How’s the world so small when the world is so large?
And what made the world, may I please speak to who’s in charge?
Everything is real, but it’s also just as fake
From your daughter’s birthday party to your grandmother’s wake
And your bipolar illness, it comes and it goes
Your parasympathetic nervous system reacts
And you’re in fight or flight mode
From my vantage point here at American Cynic (where I never vote but I do occasionally bark unconvincingly at a passer-by), there is a silver lining to Trump’s electoral victory. Well, there is a grey lining and an opportunity.
If you are like me, there is also a fleeting moment of joy: it is a delight to see democracy backfire, smug liberals despair, and the federal government so embarrassed. By “like me” I mean a healthy, white, straight, uneducated, contrarian, broken-hearted American man who was long in the process of giving up on fitting in to any meaningful extent within capitalist society before Donald Trump became president. I realize that for people not like me in those regards, Trump may be more terrifying than fun.
There is one quick distinction I’d like to make, because I do see some of myself (and Diogenes) in the trolls celebrating the folly of Trump. That is that there is a difference between Cynic parrhesia and what is sometimes defended as free speech these days: one is a homeless man telling Alexander the Great to step out of his sunlight; the other is an internet shock troll stepping into the shadow of the White House.
The grey lining is that Trump’s victory in the face of a nervous establishment demonstrates that the American electoral system is more democratic than I thought. Not only did Trump — a controversial, unpredictable, perhaps uncontrollable populist candidate — survive the Republican primaries and that party’s safeguards against popular misfits (unfortunately the Democratic Party was much more successful in defeating Bernie Sanders), but he survived a general election despite (or unintentionally because of) hostile media coverage, and he got the requisite votes from the Electoral College, the last defense against democracy, despite a record number of faithless votes (okay, only seven) and a plot to use the electoral college to replace him with a mainstream Republican post-election (Colin Powell ended up in third place with three electoral votes, good enough to have been considered if nobody got a majority).
And, as always, I was impressed by voter turnout. About 55% of American adults voluntarily cast a ballot in the presidential contest (59% if you count only eligible voters).
I’m aware, of course, that given those points many people would not find evidence for the resilience of American democracy — America maintains an unusually low voter turnout for a rich republic, Trump lost the popular vote, and his administration may be the biggest threat to the American system in recent memory (in my lifetime, anyway). But those people, I submit, hold an overly optimistic and realist, almost magical, view of formal political process.
With the election of Trump, concrete reality is seeping into the liberal delusions that constitutional republicanism can produce equality and liberty. Faced with a rising cognitive dissonance, many progressive liberals have retreated from democracy to the safety of the institutions. This retreat can be seen in the current hysteria over Russian influence. They are willing to believe that by exfiltrating a bunch of boring emails from the DNC, which almost nobody read and even fewer people considered when voting, the Russians have successfully subverted the electoral process. (I’m not even that cynical about elections.) And, despite being shocked (shocked!) that rival imperial powers would dare interfere with each other, those same liberals, who have become little neo-McCarthyites suddenly discovering all-powerful Russian spies lurking in every corner of the White House, while whining about a lack of democracy, and with a straight face, are putting their hopes in the intelligence agencies, the judiciary, and the media — powerful institutions with little democratic allegiance or oversight — to save us from Trump.
But there is nothing like a state of emergency to reveal the nature of sovereign power — or at least a state of epistemological crisis to shatter one’s illusions. The opportunity provided by the Trump victory is in its revelatory (apocalyptic?) potential. As the embodiment of the dishonest lie, Trump reveals the truth of political power: its reality is something more like blind obedience and brute force than the formalisms of monarchy, democracy, et cetera that it is so often clothed in. Thanks to Trump, even true-believing liberals have found themselves faced with the insight, as David Frum put it in his story about what America might look like under a Trump dictatorship, that “checks and balances is a metaphor, not a mechanism.” Maybe some will also realize the same applies to politics-as-usual.
