The Intellectual Situation
There is every reason to expect the worst
Tuesday in Philadelphia
At the campaign office with the overworked field staff and their whiteboards, snack packs, coffee cups, Adderall, we’re picking up packets of turf for Clinton. We call it “bitter realist” canvassing, but we have good reasons for knocking on doors. Here in Pennsylvania there’s a tight race for a crucial senate seat. Up in one northeastern district, where the majority are registered as Democrats, an immigration lawyer is running against a longtime Republican incumbent for state representative. Philly loves a fighter the posters say, showing the lawyer slamming a punching bag (like Rocky, you see). The Republican’s handouts are more forthright, showing images of who this nasty lawyer defends: the bearded, brown faces of “TERRORISTS.” Elsewhere, Republican bigot Martina White, who introduced legislation to punish Philadelphia for being a sanctuary city, tries to hold her statehouse position against another Democratic challenger. A billboard on I-95 reads VOTE WHITE.
In Port Richmond, where some churches still hold mass in Polish, we walk up and down Aramingo Avenue, which divides the neighborhood like a wall: white people on one side, black and brown people on the other. A nervous woman passes us in the crosswalk wearing an oversize hoodie advertising the Achieving Independence Center — a halfway house. Pumpkins and dirty couch cushions sag on the porches. Some doors advertise that the occupants are busy watching the Eagles: PLEASE DON’T DISTURB. Through the windows, we catch families gathered around the TV, quietly scrolling on their phones. Farther up, toward Tioga: Fraternal Order of Police stickers, WE SUPPORT THE POLICE signs. Outside one house, a large American flag flies with a difference — among the red stripes, there’s a thin blue one.
“I’m not voting,” a thirtysomething white man says through his screen door. “Both candidates are garbage. Anyway, I never vote.” Why? He pauses. “Because” — slowly, druggily — “I don’t like it.” A younger black man, a veteran, holds us in a long, wonkish conversation in which he says he’s 51–49 Clinton. “I’m a fiscal conservative. I’m worried about her spending plans.” Well, we say, Trump’s tax cuts are going to tank the deficit — but he cuts in. “Look, if Bernie Sanders were running, this would be no problem. He’d have my vote in a second.” It makes no sense (a “fiscal conservative” for Sanders?) but we don’t press. At the next door, a middle-aged Latina woman answers, and just when we think it’s going well she mentions she’s undecided on the presidency. “What’s important to you this election?” we ask. “Fidelity to the Bible,” she says. “Specifically regarding abortion.” We thank her for her time.
Northwood, on the smart side of the elevated rail tracks, is full of trees and stately homes built of Wissahickon schist. These were once the homes of industrial bosses; they’re now diverse, poorer but stable, the last vestiges of an otherwise decrepit working-class ideal. We try to persuade a middle-aged black woman who organized with the civil rights movement that the immigration lawyer is worth her time; she has to kick the Republican incumbent out. “You shouldn’t be talking to me about some ‘progressive Democrat,’ ” she huffs. “We should be talking about a revolution, like what Bernie Sanders was talking about.” What about the presidency? “Oh, I’m voting for her. I’m not happy about it. I remember Sister Souljah, I remember ‘super-predators.’ The Clintons are racists, too. But election time is always about choosing the lesser racist. You’ve got to weigh your racists.”
Down the street, a man with a Muslim name. “I can’t decide, I can’t stand the corruption,” he says. From Trump, he means? “No, from Hillary!” But — anxiously — isn’t he worried about racism, about violence? After all, listen to what Trump’s been saying! “Nah, it’s Hillary who’s the problem. Read the WikiLeaks!”
Another door, another challenge. “Tell me,” a young man says. “Who elects the President: the people or the electoral college?”
“Well, technically, the electoral college . . . ”
“That’s why I’m not voting.”
Most people aren’t home. Most people, as usual, won’t vote.
