… and I don’t particularly mean that as a compliment.
Literally minutes before he is stabbed to death by a posse of conspiring senators, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar declares himself to be the lone unshakeable, unmoving, stalwart man among his flip-flopping compatriots. He makes this claim as he arrogantly dismisses the petition of Metellus Cimber, who pleads for the reversal of his brother’s banishment. Cimber’s fellow conspirators echo his plea, prostrating themselves before Caesar, who finally declares in disgust,
I could be well moved if I were as you. If I could pray to move, prayers would move me. But I am constant as the northern star, Of whose true-fixed and resting quality There is no fellow in the firmament. The skies are painted with unnumbered sparks. They are all fire and every one doth shine, But there’s but one in all doth hold his place. So in the world. ‘Tis furnished well with men, And men are flesh and blood, and apprehensive, Yet in the number I do know but one That unassailable holds on his rank, Unshaked of motion. And that I am he.
Caesar mistakes the senators’ begging for weakness, not grasping that they are importuning him as a ploy to get close enough to stab him until it is too late.
Fear not, I’m not comparing Liz Cheney to Julius Caesar. I suppose you could argue that Cheney’s current anti-Trump stance is akin to Caesar’s sanctimonious declaration if you wanted to suggest that it’s more performative than principled. To be clear, I’m not making that argument—not because I don’t see it’s possible merits, but because I really don’t care.
I come not to praise Liz Cheney, whose political beliefs I find vile; nor do I come to bury her. The latter I’ll leave to her erstwhile comrades, and I confess I will watch the proceedings with a big metaphorical bowl of popcorn in my lap, for I will be a gratified observer no matter what the outcome. If the Trumpists succeed in burying her, well, I’m not about to mourn a torture apologist whose politics have always perfectly aligned with those of her father. If she soldiers on and continues to embarrass Trump’s sycophants by telling the truth, that also works for me.
Either way, I’m not about to offer encomiums for Cheney’s courage. I do think it’s admirable that she’s sticking to her guns, but as Adam Serwer recently pointed out in The Atlantic, “the [GOP’s] rejection of the rule of law is also an extension of a political logic that Cheney herself has cultivated for years.” During Obama’s tenure, she frequently went on Fox News to accuse the president of being sympathetic to jihadists, and just as frequently opined that American Muslims were a national security threat. During her run for a Wyoming Senate seat in 2014, she threw her lesbian sister Mary under the bus with her loud opposition to same-sex marriage, a point on which she stands to the right of her father. And, not to repeat myself, but she remains an enthusiastic advocate of torture. To say nothing of the fact that, up until the January 6th assault on the Capitol, was a reliable purveyor of the Trump agenda, celebrated then by such current critics as Steve Scalise and Matt Gaetz.
Serwer notes that the Cheney’s “political logic”—the logic of the War on Terror—is consonant with that of Trumpism not so much in policy as in spirit: the premise that there’s them and us, and that “The Enemy has no rights, and anyone who imagines otherwise, let alone seeks to uphold them, is also The Enemy.” In the Bush years, this meant the Manichaean opposition between America and Terrorism, and that any ameliorating sentiment about, say, the inequities of American foreign policy, meant you were With the Terrorists. In the present moment, the Enemy of the Trumpists is everyone who isn’t wholly on board with Trump. The ongoing promulgation of the Big Lie—that Biden didn’t actually win the election—is a variation of the theme of “the Enemy has no rights,” which is to say, that anyone who does not vote for Trump or his people is an illegitimate voter. Serwer writes:
This is the logic of the War on Terror, and also the logic of the party of Trump. As George W. Bush famously put it, “You are either with us or with the terrorists.” You are Real Americans or The Enemy. And if you are The Enemy, you have no rights. As Spencer Ackerman writes in his forthcoming book, Reign of Terror, the politics of endless war inevitably gives way to this authoritarian logic. Cheney now finds herself on the wrong side of a line she spent much of her political career enforcing.
All of which is by way of saying: Liz Cheney has made her bed. The fact that she’s chosen the hill of democracy to die on is a good thing, but this brings us back to my Julius Caesar allusion. The frustration being expressed by her Republican detractors, especially House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, is at least partially rational: she’s supposed to be a party leader, and in so vocally rejecting the party line, she’s not doing her actual job. She is being as constant as the Northern Star here, and those of us addicted to following American politics are being treated to a slow-motion assassination on the Senate (well, actually the House) floor.
But it is that constancy that is most telling in this moment. Cheney is anchored in her father’s neoconservative convictions, and in that respect, she’s something of a relic—an echo of the Bush years. As Serwer notes, however, while common wisdom says Trump effectively swept aside the Bush-Cheney legacy in his rise to be the presidential candidate, his candidacy and then presidency only deepened the bellicosity of Bush’s Us v. Them ethos, in which They are always already illegitimate. It’s just now that the Them is anyone opposed to Trump.
In the present moment, I think it’s useful to think of Liz Cheney as an unmoving point in the Republican firmament: to remember that her politics are as toxic and cruel as her father’s, and that there is little to no daylight between them. The fact that she is almost certainly going to lose both her leadership position and lose a primary in the next election to a Trump loyalist, is not a sign that she has changed. No: she is as constant as the Northern Star, and the Trump-addled GOP has moved around her. She is not become more virtuous; her party has just become so very much more debased.
There is a moment early in the film The Death of Stalin in which, as the titular dictator lays dying, the circle of Soviet officials just beneath Stalin (Khrushchev, Beria, Malenkov) panic at the prospect of finding a reputable doctor to treat him. Why? Because a few years earlier, Stalin, in a fit of characteristic paranoia, had become convinced that doctors were conspiring against him, and he had many of them arrested, tortured, and killed.
I thought of this cinematic moment—the very definition of gallows humour—while reading an article by Peter Wehner in The Atlantic observing that part of the appeal of QAnon (the number of whose adherents have, counter-intuitively perhaps, inflated since Biden’s election) is precisely because of its many disparate components. “I’m not saying I believe everything about Q,” the article quotes one Q follower as saying. “I’m not saying that the JFK-Jr.-is-alive stuff is real, but the deep-state pedophile ring is real.”
As [Sarah Longwell, publisher of The Bulwark] explained it to me, Trump supporters already believed that a “deep state”—an alleged secret network of nonelected government officials, a kind of hidden government within the legitimately elected government—has been working against Trump since before he was elected. “That’s already baked into the narrative,” she said. So it’s relatively easy for them to make the jump from believing that the deep state was behind the “Russia hoax” to thinking that in 2016 Hillary Clinton was involved in a child-sex-trafficking ring operating out of a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant.
If you’ll recall, the “Deep State” bogeyman was central to Steve Bannon’s rhetoric during his tenure early in the Trump Administration, alongside his antipathy to globalism. The two, indeed, were in his figuration allied to the point of being inextricable, which is also one of the key premises underlying the QAnon conspiracy. And throughout the Trump Administration, especially during his two impeachments and the Mueller investigation, the spectre of the Deep State was constantly blamed as the shadowy, malevolent force behind any and all attempts to bring down Donald Trump (and was, of course, behind the putative fraud that handed Joe Biden the election).
Now, precisely why this article made me think of this moment in The Death of Stalin is a product of my own weird stream of consciousness, so bear with me: while I’ve always found Bannon & co.’s conspiracist depiction of the Deep State more than a little absurd, so too I’ve had to shake my head whenever any of Trump’s detractors and critics declare that there’s no such thing as a Deep State.
Because of course there’s a deep state, just one that doesn’t merit ominous capitalization. It also doesn’t merit the name “deep state,” but let’s just stick with that now for the sake of argument. All we’re really talking about here is the vast and complex bureaucracy that sustains any sizable human endeavour—universities to corporations to government. And when we’re talking about the government of a country as large as the United States, that bureaucracy is massive. The U.S. government employs over two million people, the vast majority of them civil servants working innocuous jobs that make the country run. Without them, nothing would ever get done.
