist magazine to disallow socialist opinions, because that’s not what anyone reading it is there for. It’s not okay for a larger entity to disallow the creation of any other types of magazines. But banning death threats throughout all of society is the correct level of applicability for that case, because death threats affect all humans.
Understanding the issue in terms of these criteria shifts the terrain of the debate considerably. The main point here is that speech restrictions have to be considered in context and not as absolutes, so I’m not going to try to formulate any kind of rules about what’s good and what’s bad. But since this issue has attracted such an unfortunate amount of misdirected chatter, I will work through a few examples to show how this works.
An extremely important story that has not received nearly enough attention is a recent change Google made to its search algorithm to promote more “authoritative” results. Naturally, this resulted in traffic drops for a variety of “alternative” news sources. This isn’t the kind of thing that normally gets discussed as a free speech violation. After all, none of the affected websites have actually been “censored,” and there are other search engines available. But the result is the same, because it fails both criteria. It’s improper discrimination because it’s intended to improve the “quality” of results, but all it actually does is impose a particular political viewpoint on them, based on Google’s collective internal assumption as to what counts as “fake news.” And it’s also overly broad, because it affects everyone who goes looking for information on any topic, regardless of what their individual desires are. If you’re trying to find alternative news sources, this change will prevent you from doing so, and there’s no way to opt out of it. And of course Google doesn’t tell you how it’s filtering its results, and it’s constantly changing things without telling anyone, so you don’t know whether there really is something else out there or not. Furthermore, Google is entrenched enough that it’s more accurate than not to say that this affects “everybody,” even though there are technically alternatives available. In other words, Google users constitute an involuntary group that has not consented to this restriction. If this were just one explicit, publicly understood option among many – if, say, it were one search engine marketing itself as an “authoritative news source” or something – then there wouldn’t be a breadth problem. The people who chose to use it would know what they were getting.
This applies just as much to the general movement to get social media companies to “do something” about “fake news.” Again, this isn’t an absolute condition; there’s no such thing as a “neutral” platform. But the criteria still apply. Scams and death threats are examples of things that social media companies can (potentially) accurately identify and which merit prohibition. Banning Twitter users who make “jokes” about putting people into ovens is more free-speech-friendly than not doing so. People who pull that shit are specifically trying to intimidate others out of speaking. And this does actually bleed into politics somewhat: if your ideas cannot be expressed without direct dehumanization and death threats, then it is correct for them to be suppressed. When it comes to actually discriminating based on ideology, though, giving Facebook the ability to decide which ideas are worthy of expression means conducting public discourse from inside Mark Zuckerberg’s head, which is clearly the worst possible outcome.
As mentioned, the big issue is Nazis, and unfortunately there isn’t a trivial solution here. If we’re talking specifically about literal Nazis, then censorship is probably fine. We can be as certain as we are of anything that Nazism is not a viable political option, and removing it from the public discourse doesn’t prevent people from cosplaying as Nazis on their own time. But of course there is no actual Nazi Party anymore; the entire issue is identifying which ideologies are really dangerous. Trump was widely condemned as a white supremacist for equivocating after Charlottesville, but all the mainstream Republicans who denounced him are also white supremacists. In fact, they’re more effective white supremacists, because, unlike Trump, they’re actually capable of closing deals. Declaring only overt Nazism beyond the pale sets the paling far too far to the right.
The thing that’s being called the “alt-right” is not one thing. It’s an umbrella term that covers a lot of different ideas and reactions. We can assume they’re all wrong, but even then, they’ve come up for real reasons, in response to real problems. Trying to sweep this stuff under the rug is exactly how you get surprised by someone like Trump. Dealing with these problems for real requires creating a society that fixes them, and developing that blueprint requires engaging with the underlying ideas. Expecting the government to take care of the bad guys is not going to accomplish this. In fact, it’s the opposite: the government is on the side of the fascists more than it is on yours.