On Tuesday night, some of us are in the living room, watching the returns, rapt, as we would be anyway. A few more are in the kitchen, cutting the flag cake into smaller pieces, making bad electoral-college jokes, or wondering whether flag eating will also be banned under Trump alongside flag burning and national-anthem protests. The friend who baked the cake nearly severed a finger in the process and wound up in the hospital. What’s an American flag without a little blood baked in?
A group prefers to stay in the garden, smoking, small-talking. Our friend E. is speaking at length about Edward P. Jones’s novel The Known World. He’s just discovered it and wants to let everyone know. He identifies strongly with one of the characters: would you believe they have the same name! We laugh over this, a little too loudly, and he mentions a parallel between a scene in the novel and Sentimental Education. We discuss going to bed while the revolution roils the streets outside and nominate acquaintances for the role of Sénécal, the friend who joins the secret police. Who will be the one to betray us to Trump’s Gestapo or shoot us on the barricades?
A helicopter circles in the distance. The returns are getting worse, the news from Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania. Our wise friend, when asked what to tell the children, speaks of the need for a resilient message: “We keep fighting, we don’t run away and hide when we lose a game. The world doesn’t end when the other team wins.” We nod. “Of course that’s a little simplistic,” she adds. “If I feel my family is threatened, we’re getting out.”
In the corner, a former data wonk for the Sanders campaign is gently knocking his head against the wall. Someone from the TV room says, “Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck.” Everyone left looks ashen, subdued, older, exhausted. The world-weary friend speaks to the wise friend about life under authoritarian dictatorships: there are Russians, Turks, Chinese — they too survive. Their lives are blighted, embittered, limited, but they get by. We are simply joining the new world order.
Beneath the shock, guilt creeps in alongside the sense of failure. Everyone here has volunteered for the Democratic Party. Could we have done more? Should we have done more? Pushed harder, launched ourselves more fervently and earlier into more difficult places? One’s sense of agency begins to weaken. This is a room of doers, achievers, people used to seeing their efforts rewarded. We begin to feel like the young white woman we spoke to earlier. She’d voted for Trump, she admitted, but we shouldn’t worry, she always gets everything wrong, her life a succession of bad choices. She doesn’t know how to pick a winner. “Yeah, he’s an asshole,” she said, “but I just don’t like Her.” While she talked, her toddler, cashew-toned, blue-eyed, biracial, played happily with other darker-skinned children in the front yard. We wanted to tell her that her choices hadn’t let her down as much as she thought, but that she had let herself and those choices down when she voted.
We want to tell ourselves this, too. Not the voting part: the part about our decisions not having been the wrong ones. We’d put aside whatever rancor, envy, knowingness we felt in order to toil, however reluctantly, in the name of Hillary Clinton, and we did not feel like losers. But part of the disaster of Trump’s victory is that our best actions come to seem like mistakes. When society rewards a man whose level of bad childishness even debases the word child, our work to become — not just act like — adults feels pointless, squandered. The superego becomes a voice of punishing desublimation: If only you hadn’t believed the adults when they told you that something was just a game, that there was more to life than competition, that kindness was a virtue. The failure to remain true to your preadolescent self stings. Maturity feels like failure.
The next day, in the private glow of our computer screens, we try to draw lessons. We read articles about exit polls, try to remember where the rust belt starts and stops, weigh gender against race. The first lesson is the deceptiveness of data. Knocking on doors turned voters — like magic! — into real people, people whose collective opinion is in no way coherent or conclusive. The social world does not fit the statistical world.
And yet we cling to the statistics; for the moment, they’re all we have. Fifty-three percent of white women voted for Trump. Why, how? We hadn’t expected them to throw their weight unanimously behind the first woman President, but we’d expected more than this. Surely many voted for whiteness above all else, consciously or otherwise. Others didn’t trust her, a rich career woman who couldn’t speak to or for the poor. At least some favored Trump because he reminded them of their husbands and boyfriends — arrogant chauvinists of exaggerated confidence — and they were sticking by their man. In the tea leaves we read a failure of feminist infrastructure. Maybe this is what happens when all you have are Planned Parenthood and gender-studies departments. There are many, many women in the United States to whom feminism has never been available.