Probably the best piece of advice I ever received as a university student was in my very first year of undergrad; a T.A. told me to never ask a professor about anything like degree requirements or course-drop deadlines, or, really, anything to do with the administrative dimension of being a student. Ask the departmental secretaries, he said. In fact, he added, do your best to cultivate their respect and affection. Never talk down to them or treat them as the help. They may not have a cluster of letters after their name or grade your papers, but they make the university run.
I’d like to think that I’m not the kind of person who would ever be the kind of asshole to berate secretaries or support staff, but I took my T.A.’s advice to heart, and went out of my way to be friendly and express gratitude, to be apologetic when I brought them a problem. It wasn’t long before I was greeted with smiles whenever I had paperwork that needed processing, and I never had any issues getting into courses (by contrast, in my thirty years in academia from undergrad to grad student to professor, I have seen many people—students and faculty—suffer indignities of mysterious provenance because they were condescending or disrespectful to support staff).
The point here is that, for all the negative connotations that attach to bureaucracy, it is an engine necessary for any institution or nation to run. Can it become bloated and sclerotic? Of course, though in my experience that tends to happen when one expands the ranks of upper management. But when Steve Bannon declared, in the early days of the Trump Administration, that his aim was “the deconstruction of the administrative state,” I felt a keen sense of cognitive dissonance in that statement—for the simple reason that there is no such thing as a non-administrative state.
Which brings us back, albeit circuitously, to The Death of Stalin. There is no greater example of a sclerotic and constipated bureaucracy than that of the former Soviet Union, a point not infrequently made in libertarian and anti-statist arguments for small government. But I think the question that rarely gets raised when addressing dysfunctional bureaucracy—at least in the abstract—is why is it dysfunctional? There are probably any number of reasons why that question doesn’t come up, but I have to imagine that a big one is because we’ve been conditioned to think of bureaucracy as inevitably dysfunctional—a sense reinforced by every negative encounter experienced when renewing a driver’s license, waiting on hold with your bank, filing taxes, dealing with governmental red tape, or figuring out what prescriptions are covered by your employee health plan. But a second question we should ask when having such negative experiences is: are they negative because of an excess of bureaucracy, or too little? The inability of Stalin’s minions to find a competent doctor is a profound metaphor for what happens when we strip out the redundancies in a given system—in this case, the state-sponsored murder of thousands of doctors because of a dictator’s paranoia, such that one is left with (at best) mediocre medical professionals too terrified of state retribution to be dispassionately clinical, which is of course what one needs from a doctor.
I’m not a student of the history of the U.S.S.R., so I have no idea if anyone has written about whether the ineptitude of the Soviet bureaucracy was a legacy of Stalinist terror and subsequent Party orthodoxy, in which actually competent people were marginalized, violently or otherwise; I have to assume there’s probably a lot of literature on the topic (certainly, Masha Gessen’s critical review of the HBO series Chernobyl has something to say on the subject). But there’s something of an irony in the fact that Republican administrations since that of Ronald Reagan have created their own versions of The Death of Stalin’s doctor problem through their evisceration of government. Reagan famously said that the nine most frightening words were “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help,” and since then conservative governments—in the U.S., Canada, and elsewhere—have worked hard to make that a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thomas Frank, author of What’s the Matter With Kansas? (2004) has chronicled this tendency, in which Republican distrust of government tends to translate into the rampant gutting of social services, governmental agencies from the Post Office to the various cabinet departments, which then dramatically denudes the government’s ability to do anything. All of the failures that then inevitably occur are held up as proof of the basic premise of government’s inability to get anything right (and that therefore its basic services should be outsourced to the private sector).
In my brief moments of hope I wonder if perhaps the Trump Administration’s explicit practice of putting hacks and incompetent loyalists in key positions (such as Jared Kushner’s bizarrely massive portfolio) made this longstanding Republican exercise too glaring to ignore or excuse. Certainly, the contrast between Trump’s band of lickspittles and Biden’s army of sober professionals is about the most glaring difference we’ve seen between administrations, ever. What I hope we’re seeing, at any rate, is the reconstruction of the administrative state.
And it’s worth noting that Dr. Anthony Fauci has been resurrected from Trump’s symbolic purge of the doctors.
I haven’t blogged in a while, which is partially to do with the fact that I’d more or less forgotten the whole reason I started these “A Few Things” posts to start with—namely, that at any given time I have a handful of unfinished posts on a variety of topics, but which don’t see the light of day because I have difficulty finishing them to my satisfaction. So I’ve had to remind myself that not every one of my blogworthy thoughts needs two or three thousand words; a quick(ish) precis will often serve.
With that being said, here are a few things that were in the hopper …
Vaccine Envy and the Spectacular Vindication of Max Brooks Way back when, shortly after the earth cooled (or so it feels), Canadians could and did feel somewhat smug about our response to the pandemic in comparison to the U.S. … generally speaking, Canadians did not fight the quarantine restrictions, and we watched as the Trump Administration flailed about getting everything exactly wrong, and we took pride in our system of free health care and our much lower infection rates. This was a time when even the much-loathed Doug Ford seemed to step up to the challenge, garnering grudging nods of respect from people like me for his no-nonsense response to COVID (more on this below).
Well, as they say, that was then … it’s not as though the U.S. is any less politically polarized, but the Biden Administration seems determined to remind the world what America can do when competent leadership directing competent experts puts the system into overdrive and expends massive resources to solve a problem. Back in those early days of Canadian smugness, author Max Brooks was much in demand on podcasts; Brooks, who happens to be the son of Mel Brooks, is most famous for his novel World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, which has become one of the classics of the zombie apocalypse genre. Though the novel is global in its scope—chronicling how a zombie plague would play out worldwide—the narrative spine deals with the American response. The TL;DR is that the U.S. is caught on its heels through a combination of cynical politics, a complacent and apathetic populace, and self-interested capitalists, but that once the people come to understand the enormity and gravity of the threat, they come together and rediscover the value of sacrifice, hard work, and community, and ultimately stage the most effective response in the world.
The novel is a quite explicit love letter to the Greatest Generation and the New Deal era. Max Brooks is himself quite clear on this point in interviews, talking about how his parents were both survivors of the Great Depression, and were schooled by the Second World War (Mel Brooks was in the Army Engineer Corps and was responsible for disarming land mines). In those interviews he gave in the early days of the pandemic, he talked about how many of the nations that had responded well, such as South Korea and Taiwan, did so because they lived under fairly constant threat, and so were the most primed to respond quickly. The U.S., he said, takes time to (a) become cognizant of a threat, (b) get its shit together, but (c) always makes up for early stumbles and becomes a world leader. Many of those interviewing him, in those early days of the Trump pandemic fecklessness, voiced skepticism.
But, well, it looks as though Brooks’ perspective has been borne out, especially considering that acute vaccine envy I seem to experience daily when my American friends post their vax selfies.
The Limits of Bullying To return to the topic of Doug Ford …
About a year ago I started writing a blog post about how, though there is little more I loathe in this world than a bully, sometimes in the right context a bully is what you need. I was writing this, as might be obvious, apropos of the grudging respect being given Doug Ford in Ontario and the outsized adulation lavished on Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York. Sometimes in moments of crisis, I mused, having someone you might otherwise dislike for their braggadocio lay down the law offered a strange form of comfort.
It should go without saying that I am now extremely happy I did not write that post.
Though to be fair, it proved to be something of a non-starter. I had written maybe two paragraphs when the obvious counter-argument made me trail off—that is, that though Ford and Cuomo seemed to be doing an effective job in those early days, they were hugely outnumbered by leaders who did not need bellicosity to get the job done (not uncoincidentally, many of these leaders, like Angela Merkel and Jancinda Ardhern, are women).
It has now been over a year since the coronavirus upended the world, and there are few examples of early effective responses that have not met reversals—though few more spectacular than Cuomo and Ford. Cuomo’s example is a good object lesson in the fact that being a bully and an asshole is only effective if you can deliver the goods; as we have learned in the past weeks, he wasn’t delivering the goods so much as obscuring his failures, and once the double-whammy of his COVID missteps and the critical mass of women he has harassed became clear, there weren’t many people left who had his back. Turns out, if you spend your career being an asshole, you accrue a lot of people who are more than willing to stick the knife in once your fortunes change.