Importantly, though, “engaging” here does not mean restricting yourself to the realm of cable-friendly “rational debate.” It means having a real fight. Making group efforts to deny fascists the use of social resources meets both free speech criteria. Such efforts can only come to fruition when there is widespread, non-idiosyncratic agreement as to what’s going on, and shutting down individual gatherings is not equivalent to censorship. People making the collective decision to disallow certain types of speech from the platforms over which they have influence is pro-free-speech activity, because it allows better ideas (by the standards of the involved parties) to be expressed. So shutting down fascists is indeed the right thing to do, but it only works if you do it yourself. Anyone who claims to be doing it for you is actually just fattening you up so they can eat you.
Also, violence is not a unique problem. The problem with violence is simply that it violates the criteria: it discriminates on the basis of who’s better at fighting rather than which ideas are better, and it completely prohibits expression rather than singling out particular ideas. But in situations where this isn’t the case, or where violence is already being applied, there’s no case for rejecting violence as such. Like, it’s pretty ridiculous to get all huffy about individual acts of defensive violence when they only stand out because you’re living in a cocoon created by the greatest purveyor of offensive violence in world history. Violence is generally a bad thing, but, given the current situation, a lot of the time it’s less bad than doing nothing.
(By the way, antifa has nothing to do with any of this, because they don’t start shit. As Cornel West and others have testified, their whole thing is defending people against fascist violence. From what I understand, they will actually escort neo-Nazis out of danger in order to defuse violent situations. Fretting about “violence” here, especially in the face of fascists who come armed to what they intend to be public confrontations, is nothing but typical anti-leftist bogeymanning.)
On a lighter note, the whole thing about university speakers being protested is a perfect example of something that is not a real problem. First, such protests can only happen through mass mobilization on the part of the affected constituency, which is proper discrimination. Second, being denied a speaking slot at a university has basically no other repercussions. Your ideas are still out there for people to engage with. Even the specific students at that university can look them up if they want to. In fact, the direction of suppression here is exactly the opposite of how it’s normally portrayed. It is the granting of the speaking slot in the first place that is suppressive behavior. If a group of college students wants to create a discursive climate in which trans people are not bullied, giving Milo Yanniopolis a speaking slot censors that political opinion.
To be honest, none of this is particularly relevant. Invoking “free speech” is almost always a dodge away from discussing actual political issues. It’s a way for people who don’t have the guts to take a meaningful stand to pretend like they’re principled when they really just want to avoid the discomfort of genuine values conflicts. The real problem is the fact that it works. As long as “free speech” is thought to be at issue, everyone has to spend all their time preemptively defending themselves instead of making real arguments. In other words, talking about free speech is a means of suppressing speech.
You might want to keep in mind that this is all highly theoretical, because of course the government kills people and commits other rights violations for utilitarian reasons all the time, so talking about any kind of “pure” standard here is fantasyland from the getgo. ↩
This applies broadly. If you try to take just one right and treat it as absolute, you run into internal contradictions. For example, treating the right to life as absolute and sacrificing everything else to it leads to the Repugnant Conclusion: valuing only life destroys the things that make life valuable in the first place. ↩
So, if you hadn’t noticed, “hate speech” is a complete misnomer. Hatefulness has nothing to do with anything. The problem is with dehumanizing speech. This is actually why a lot of people get confused: they think they’re looking for “hate,” so when they don’t see it, they assume there’s no problem. Having a level of conceptual organization beyond “bad things are bad” matters. ↩
There can, of course, be other interests at work: the relevant agency might be in the pocket of Big Toothpaste (this is called “regulatory capture”), or the government might want to direct poisoning at a specific undesirable community (this is called “environmental racism”). But these aren’t arguments against regulation, they’re arguments for good regulation. ↩
This doesn’t work for involuntary groups. You can’t argue both that people need to work to eat and that their employers should be able to restrict their political opinions, unless you’re willing to accept that people with the wrong kind of ideas ought to be murdered. Either work is involuntary and employment is protected, or working is not a prerequisite for staying alive and associations can be fully voluntary. ↩
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. ↩