Perversely, we look at Melania Trump and see a woman who needs feminism. We look at Ivanka Trump — perhaps the most privileged woman in America, the beneficiary of an international domestic-labor market that frees her from housework by leaving it to underpaid women from Asia, Africa, and South America; a woman who hardly pays her factory workers in Dongguan for sixteen-hour days making Ivanka Trump shoes; who poses for Vogue while her Chinese nanny, Xixi, watches her three children — we look at this woman and think even she needs feminism. What else could compel her to change? Segregation of the sexes is especially stark among the rich, and if there’s any form of oppression Ivanka knows, it’s sexism. No matter how many women she ignores, undermines, or exploits, she will never be a man. And she will injure many women she will never know and never see.
Racism, nationalism, and patriarchy belong to a common project. All nationalist programs reduce women to breeders for the nation, expelling, degrading, or killing those they don’t want. Nationalism is not kind to gays, lesbians, or gender nonconformists, either. At best, women can hope to be exceptions — honorary men granted the privilege of oppressing other women. The respect, pride, and affection benevolent patriarchs have for women is similar to the sort they have for their dogs. The difference is not in degree but kind: the love of masters for their pets can be deep, but it’s not the love of equals.
If political progress resembles the movement of a train, the front car chugging toward a still-distant horizon of possibility, reaction attacks the station, the point of entry where people linger, hesitate, and imagine getting on board. We thought we could take the entry point of feminism for granted, believe in the permanence of its basic achievements: the franchise and representation in government, the right to pleasure and the right to solitude, 100 cents on the dollar for our labor, the freedom to decide when and whether to have children. We assumed our own generation’s fight would be for new and better things, for ways of being and thinking not available in the past — not for the achievements won by our mothers and grandmothers. But while we had our eyes on the horizon, the rear car was derailed, the station besieged. The challenge, now, is to expect nothing but still demand everything: to fight our mothers’ fight and our own at the same time.
Adieu au prolétariat
Days pass, and we remind ourselves: nearly two million more Americans voted for Clinton than for Trump. This helps with morale, if not with policy. More Americans voted for Gore than for Bush in 2000, but that didn’t prevent the Bush Administration from implementing a maximalist agenda the moment it took office. Trump may have been incoherent and inconsistent in his campaign promises (one day he’s building a wall and banning Muslims, the next he’s building bridges and, at Ivanka’s urging, paying for everyone’s child care), but he has been consistent in his choice of advisers. They constitute a small right-wing criminal class within the larger corrupt American political class — a mixture of white supremacists, “law and order” fascists, and the inevitable finance-industry revanchists. Until a few weeks ago, those looking for a sliver of common sense pinned their hopes on the chair of the Benghazi hearings and the guy who shut down the George Washington Bridge to punish a disloyal mayor. There is every reason to expect the worst. We should prepare for an increase in deportations, further militarization of our borders and police forces, cuts in social programs (with particular damage to minority communities), and an increase in hate crimes. Democracy itself may well be at stake.
Online, writers launch blithely into essays about what the vote represents, what the voters want, as if this were some normal election to be analyzed in the usual mode. It’s like Vox trying to figure out the victory of the 1938 Anschluss referendum in Austria (“Surprising turnout numbers in the Salzburg suburbs”) and missing the Wald for the Bäumen. We read and parse in a manic, useless way until a friend’s email forces us to recognize the waves of feeling we’ve been pushing aside every half hour. The feeling is of strangeness, of failed recognition. We were wrong about what was going to happen: now the analysis defers the inevitable recognition of what has happened. Even the phrase “President-Elect” doesn’t compute. When the TV announcers say it, it sounds like a mistake.