Doug Ford, on the other hand, is a very different case. Whatever else you might say about Andrew Cuomo, he’s not an utter moron. Ford’s problem isn’t so much that he’s an asshole and a bully, it’s that he’s a monstrously stupid asshole and bully. He’s so obviously in over his head that I’d feel sorry for him if he weren’t so contemptible. His appeal has always been the same species as Trump’s, which is that a segment of the population who feel victimized by “elites,” by the mandarins of the Liberal Party and the CBC, and by increasingly diverse and vocal Ontarians, elected him specifically to be their bully … which is not a task that requires much in the way of tactical shrewdness or intellectual depth, just the ability to infuriate the Left and deliver arrogant verbal smackdowns in press conferences.
There’s an irony in the fact that Ford’s appeal lies at least in part in the truism that the most satisfying way to deal with a bully is to sic a bigger and badder bully on them—but COVID-19 is also a bully, and doesn’t discriminate.
Biden Departs Afghanistan I may return to this in a longer post at a later date, as it’s something I’ve been thinking a great deal about. After twenty years, the U.S. presence in Afghanistan will be brought home. The announcement evoked the predictable storm in media and social media, with some celebrating Biden’s decision, some expressing ambivalence, and many calling it disastrous.
Biden responded with an eminently sensible question of his own: if not now, when? Unless the U.S. is going to commit to a permanent presence in Afghanistan as the necessary price of stabilizing the country, there’s no other withdrawal timeline that makes sense. What’s somewhat galling about the castigations of Biden’s announced withdrawal is how likely it is that a good number of his critics almost certainly do tacitly endorse a permanent occupation … but of course won’t say as much because such an admission would be politically toxic. The American presence in Afghanistan has always been a little like the weird existential state of being a smoker—with only one or two notable exceptions, every single smoker I have ever known in my life indulged in the habit on the assumption that they were going to quit, of course … someday. The American presence in Afghanistan was always predicated on it eventually ending. There were, of course, end-conditions: destroying Al-Qaeda in the country, building of a self-sufficient, competent Afghan defense force, and solidifying a non-corrupt democratic government, for example. Check that first box, but the other two are as unlikely today as they have been for twenty years.
One thing the announcement of the withdrawal has done is make me mentally revisit those early years of the Bush Administration—the shock and trauma of 9/11, the quasi-hopeful aftermath when the world rallied behind the U.S., the prospect that the targeted, multilateral incursion into Afghanistan would eliminate Al-Qaeda and bin Laden, and that would be that.
It was a nice thought. But no: Bush’s neoconservative brain trust declared the War on Terror, rolled back civil rights with the Patriot Act, and instead of finishing off bin Laden at Tora Bora in December 2001, let him escape as they turned their focus to Saddam Hussein and Iraq.
There are two things that stick in my mind as I read the various excoriations of Biden for leaving Afghanistan. One is that a war that dragged on for an attenuated twenty years originally had an extremely limited scope, and was meant to end upon achieving the specific goal of killing or capturing bin Laden. The other was that the precipitating event that started the war was the result of an avoidable intelligence failure that occurred in part because the Bush team were dismissive of the warnings the Clinton Administration left for them, as well as breakdowns between warring fiefdoms in the C.I.A. and F.B.I. (a breakdown meticulously chronicled in Lawrence Wright’s excellent book The Looming Tower)
Even with these issues within the intelligence community, there were numerous red flags that were raised, to the point where CIA director George Tenet, interviewed by Bob Woodward, recalled musing immediately after the attacks, “I wonder if it has anything to do with this guy taking pilot training.” And let us not forget the notorious memo George W. Bush was given titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike In U.S.”
The point here is that 9/11—the entire reason for the war in Afghanistan—had been preventable. An emboldened Taliban and reconstituted Al-Qaeda potentially pose the same threat as they did in the late 1990s, which puts the onus on the intelligence community to fix the problems it developed back then.
As I mentioned in my last post, we’re currently watching The Stand, a mini-series adaptation of Stephen King’s 1978 novel. Though both the novel and the series are quite graphic in their depictions of the weaponized superflu that wipes out most of the world—and quite clear on just how the pathogen escaped its experimental military facility—ultimately, the flu itself is ancillary to the substance of the story, which is about a showdown between the forces of good and those of evil.
As I enter the last two weeks of classes for the term and reflect back on the texts we’ve done in my graduate seminar on 21stC post-apocalyptic narratives, some of which have overlapped with my Utopias & Dystopias course, and the course I taught last term on pandemic fiction, I’m struck by how often it has been the case that the catastrophe precipitating these stories has been, more often than not, simply a device to clear the decks for what comes next. I really have no reason to be so struck by this fact, given that I titled my grad course “The Spectre of Catastrophe,” specifically because it focuses on narratives preoccupied less with the catastrophe itself than the aftermath. But it occurs to me that when the catastrophe—be it a viral outbreak, asteroid strike, alien invasion, or whatever—is the focus of the story, it’s usually because it will be resolved by the end. It is, in such instances, the focus of the action, not the setup for the action.
By contrast, many of the post-apocalyptic narratives I’ve been looking at this year often go out of their way to be vague about the nature of the precipitating catastrophe. Your average zombie apocalypse has little to say about what caused the dead to rise—few offer even as much exposition as 28 Days Later prologue, in which eco-terrorists storm a lab and inadvertently free monkeys who have been infected with the Rage virus, or the vague suggestion in Night of the Living Dead that zombies are the result of radiation from a satellite. Shaun of the Dead offers the most perfect parody of this tendency, when at the end, again safely ensconced on his couch, Shaun flips through channels on the TV reporting on the aftermath of the zombie plague and changes the channel before anyone can offer an explanation for how it happened.
Even the arguably bleakest post-apocalyptic narrative of the past twenty years—Cormac McCarthy’s The Road—deliberately frustrates readers keen to know how the world of the novel ended up a blasted wasteland. So too Emily St. John Mandel’s far more hopeful Station Eleven is conspicuously uninterested in the details of the “Georgia Flu” that devastates the world. The comparable pandemic in Kevin Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead is less significant for how it wipes out the world’s population than for the simple fact that it does, which allows for the rather intriguing vision of the afterlife on which the novel is premised. And even all of the gross, granular detail with which Stephen King endows “Captain Trips,” the superflu that wipes out 99.9% of America (and presumably the world, but that’s a speculation for a future post), is ultimately a bit of misdirection as the novel then settles into its aforementioned epic battle between Light and Dark.
In all of these examples, catastrophe plays the narrative role of what film nerds like me call a “MacGuffin,” a concept most associated with Alfred Hitchcock. A MacGuffin, Hitchcock said, is something the characters find important, but the audience doesn’t care about—something that precipitates the action, but is ultimately ancillary to it, like the Maltese falcon of The Maltese Falcon, a putatively priceless statuette that drives the plot, but which is never found; or, more specific to Hitchcock, the money Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) steals from her employer in Psycho, but which is less important than the fact that in fleeing her crime she ends up at the Bates Motel.
Catastrophe has become one of our more prevalent MacGuffins: how the world ends is more or less incidental to what comes afterward. There are of course exceptions to this rule; this post comes about in part from my notes for my grad class on Monday, in which we’re finishing Ling Ma’s novel Severance and starting Mandel’s Station Eleven. The latter, as I mention above, is exemplary of this tendency to use catastrophe as a plot device; Severance, by contrast, is far more interested in the particulars of the pandemic that collapses civilization, mainly because the particulars of the “Shen Fever” are tied closely to the novel’s themes of nostalgia and home. The infectiousness of the disease, in which people are reduced to mindless automatons repeating rituals from their former lives, is most prevalent among those given to nostalgia. Candace Chen, the novel’s protagonist, came to the U.S. at a young age when her parents immigrated from China; in the novel’s present, both of her parents have died, and she feels equally not at home in New York City and her home region of China, which she visits on business trips. Feeling generally rootless and untethered makes Candace ironically immune to the disease.