Karl Marx observed that the liberal forms of governance and wage work simply mask old relations of brutal rule and slavery in an idyllic, ideological veneer. Carl Schmitt noted that no matter how seriously parliamentarianism takes itself, the rule of law can never completely do away with sovereign power or escape the fundamental political distinction between friend and enemy — as exemplified in [the possibility] of war. These two philosophers, Karl the Communist and Carl the Nazi, can provide a crude schematic of the bifurcated post-liberal possibilities which Trump’s moment has brought back into view. One path, socialism, seeks to take out coercive social hierarchies including those upon which capitalism relies; the other, which we can generically call fascism, seeks to preserve social hierarchies against the leveling and self-destructive tendencies of capitalism. Liberals pretend that equality and liberty exist where they don’t. Socialists seek to create equality and liberty where liberalism has failed. Reactionaries believe equality and liberty are undesirable (and probably impossible anyway).
Interestingly, some of Trump’s most sophisticated supporters cling to the possibility of a third way. They see the futility of existing liberalism and are revolted by equality, but they cannot stomach the reality of fascism. So they hope to ditch the democratic elements of liberalism and thereby arrive at a stable, peaceful version of capitalism (using the right-wing definition of ‘peaceful’ that means ‘undisturbed status quo’). Peter Thiel, a billionaire donor to Trump’s campaign and member of his transition team, wrote in 2009 that “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.” By “freedom” he seems to mean capitalism (he goes on to call “capitalist democracy” an oxymoron), and he cites the enfranchisement of women as one of the major stumbling blocks to his vision of a “free” society. Thiel, who was a student of the late René Girard, hints that through meritocratic monopolies, the elimination of economic competition, humanity’s cycle of mimetic violence can be escaped (and then king-CEOs can finally sleep peacefully without worrying about becoming scapegoated victims of mob violence, or something).
Thiel’s ideas are a variation of Silicon Valley neoreactionary thought as propounded by Mencius Moldbug, the movement’s pioneering theorist. Moldbug views democracy as a source of inevitable violence (and latent totalitarianism). Many of his essays are dedicated to exploring capitalism-preserving alternatives to democratic systems. One possibility is what he calls neocameralism in which a state is a joint-stock business that owns a country. A more obvious name might be “neofeudalism” (and Moldbug has half-jokingly described his anti-democratic project as neo-fascist).
But despite its fascist-like qualities, the apolitical, non-democratic capitalist utopia proposed by Moldbugian neoreaction, in which wars for survival have been made impossible and economic categories blur with and replace the political, would seem to represent everything Schmitt was against. From a Schmittian view, we might conclude that such neoreactionary thought is not an alternative to bourgeois liberalism, but its most degenerate form.
Whether neoreactionary schemes are classified as fascism or extreme liberalism, Karl Kautsky’s famous dictum from 125 years ago has gained a renewed relevance in Trump’s light: “As things stand today capitalist civilization cannot continue; we must either move forward into socialism or fall back into barbarism.”
Of course no matter how interesting or illuminating I think Trump might be on questions of political theory, it is not the case that police and customs enforcement agents are about to look at him and then resign en masse. The fundamental conflict of politics is now the same as ever: between police and their victims. Resistance is also the same: finding means of disobedience — with a renewed emphasis in America on defending immigrants, Muslims, Jews, and people of color against police violence.
Trump didn’t invent borders or deportations or prisons or torture or execution or the military-industrial complex or patriarchy or racism or theft or taxes or profit or any of the awful things he embraces and represents. They have been normal for my entire life, so I don’t really understand my own visceral response to his presidency. I seem to struggle alternatively with apathy and pacifism — Trump has managed to take both impulses within me down a notch.
And I’ll grudgingly agree with liberal opponents of Trump that a contingent retreat to the institutions may be the only practical chance to minimize the damage he can do, but it would be nice if in doing so we manage to avoid the intellectual retreat to liberalism’s false promises.