We do feel ready to blame someone. Clinton’s campaign was doomed from the start. “Not our President”? Not our Party either. The Democrats — festooned this season with celebrities and capitalists to an unthinking degree — rarely talked about what workers and the dispossessed needed to build their lives. Most voters could hardly name a thing Clinton was for. Instead, the campaign piped into every swing-state living room a nonstop stream of American success, the sunshine pabulum of the DNC: “America is great because America is good,” “America is already great.” Anger, loss, and economic trauma could be overcome by a genial disposition, an endless exhibition of proper behavior with an extra helping of negative ads correcting Trump for his crude (never “criminal”) actions.
If voters didn’t know what Clinton was for, they knew what she was against: Donald Trump, and people who did things like him. Her strategy was “disqualification.” Clinton ran on “competence”: She was, as her supporters never ceased to remind us, “the most qualified presidential candidate in history.” The message was engineered to resonate with white-collar women familiar with being passed over for senior-level jobs. But it put a new twist on the politics of ’60s neoconservatism, combining it with the meritocratic strain that’s ruled the Democratic Party since the ’80s. No need for a straightforward, easily intelligible ideological call — the people versus “the billionaire class,” say. Just: Trust us. Our policies are healthy and good for you.
This story about the ultimate triumph of the most talented may well have sounded familiar to voters struggling to stay above water. It may even have prompted many of them not to vote. When they lost their jobs, or struggled to stay afloat as incomes stagnated and costs rose, they were repeatedly told that their misfortune was their fault. They didn’t have the right skills, they had failed to keep up. Why did they stay in “sunset” industries? Why couldn’t they just go to college and get a “good job” like the meritocrats? The working class didn’t lose out because politicians considered them expendable. They lost, they were told, because they were not competent.
It was this rhetoric that moved Trump beyond criticism. If the trouble with Trump was that experts called him incompetent, or that he should have been disqualified for saying things that, while terrible, could be spun as “honest,” then the trouble with Trump was the trouble with the struggling voters themselves. They, too, had been told that they were incompetent, that they were unqualified. To turn against Trump would be to turn against oneself. To embrace Trump was to embrace a particular version of oneself, to give free rein to impulses that on other occasions — four and eight years ago, for instance — had been restrained. One does not need to sympathize with this logic to understand its force.
Enemy of the Republic
It is far better to “overreact” to a moment that sets up the means for tyranny than not to react. Better to seize hold of the abnormal than turn violation into the normal.
If the polity is not the state but its citizens, the most important thing individual Americans can do is deny Trump aid, collaboration, agreement, and acceptance. Not accept, not adjust, not adapt, not appease, not conciliate. There is something sinister in the media’s “ten-step plans” to adjust to a President-Elect Trump, as if this were a personal upset needing therapy rather than a question of democratic legitimacy itself.
For the time being, many Americans may have to be political to an unusual degree, and political in a new way. One should consider citizens’ capacity to resist and disobey. To what extremes of disobedience and resistant behavior do peaceful Americans know how to go? The ordinary, unromantic, and vilified forms of disobedience may turn out to be most needed. Refusal of allegiance. Refusal of participation. Not showing up. Leaving key government jobs, or staying in those jobs to slow down or stall illegitimate actions. Daily refusal to go along with orders coming from an illegitimate executive. Refusal of bureaucrats, tasked with reporting on citizens, to report if it could put their subjects in jeopardy. Refusal of enforcement agencies to enforce. Refusals and resignations in the armed forces. Refusal of those tasked with cooperating with the government to cooperate.
The old rule of thumb for a republic is that all points of view and methods of politics can be endured except the one that denies rule of law in the republic. This alone can and should be treated as a threat, as if coming from outside. During the presidential campaign, Trump went on record, repeatedly, steadily, and memorably in front of us all — in the debates, in the press, in his campaign communications — to register that he would not obey the norms of the republic. He would not submit to the rule of law, and he would not act in the interests of the republic as a citizen. He would not submit to the result of the election, or a smooth succession, if he lost the vote. He did not acknowledge the independence of the judiciary. He had not paid his share of taxes to the state. He would not separate his policies from personal enrichment. In this sense, he was like many of his class. Trump served a salutary function as long as he was not elected, in showing the compromises and corruptions of American society in his own person. He could say, and show, that the “system was rigged” and corrupt because he had done his best to make it so.