This thematic connection between the catastrophic pandemic and Candace’s situation—which in the novel is also more broadly representative of the millennial experience of late capitalism—makes the cause and particulars of the catastrophe central to the novel, in that both the characters and the audience care about it; this also makes Severance an instructive outlier in a burgeoning sub-genre full of catastrophic MacGuffins.
A large part of the reason for this relates to one of my overarching arguments about contemporary post-apocalyptic narratives, which is also one of the premises of my course: namely, that the preoccupation with the aftermath of catastrophe is indicative of a breakdown of faith and trust in government—not a new phenomenon by any means, but something that became supercharged by the Bush Administration’s post-9/11 failures in Iraq, the debacle of Hurricane Katrina, the increasing polarization of politics and culture, all culminating in the election of Donald Trump. Trump was an is a catastrophic figure, and while I mean that quite literally, it’s important to keep in mind that being symbolically catastrophic—i.e. being seen by his followers as a bomb that would demolish “the Establishment”—was a huge part of his appeal. To many people, Trump is an expression of what I’ve been terming “hopeful nihilism,” which is also an animating factor in many post-apocalyptic narratives. Hopeful nihilism is the flip side of what Lauren Berlant terms “cruel optimism,” a condition in which the object of your desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing; hopeful nihilism is the belief that burning down and destroying the present system clears the decks for a freer and more authentic existence in the wreckage.
Hence, the general lack of interest in the nature of the catastrophe in these stories: the important thing isn’t the why and how, but the simple fact of civilization’s end. The catastrophe is a MacGuffin; the important thing is what happens next, and how the characters negotiate the circumstances. It may be that in time that we see Trump in similar terms, which would actually go a long way towards explaining how a fatuous, preening New Yorker billionaire became the symbol of defiance for a rump of resolutely “anti-elitist” people; perhaps the particulars of the Trumpian catastrophe were less important than the fact of it. It is, I admit, a comforting thought, as it suggests a huge difficulty for those who want to step into Trump’s role going forward—especially if (and it’s a big if) the Biden Administration can take steps to re-establish people’s faith in government to help its people.
I was reading an article about QAnon in Politico yesterday. This, as anyone who has read this blog over the past few months knows, is hardly unusual for me. What struck me about this article, however—“When QAnon Invades American Homes” by Anastasiia Carrier, which is all about people who have lost family members to the Q-cult—was a more profound sense of how this patently absurd conspiracy theory is genuinely infectious, indoctrinating people to the point where their closest loved ones have to decide whether to abandon them. The article tells the story of Emily and her husband Peter (not their real names); forced by the pandemic to work from home, Peter started going down the rabbit hole of QAnon message boards and YouTube videos. Emily was vaguely aware of QAnon, but it was only this past October that, slowly realizing the hold it had on her husband’s imagination, she sat down and watched a handful of videos he’d been talking about: “That was when she learned that her husband had been consumed by a complex and false conspiracy theory that accuses ‘deep state elites’ of running a secret pedophile ring. By then, it was too late to pull him out.”
Emily’s husband, whom she loved dearly and who she described as having previously been a compassionate and attentive man, had become a stranger to her, treating her with anger and disdain—sometimes in front of their children—when she pushed back on his newfound bigotry and the assertion that such people as Tom Hanks were pedophiles. “I was told that I buried my head in the sand and couldn’t see the ‘real’ problems,” she says.
Eventually, Emily found her way to a Redditt forum called “QAnonCasualties,” in which people like her who have had loved ones become obsessed with the absurd conspiracy theory share their experiences and console one another. Her relief at finding a space to share her grief was mitigated by just how many others like her there were:
Emily is just one of thousands who have found their way to r/QAnonCasualties. Started in 2019 by a Reddit user whose mother was a part of the “Qult,” the subreddit has ballooned in popularity over the past year,growing from less than a thousand followers in February 2020 to more than 133,000 in February 2021. The group’s followers more than doubled in the weeks following the Capitol riot alone. And as QAnon continues to spread—about 30 percent of Republicans have favorable views about the conspiracy theory, according to a January poll by YouGov—so does the forum’s reach.
Such numbers are shocking, not least because the basic elements of the QAnon conspiracy are so objectively absurd. It is, indeed, all too easy to dismiss QAnon: while it has become increasingly baroque in all its moving parts, its most basic premise is that Donald Trump has been working surreptitiously to foil a monstrous cabal that includes the Deep State, prominent Democrats (especially the Obamas and the Clintons) and the Hollywood elite, all of whom are accused of being pedophiles who sex-traffic children and drink their blood for the purpose of prolonging their lives. Some day soon (March is now the new forecast, apparently, after many disappointments) Trump will emerge to declare martial law and bring such malefactors as Hillary Clinton and Tom Hanks to justice. This much-anticipated event is referred to as “The Storm.”
Conspiracy theory and conspiracism is nothing new, especially not in American culture, a point made quite thoroughly in Richard Hofstadter’s landmark 1965 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Like so much else in the age of social media, QAnon is not different in kind but in degree—it is a massive amplification of tendencies that have been around for centuries. That amplification is not merely one of size and scope, but also of its adherents’ devotion. As detailed in the Politico article, QAnon is very much a cult, and like most cults it features a leader in whom the cultists invest all of their hopes and adoration—Donald Trump. Indeed, if there is one aspect in which QAnon differs from most conspiracy theories, it is in its figuration of a saviour figure leading the fight against the malevolent conspirators.
What is also remarkable about QAnon is how it functions as an all-encompassing sort of “key to all mythologies” for the conspiracism-inclined, welcoming any and all other extant conspiracies: 9/11 trutherism, anti-vax rhetoric, the old chestnut about lizard people, anti-Semitic and white supremacist fantasies about malevolent globalists, paranoia about world government, “the Great Replacement,” and of course the more recent assertion that Biden’s election was the result of election fraud on a massive scale. The alacrity with which QAnon incorporates such disparate threads keeps me coming back around to Umberto Eco’s 1988 novel Foucault’s Pendulum, which now comes to seem prophetic—not least because, like all good prophecies, it deals entirely with things that have already happened.
The novel is about a trio of young, overeducated and underemployed graduate students, who find themselves working at a scam publishing house. The publisher’s business model is to lavish praise on submitted manuscripts—which find their way there because they’ve been rejected by all respectable publishers for being ludicrous, awful, or clinically insane—and then charge the starry-eyed authors an exorbitant sum to publish their books (with the assurance that their inevitable massive success will soon earn their investment back). They then only print a fraction of the run promised while pocketing the extra cash.
As you might imagine, the manuscript submissions they receive are largely the work of execrable novelists and crackpots—many of whom in the latter category are conspiracy theorists determined to share with the public their earth-shattering exposés of the Templars, the Illuminati, the Freemasons, the Elders of Zion, or a host of other shadowy cabals responsible for anything and everything that happens in the world. Our trio of disaffected intellectuals—Belbo, Casaubon, and Diotallevi—are predictably disdainful of these authors, referring to them as the “Diabolicals.” For their own entertainment, they create a narrative-building computer program into which they input the plots outlined in these manuscripts, building them into a massive, overarching conspiracy theory they simply call The Plan.
TL;DR: the Diabolicals catch wind of The Plan, and conclude that these too-clever-by-half smartarses actually hold the key to the secrets they’ve been seeking all this time. Determined to know the “truth” of The Plan, they pursue our heroes, whose lives are now in danger.
Or to put it another way: our heroes create a conspiracy theory so compelling that all those who “want to believe” essentially give it substance through their belief.
In this respect, Foucault’s Pendulum tells a story in six hundred pages that Jorge Luis Borges told in less than fifteen. In Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, the narrator stumbles across a secret project begun by an eccentric American millionaire to exhaustively imagine a planet—“Tlön”—over forty volumes of an encyclopedia, because “he wanted to demonstrate to this nonexistent God that mortal man was capable of conceiving a world.” When the encyclopedia makes it out into the world, people are so captivated by the planet of Tlön that they allow it to infect their minds and displace reality:
Almost immediately, reality yielded on more than one account. The truth is that it longed to yield. Ten years ago any symmetry with a semblance of order—dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism—was sufficient to entrance the minds of men. How could one do other than submit to Tlön, to the minute and vast evidence of an orderly planet?
Borges’ allegory is not less troubling for being heavy-handed; neither is Eco’s (whose debt to Borges is writ large in all his fiction). QAnon might be a cult, but it is a cult that needs no suave and persuasive recruiters who target vulnerable new acolytes—that work is done by the algorithms of social media, and the ease with which reality yields in our current cultural and political environment. In Foucault’s Pendulum, the character of Casaubon outlines the basic rules for constructing a conspiracy theory:
Rule One: Concepts are connected by analogy. There is no way to decide at once whether an analogy is good or bad, because to some degree everything is connected to something else. For example, potato crosses with apple, because both are vegetable and round in shape … Rule Two says that if tout se tient in the end, then the connecting works … So it’s right. Rule Three: the connections must not be original. They must have been made before, and the more often the better, by others. Only then do the crossings seem true, because they are Obvious.
Tout se tient—“everything fits.” Or, as Thomas Pynchon phrased it in Gravity’s Rainbow (aka the Ulysses of conspiracy novels), “paranoia … is the leading edge of the awareness that everything is connected.” Paranoia lends itself, ironically, to inclusivity; almost anything can function as evidence for the truth of one’s paranoid projections. One of the most striking examples of this was detailed by Michael Kelly in a New Yorker article from 1995, titled “The Road to Paranoia,” in which he profiled the Militia of Montana (MOM), one of the many anti-government paramilitary groups that proliferated in the 1990s. The militia’s bible was what they called “the Blue Book,” which purported to contain the proof of the U.S. government’s ultimate plot to disenfranchise American citizens, take their guns, and accede to world government under the U.N. As Kelly observed, however, the Blue Book was in fact
an ordinary three-ring binder to which [MOM] is always busily adding what [they] regard as further evidence of conspiracy, so that it bulges like an eccentric lawyer’s briefcase with scraps of this and that, from here and there, which purport to show that the globalists’ scheme to subvert American sovereignty and American citizens to vassalage is in its final hours.
Exhibits in “The Blue Book” ranged from newspaper clippings to UN development reports (in which the conspirators openly discuss world government), photographs of the notorious black helicopters, and an illustrated map of the US taken from the back of a 1993 Kix cereal box. MOM’s leaders declared that the division of the states shown in this last item—eleven regions, such as the mountain region, the coasts, the Heartland, etc.—was “a representation of the New World Order plan for dividing the United States into regional departments after the invaders emerge to take over the country.”
The Militia of Montana’s Blue Book is as apt a metaphor for QAnon’s all-encompassing umbrella of conspiracism as any, though it’s probably safe to say that the sheer volume of connections it makes probably wouldn’t fit in a single binder—as some industrious chart-makers have shown us.
The most troubling aspect of the Borges/Eco allegory is the prospect of how easy it would be for QAnon to become reality. I don’t mean that somehow the power of its adherents’ belief could literally transform the Obamas and Clintons into pedophiles—hopefully that’s obvious—but how it could become the accepted reality under certain circumstances. The ubiquity of QAnon followers taking part in the Capitol assault should give us pause, almost as much as the assault itself should. The numbers cited in the Politico article most likely reflect a spectrum ranging from passionate believers to people who don’t necessarily buy into the Q myth, but who wouldn’t be surprised to find out it is true; one doesn’t have to imagine a violent coup to overthrow the Biden Administration, but a 2024 election in which Trump cruises back to power with a supine Justice Department infested with Q-cultists, who begin legal proceedings against all of Q’s villains. The unrest that would greet such a scenario would be met by armed Trumpists who spent the previous four years nursing their sense of grievance and hatreds, and martial law could be invoked … at which point the show trials of the Deep Staters, the pedophile Democrats, and Hollywood elite could proceed. Reality would yield.
I want to be clear that I don’t think this is a likely scenario. It is, indeed, a highly unlikely scenario. But in a nation where thirty percent of Republicans find amenable the idea that Hillary Clinton drinks the blood of children, it is not unimaginable.
Rush Limbaugh has died at the age of 70. And as far as I’m concerned, the custom of not speaking ill of the dead is rendered moot when the dead person in question spent the better part of his adult life speaking ill of the living. To repurpose Christopher Hitchens’ words on the occasion of Jerry Falwell’s death: if you’d given Rush Limbaugh a moral enema, he could have been buried in a matchbox.
I am not sad he is gone. I am sad that his legacy flourishes.
A year ago, when Donald Trump broke with tradition to award Rush Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the State of the Union Address, I thought to myself “That would be like Obama giving that honour to …” And I realized I could not finish the sentence because I could not think of a prominent liberal or progressive person who would fit the analogy. Oh, I quite quickly had a huge laundry-list of examples of people who would be sure to infuriate Republicans and send Sean Hannity et al in paroxysms of bile-flavoured spittle, but nobody who quite played a comparable role on the left to Limbaugh.
The first name that leapt to mind is Michael Moore, and that might be about as close as we come: Moore is, after all, a left-wing provocateur who doesn’t mind erring on the side of embellishment and untruth in the name of stirring an uncritical and emotional response. But even then, when Michael Moore dies, he will do so having built more than he tore down—indeed, his legacy will be having been a tireless advocate for the less privileged. At his best, he spoke on behalf of the voiceless, whether they were out-of-work auto workers in Roger & Me or people bereaved or literally wounded by gun violence in Bowling for Columbine. At his worst, he took cheap shots; at his best, he made powerful arguments for positive social and political change.
I cycled through the list in my head. Bill Ayers? Angela Davis? Noam Chomsky? Tom Morello? The problem was, the more radical the choice, the less likely they were to (a) accept the award, and (b) be chosen in the first place. Most of the time, honorees are relatively uncontroversial figures, and largely non-partisan. Trump’s decision to award Limbaugh was at once typical of his compulsive determination to reward people who lavish praise on him, but also a tacit acknowledgement of the fact that the semantic equivalent of bile is now the standard form of discourse on the Right.
And in no case would any of the names in my head function as a proper analogy to Limbaugh: we can argue over whether the criminal actions of Angela Davis or Bill Ayers were justified or not, or whether the good work they’ve done later in life obviates it, but they’re people who have exhibited passion for their causes born of love for the people they represent. Since he first went on air shortly after Reagan revoked the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, Rush Limbaugh’s entire schtick has been incessant attack—attacking liberals, feminists, people of colour, LGBTQ people, Democrats, insufficiently conservative Republicans, the disabled—the list goes on—largely in the name of inciting rage and fear among his almost exclusively white audience, and dehumanizing those he targets.
If Limbaugh, even with his enormous audience, had proved to be an outlier, it wouldn’t be worth noting his passing. But of course he wasn’t an outlier, or at least not for long: he tapped into a seemingly bottomless well of resentment and created a template for a model of rage-based conservatism that Roger Ailes would soon employ when he launched Fox News in 1996. It’s entirely likely that Newt Gingrich would have led his 1994 insurgency to a successful conclusion without Limbaugh on the airwaves, but it would be disingenuous to suggest Limbaugh had no influence.
So I guess in a perverse sense, he has built something: he built the foundation on which American conservatism went from the self-described ideology of ideas to the ideology of owning the libs. I have to assume that when he received his surprise Presidential Medal of Freedom, he was suffused with pride at being granted an honour from a president who probably would not be president without Limbaugh’s media business model having become the default setting for the Right.
At least he lived long enough to see Trump voted out of office and impeached for a second time.