“I alone can fix our nation because I have contributed at the highest level to its destruction and corruption” is not an admission that can command loyalty or legitimacy. It is a whistle-blowing admission that forfeits standing. Trump can only be understood, paradoxically, as an enemy of the republic, who, through a series of adventures and surprises, has been awarded its highest office. His insinuation during the campaign that critics and genuine whistle-blowers would be subject to retribution once he was elected makes this recognition urgent. His selection of the fascist Stephen Bannon as chief strategist further underscores his seriousness about these issues. This is what differentiates Trump, an illegitimate individual gaining the coercive powers of the chief executive. He is not an ordinary, merely “Republican” President.
The thing before our eyes, in other words, is the installation of an extralegal and extrajudicial personality into the presidency — an office that has been expanded, through Republican and Democratic administrations, decade after decade, to dangerous excesses of power. This includes the proliferation of executive orders that have the force of law. Executive orders make the President not merely someone presiding over a tripartite government but a premodern monarch or führer. But it is the more ordinary coercive powers of the executive that add urgency to the situation: The Department of Justice. The Attorney General. Federal prosecutors and the FBI. The Department of Homeland Security. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and the TSA. The Department of the Treasury and the IRS. The Department of Defense and the military. Having witnessed the Republican Party fail to eject Trump as a candidate and nearly half of the voting citizenry elect him through the Electoral College, does the system itself have any capacity to restrain such an extralegal personality from reaching the inauguration?
The best way to prevent a tyrant’s rule is not to seat him at all — even at the risk of unfairness to an individual who might have become better than his word. We’ve seen the slogan and heard the chant “Not my President,” but the slogan should instead be “No President.” Trump is no President in his attitudes and beliefs, but we should decide we do not have a President, through the paradox of the legitimate election of an illegitimate officeholder. The most valuable lesson the United States could learn in 2016 is that it can get along without a President. It would throw weight back onto Congress — the place where political power should lie in a democracy. This is close to how the country ran during the years of Radical (or “Congressional”) Reconstruction, when Congress all but seized power for the last two years of President Andrew Johnson’s reign.
The instinct of “respectable” politicians and the mass media is to regularize and contain, to cooperate and appease — wrongly, and dangerously. This moment places a pressure on individual conscience and judgment, as each isolated person is reminded to join others in a collective will to refusal. It also leaves many of us twiddling our thumbs much of the time, hoping that those individuals who must take orders will refuse or resign. The task for “good people” is noncooperation. This is how to communicate what the republic can and cannot allow.
Along with this must come greater cooperation among ourselves, a commitment to building democratic institutions inside and outside the existing parties. It should not have come as a surprise how little civil society exists among the left, how little prepared we were to pursue projects of social justice against a revanchist administration. We enter this reactionary era more atomized and isolated than we should be.
But there are signs of response. The wave of “joining” that has already taken place in the wake of Trump’s victory — the proliferation of meetings and organizational sign-ups, the sudden jump in members of the Democratic Socialists of America, the frenzied petitions and Facebook posts urging us to call our representatives and make demands — is the first step toward creating a denser, less pliant movement. Organizations should grow large enough to command assemblies on the level of a neighborhood in addition to that of a city. (There is a virtue, as Wordsworth held long ago, in “the talk / Man holds with week-day man in the hourly walk / Of the mind’s business.”) The move to transform the Democratic Party and to build organizations outside it in the hope, forever deferred, of a true party of the left, ought to turn political parties from more than volunteer door-knockers who come around every four years to ask for votes in swing states. This would have been the project no matter who the President. It has only acquired new salience and urgency.