It has now long seemed that the idea of hypocrisy as something for which politicians should feel shame is a quaint and charming a relic of an imagined past. Certainly, the crass and vulgar mendacity of Trump and Trumpism has been a wall of overwhelming sound, drowning out hypocrisy’s reedy voice. It has been an environment in which Mitch McConnell has thrived—having perfected the art of po-faced hypocrisy in the Obama years, he has matched the amplifications of the Trump presidency with ever-more overt displays with seeming impunity.
And yet, he might have finally crossed a bridge too far with his handling of the Senate impeachment trial. It’s been as interesting as it has been infuriating to watch McConnell try to navigate the post-election waters, especially after January 6th. As has frequently been said of him, Mitch McConnell’s only ideological allegiance is to himself, his own power, and maintaining Republican control of the Senate. With this last element gone with the election of Raphael Warnock and David Ossoff in Georgia—largely because of Trump’s compulsive self-dealing—and with donors fleeing the G.O.P. after the Capitol assault, Mitch’s political calculus became more delicate. How to woo back the big money without infuriating Trump’s voters? How to placate the MAGA base without seeming to endorse the insurrection? He’s done so by being as cagey as possible—letting his aides leak to the press that he was open to the idea of impeaching Trump; harrumphing very occasionally about the unseemliness of the Capitol violence; then, after the House’s impeachment vote, refusing to start the Senate’s trial until after Biden’s inauguration; letting it be known he was encouraging his caucus to vote their conscience; then voting against the constitutionality of the trial (twice); and finally, voting to exonerate Trump on the tenuous excuse that you can’t impeach an ex-president, even though it was specifically his actions that did not allow for the trial while Trump was still in office.
But what might make things more difficult for Mitch going forward is that, after voting not guilty, he then denounced Trump in no uncertain terms, calling the former president’s actions a “disgraceful, disgraceful dereliction of duty” and further that Trump was “practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day.” The attack on the Capitol “was a foreseeable consequence of the growing crescendo of false statements, conspiracy theories, and reckless hyperbole which the defeated president kept shouting into the largest megaphone on planet Earth.” There’s no equivocation here: Mitch denounced the President’s actions, and then his inaction on the day, as criminal and criminally negligent … after voting against conviction, because ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ constitution, whaddaya gonna do?
Perhaps Mitch has just gotten too inured to his own habitual hypocrisy that he did not account for the relative silence of Donald Trump since his Twitter ban. We’ve spent five years being deafened by Trump’s bellows; Mitch’s latest, monumental hypocrisy was like someone carrying on speaking at the top of their voice when the room suddenly falls silent. Perhaps he’s counting on Americans’ short memories, but if the Democrats don’t hang this around his neck and the necks of the Republican Party from now until November 2022, they’re feckless idiots (sadly, never discount the Democrats’ capacity for fecklessness). Midterm elections traditionally go badly for the party in power, but the 2022 Senate map isn’t a good one for the G.O.P. If a handful of senators lose primaries to MAGA extremists, and if Joe Biden is successful in containing the virus and jump-starting the economy, the usual electoral math might not matter so much.
I have to imagine that Mitch has seen himself between a rock and a hard place these past few weeks: acquit Trump on a party-line vote and suffer at the polls in 2022; let more senators vote to convict, and suffer primary challenges. But those were not his only options. What if he had actively lobbied behind the scenes to convict Trump? What if he had brought in enough of his people to make the conviction not just a 2/3 vote, but overwhelming? Yes, that would have incited Trump’s ire and led to a lot of primary challenges, but at the same time there’s safety in numbers. A large-scale rebuke to Trump would have sucked up a lot of his oxygen, and it would have had the effect of isolating the Trumpiest of the Senate: Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, Rand Paul, Ron Johnson, Lindsey Graham, all of whose political capital becomes tenuous in the absence of a Republican Party that continues to be supine to Trump. And the threat of primary losses diminishes along with Trump’s own status.
What’s more, such a bold shift would almost certainly have brought the Senate back to the Republicans in 2022. While I don’t be any means discount a resurgence in Trumpism in the near and medium-term future, we are at present seeing a slow but steady erosion of his support … a general disenchantment as Americans re-acclimate to boring but competent governance, while the impeachment managers laid out in damning and irrefutable terms Trump’s incitement to violence and subsequent dereliction of duty. Trump’s aides have suggested that he has been lying low during the impeachment trial and will start barnstorming the country any day now, seeking revenge on republican disloyalty. But so too have all the ongoing and potential lawsuits and indictments been in a holding pattern, in some cases waiting to gauge political fallout. Not only do Mitch McConnell’s own damning words give the green light for many such cases, but he has also probably encouraged those who suffered injury or lost loved ones on January 6th to launch their own lawsuits against the ex-president.
One can only imagine what that possible feeding frenzy would look like if he had been convicted.
A good friend of mine is fond of saying that Nazis make the best villains. Why? Because you don’t need to expend any exposition on why they are villainous. (This is, he continues, a lesson Stephen Spielberg learned early in his career).
I have had many occasions in the past few years to reflect that we have been ill-served by American popular culture on this front. The post-WWII figuration of Hitler and the Nazis as Absolute Evil across all media was of course understandable, but it has served to drain all nuance from the historical record—not the least of which was the fact that a not-insignificant portion of the American populace in the 1930s thought fascism an entirely reasonable system of governance, and many were actively supportive of Hitler’s regime.
But America’s entry into the war served to suppress such sentiments, and the images that emerged from the Nazi death camps effectively silenced them (it is telling that, even today, actual neo-Nazis dance a bizarre two-step in which they feel obliged to deny that the Holocaust actually happened, while hinting that it would have been a good idea).
Half a century’s worth of movies, television, media, and politics, have unfortunately denatured and decontextualized fascism. It’s an insult that has become too cheaply used, so much so that when Donald Trump’s candidacy and then presidency exhibited fascistic rhetoric and then policies, it was easy for naysayers to scoff—to invoke Godwin’s Law, or otherwise accuse those crying fascism of histrionics.
But in the aftermath of the January 6th assault on the Capitol, and the revelations that have emerged since, the label becomes more and more apposite. And the current schism in the G.O.P. that has Liz Cheney and Marjorie Taylor Greene as its points of inflection is instructive in this respect when you consider the nature of their respective offenses.
On one hand, you have Greene: a QAnon-subscribing conspiracist who has said such mass shootings as Sandy Hook and Parkland were staged; to that end, has harassed—on camera—Parkland survivor David Hogg; tacitly endorsed the execution of Nancy Pelosi; has claimed that no airplane struck the Pentagon on 9/11; has made numerous anti-Semitic comments, not least among them is the now-notorious claim that California wildfires were started by a space laser controlled by the Rothschilds. You’d think that when we arrive at the Jewish space laser stage of delusion, there might be more consensus among her peers that she is categorically unfit for office—or at the very least, unfit to sit on committees and draft legislation. I suppose there’s an argument to be made that if people are going to vote for her, there’s little to be done about that; but does anyone want someone who denies school shootings sitting on the House education committee?
On the other hand, there is Liz Cheney, daughter of Dick Cheney, and very much cut from her father’s ideological cloth. And while someone like myself might find everything about her politics reprehensible, it cannot be denied that she is at least tethered enough to reality to have seen the January 6th assault on the Capitol for what it was: a violent uprising against a free and fair election incited by the sitting president. She and nine of her peers in the Republican House Caucus had courage enough of their convictions to vote to impeach Donald Trump.
Both Greene and Cheney faced sanction and censure this week. The pressure to punish Greene came largely from outside the G.O.P. as Democrats railed against her lunacy, at once genuinely outraged, but also astute enough to see that tarring the Republicans with the QAnon brush would be politically advantageous. A number of Republicans also made that calculation, and denounced Greene’s public comments as “loony” and unacceptable. But when the House Republican Caucus had their first meeting this week, about half of them gave her a standing ovation when she stood to speak.
The movement to discipline Cheney, by contrast, emerged from within her own party, in retaliation for her impeachment vote. She isn’t the only one: other Republicans in and out of office have received backlash for not supporting Trump, often from Republican state parties. Former Arizona senator Jeff Flake, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, and Cindy McCain were all censured by the Arizona G.O.P. Illinois Representative Adam Kinzinger, who also voted to impeach Trump, was similarly censured by Republican officials in his district. Ditto South Carolina Representative Tom Rice.
Neither Greene nor Cheney, conversely, ended up being punished by their own party (Greene was stripped of her committee assignments by the Democratic majority). House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy ultimately decided not to censure Greene, even as he condemned her words. And a secret ballot passed comfortably in Cheney’s favour (145-61-1).
That Cheney’s position as the #3 House Republican was saved by a secret ballot speaks volumes, as it confirms a general, if empirically unconfirmed, wisdom—that a critical mass of Republicans want to be rid of Trump and Trumpism, but are mostly afraid of saying so out loud. One wonders what the vote on Cheney would have looked like if it hadn’t been secret; how many of those who voted to keep her in her position would have balked in fear of retribution from the Trump base?
And herein lies the rub: those in opposition to Marjorie Taylor Greene are opposed to the idea that someone so divorced from reality should wield anything resembling political power. Those supporting Greene are of a piece with those attacking Liz Cheney et al—their larger preoccupation is their slavish devotion to Donald Trump. Greene’s adherence to QAnon is merely the most extreme manifestation of this devotion: putting aside the distractions of blood-quaffing Satanist Democrat and Hollywood pedophiles such as depicted in Q’s fevered imagination, the core of the QAnon belief system is the conviction that Donald Trump—the “god emperor,” as he’s characterized—is the saviour who will bring all of these truths to light and all of those malefactors to justice. Whether or not Greene’s tepid apologies for her Q-influenced words and behaviour were sincere, she continues to make her slavish devotion to Trump clear. Whether or not Greene’s fellow travelers who want to punish Cheney, Kinzinger, Rice, and the rest, buy into her delusions is immaterial—the point is that their devotion is not to the United States of America, but to Donald Trump.
And that is the difference: however much Liz Cheney might be a vehicle carrying forward her father’s pernicious politics, she has at least made it clear that her first loyalty is to her nation. As have all the others attacked by the MAGA mob. And if we’re going to seriously consider what fascism is, and what fascism means, this is the starting point: the conflation of nationalism not with nation, but with a strongman leader.
Let’s have a moment of review: what are the hallmarks of fascism? First and foremost is a nativist—and populist—ethno-nationalism. Second is a cult of personality attached to a strongman who doesn’t represent the idea of the nation so much as embody it—he becomes conflated with his followers’ national identity. Third is that it is invariably a “he,” because fascism is emphatically patriarchal and masculinist. Fourth is a necessary and pervasive mendacity, in which the lies of the leader supplant reality. In what is possibly the most-quoted passage of political philosophy over the past few years, Hannah Arendt writes in The Origins of Totalitarianism that “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (ie, the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (ie, the standards of thought) no longer exist,” and further that “Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it.” Let’s remember that it was on January 22, 2017—a mere two days into Donald Trump’s tenure—that Kellyanne Conway entered “alternative facts” into the Trumpist lexicon.
Part of the problem people have had with the “fascist” label these past four or five years is because of how we’ve represented it to ourselves, which is to say, it has become synonymous with the Third Reich (and to a lesser extent with Mussolini’s Italy)—that is, with an established dictatorship. The writers and thinkers who have most consistently labelled Trumpism as fascistic have been those who recognize that fascism is more a method and style than specific ideology—that it is in fact something of a moving target, and if we think of it in static terms, we’re certain to miss the warning signs. Several months before Trump’s election, Adam Gopnik wrote an article in the New Yorker that alarmed me at the time, and remains, for me, one of the most astute (and prescient) comments the propriety of applying the fascist label to Trump and Trumpism:
[T]o call [Trump] a fascist of some variety is simply to use a historical label that fits. The arguments about whether he meets every point in some static fascism matrix show a misunderstanding of what that ideology involves. It is the essence of fascism to have no single fixed form—an attenuated form of nationalism in its basic nature, it naturally takes on the colors and practices of each nation it infects. In Italy, it is bombastic and neoclassical in form; in Spain, Catholic and religious; in Germany, violent and romantic. It took forms still crazier and more feverishly sinister, if one can imagine, in Romania, whereas under Oswald Mosley, in England, its manner was predictably paternalistic and aristocratic. It is no surprise that the American face of fascism would take on the forms of celebrity television and the casino greeter’s come-on, since that is as much our symbolic scene as nostalgic re-creations of Roman splendors once were Italy’s.
As I’ve observed in a handful of previous posts, it is difficult to delineate precisely what Trump’s followers—whether the MAGA hordes or his acolytes in elected office—actually want, vis à vis policy, aside from immigration restrictions. They, like Trump, are defined less by their ideas than by their enemies. People at Trump rallies and at the Capitol assault, when asked, speak in angrily vague terms about freedom, and when pressed, express their conviction that somehow Biden et al will take their freedom away; but really, the gist of their actual goals seems basically to be “more Trump.” The mob attacking the Capitol sported many flags—a good number of American flags, some Confederate flags and others bearing white-supremacist symbols, but the greatest number were Trump flags of one form or another. Images such as the one below should be exhibit A at the impeachment trial.
Further, Trump’s devotees in Congress have signalled that their highest loyalty is to him. Marjorie Taylor Greene wore a mask with the words “Trump Won” on the floor of Congress, and said that whenever Trump reveals his “plan,” she’ll be on board. Representative Matt Gaetz (R-FL), a frat paddle in human form (h/t to Crooked Media for that lovely description), recently said on Steve Bannon’s podcast,
I would leave my House seat, I would leave my home, I would do anything I had to do to ensure that the greatest president in my lifetime—one of the greatest presidents our country has ever had, maybe the greatest president our country has ever had—got a full-throated defense that wasn’t crouched down, that wasn’t in fear of losing some moderate Republican senator but that was worthy of the fight that he gave to the great people of this country for four years.
Gaetz, let us not forget, also travelled to Wyoming—in the winter, in case we question his fervor—to speak at a rally condemning Liz Cheney.
Such slavish devotion to a buffoon such as Trump is baffling, but authoritarians are clownish figures more often than not—and absurdity is invariably a component of fascist tendencies, not least because it requires belief in the outlandish. The idea of Jewish space lasers is risible, but then so too were the Nazis’ laundry-list of supposed Jewish offences. Taken out of context, the contradictory suggestion that international Jewry is responsible for both Communism and the predations of the big banks is similarly absurd; taken in context, it is sinister and pernicious.
About the best thing that can be said of the past five years is that they’ve been … educational. Comfortable myths and assumptions have been shattered, and we’ve been given a crash course in what is law and what is convention. Hopefully one of the most valuable lessons going forward will be a clearer and more nuanced understanding of fascism, and, more importantly, how it stalks the always-fungible borders of democracy, looking for weaknesses. This will be an important lesson to keep in mind when we remember that the Hitler’s Beer Hall Pustch of 1923 was a failed coup that was roundly mocked.
The Phantasm of Bipartisanship I really hope that, going forward, President Biden and the Democrats point out the fact that “unity” is not something to be solely accomplished in the well of Congress. I just finished reading Obama’s memoir, and the sections where he details his administration’s attempts to get Republicans—any Republicans—to sign onto any of his early pieces of legislation should be required reading for every congressional Democrat, everyone in Biden’s administration, and, most importantly, every single centrist pundit currently warning Biden not to abandon bipartisanship so soon into his tenure. Obama acknowledges in hindsight that he was naïve, not grasping the depths of bad faith of the Republicans and their willingness to let a nation suffer in the name of political expediency. I’m cautiously optimistic—and so far, my optimism looks like it might be borne out—that Biden will make good-faith gestures toward bipartisanship, but isn’t about to be played like he and his former boss were twelve years ago.
Every time the Republicans, and their media mouthpieces, wail that Biden’s rhetoric of unity was a lie, Democrats should point out that the majority of the nation is on board with the Biden platform—that a plurality of Republican voters want more stimulus rather than less, want larger checks and not smaller, want a bolder roll-out of vaccinations—which can only happen with a significant federal investment—and want a $15 minimum wage. Democrats should also point out that, while the might resort to budget reconciliation to pass the $1.9T bill to sidestep a filibuster, there’s nothing stopping a handful of Republican senators from voting for it. And they should also point to the fact that a significant number of Republican governors and mayors want the relief funds.
They should say: We’re being bipartisan. We’re doing what the country wants. The fact that you, Senate Republicans, don’t want it, is an issue you should perhaps take up with your constituents.
That Whole Gamestop Thing Trump may be out of office, sulking at Mar-a-Lago while he plots to retain his grip on the Republican party, but we’ll be dealing with Trumpism and the aftershocks of his reign for a long time to come. And I’m not even talking about Marjorie Taylor Greene (though I would be surprised not to see a blog post dedicated to her in the future). No, I mean the tendency during the past four years to have certain things one might have considered law shown to be mere convention, or things we would have assumed to be illegal to be common practice.
I was as schadenfreudistically delighted as anyone to hear and read the laments of hedge fund billionaires about the army of Redditors hoisting their stock-shorting arses by their own petard. At first, the saga had the quality of a virtual storming of the Bastille: humble citizen traders, in numbers large enough to inflict damage, playing the tricks of the ancien regime against them. As Jon Stewart tweeted, “The Redditors aren’t cheating, they’re joining a party Wall Street insiders have been enjoying for years.”
But as Derek Thompson writes in The Atlantic, “Waging war against Big Finance by becoming a day trader is like waging war against the casino industry by becoming a gambling addict.” Sure, there’s the chance you might win big betting on double zero at roulette, but you’re still playing by house rules—and the house always wins. Thompson adds, “trying to punish the rich by buying and selling stocks all day doesn’t make any sense. We’ve seen over and over and over that most day traders lose money; they routinely get smoked by bigger players.” Indeed, “while some Redditors made millions recently, the largest holders of GameStop stock, like the giant asset manager BlackRock, made billions.”
More to my point, Stephanie remarked a day after Gamestop became big news, “I’ve learned more about how the stock market works in the last twenty-four hours than in my entire life until now.” I concurred, and I added my incredulous observation that all of this—the shorting of stocks, the revolt of the Redditors—was perfectly legal. To again cite Obama’s memoir (which, not to belabour a point, is an excellent read), he commented on how much grief he and his justice department received in the aftermath of the financial meltdown when none of the major Wall Street players responsible for it were arrested and tried. Though it was a politically unpalatable answer, Obama dryly acknowledged, the sad fact of the matter is no one went to jail because none of what had caused the meltdown was technically illegal.
This is where I’m at with this whole Gamestop thing. While I’m happy to stick it to billionaires in the short term, the problem is the financial system itself writ large. The strategy of shorting stocks, as well as the dozens of other perfectly legal games traders play of which I am currently ignorant, is reflective of a morally bankrupt system. It makes me think of the moment towards the end of the film The Big Short—in which a handful of small players predict the 2008 collapse and make enormous amounts of money off it—when Brad Pitt’s character rebukes his fellows for being exultant. This is people’s lives, he remonstrates. Their homes. Their savings. Their retirements. You might be able to justify gaming a corrupt system, but corrupt systems impact real people.
The End of The ExpanseWell, not the end. Not yet—there will be one more season before it rides into the sunset, but today the final episode of season five airs. I haven’t yet watched it, as I’m saving it for this evening; but I look forward to it with the combination of anticipation and sadness that always accompanies the final instalment of something you’ve been enjoying.
The Expanse is a show that has gotten steadily better with each season—because with its growing viewership, it has garnered bigger effects budgets, because the writers have settled into a groove, and because the actors have made the characters come into their own.
I will likely have something more expansive to write about it (see what I did there?) at some point in the future—possibly when I have binge-watched the entire season over again—but for now I will be content to note that this season has been the best so far … a remarkable fact considering that the four core characters, the crew of the Rocinante, who have grown from a crew of mutually suspicious misfits into a genuine family, spent this season separated, each of their storylines having taken them on distant and perilous tracks. Some viewers voiced concern early in the season—how could The Expanse pack the emotional punch of previous seasons when Holden, Naomi, Amos, and Alex were scattered across the solar system?
I was not overly concerned (not least because I’ve read and enjoyed the novel Nemesis Games, on which this season was based), but still quite impressed at how well this cast, whose chemistry has been the basis of the show thus far, still shine in their separate (but linked) narratives.
Yesterday was a salve to the soul—seeing the footage of Donald Trump leaving the White House for the last time, watching Joe Biden take the oath of office, and finally turning the page on four years of cruelty and spite—all while, thanks to Twitter’s belated enforcing of their terms of service, we heard nothing from the outgoing President. Good riddance to bad rubbish, as my grandmother would say. But of the many questions worrying those of us who loathe Donald Trump and everything his presidency represented, possibly the most concerning is: will there be another Trump? Who is waiting in the wings to don his mantle and lead the MAGA hordes next? And is it even possible for someone to be the next Trump, or was he sui generis this entire time?
I have spent way too much brain power running counter-factuals these past four years, especially as we approached what mercifully proved to be the end of Trump’s tenure. Adam Serwer, who has been one of my lodestones in this era, posted a characteristically astute essay in The Atlantic yesterday, whose title was, helpfully, the thesis of the piece: “An Incompetent Authoritarian is Still a Catastrophe.” In it, he details the number of times pundits and political commenters have waved away Trump’s threat, under the aegis of “Oh, he’s too incompetent to really do any damage.” And then Serwer proceeds to detail all the ways in which Trump, incompetent boob that he is, managed to do grievous damage to the nation that had elected him president.
And yet. I have had many occasions to marvel at Trump’s ability to miss the most obvious opportunities. In hindsight, the nightmare scenario was a Trump who actually carried out some of his promises. Imagine a Trump who didn’t just gesture at “infrastructure week,” but actually devoted serious money to it? Or who followed through on his pledge to tax the rich? Or got real on health care? The X factor here, of course, is whether the GOP would have had his back—there’s a real possibility that this counter-factual would have entailed the invocation of the twenty-fifth amendment before the end of 2017; but would also have entailed a Trump Administration that hamstrung the Democrats by, on one hand, putting forward a critical mass of policies with which they could not argue, while simultaneous enacting the cruelest and most divisive immigration policies in American history. And four years on, instead of conspiracist fantasies, his fan base could point to genuine accomplishments, while all those ambivalent suburban voters who defected to Biden could reassure themselves that Trump wasn’t just a nativist reactionary.
But now, in the hours and days after Trump’s sad and pathetic skulk out of the White House in the early hours of January 20th, we know better. We know that such strategic thinking was never in Trump’s wheelhouse. That he was and is a man of sheer compulsion without the capacity for a sober second thought—or for that matter, sober thought to start with. That even those people around him who might have thought themselves clever manipulators who could use this blunt instrument to their own ends—Steve Bannon leaps to mind—found themselves ousted the moment Trump perceived them as less than absolutely subservient. That even those staffers with altruistic intentions were tainted by their connection to him. And that, in the end, it was only the most lunatic and fanatical of his true believers whom he tolerated to have in his presence.
At the risk of people calling down Godwin’s Law on my head, I would point out that Trump desperately wants to be a fascist, but never learned the first lesson laid down by Mussolini and Hitler: get shit done. Make the trains run on time, as the saying goes. Contra Adam Serwer’s otherwise spot-on article, a halfway competent Trump would have been a catastrophe and a half.
And yet. Would even a moderately competent Trump have commanded the same authority over his base? This is the problem with counter-factual musings—they tend to assume a parallel set of circumstances with a few changed variables, but there’s no way to predict how those changes would affect the base circumstances. Trump was always something of a black swan event, even though the cultural forces he unleashed—white grievance, anti-feminist backlash, the reignition of Confederate sympathies, among others—were always present and predictable. As I said in my previous post, that a preening, vain, pompadoured New York billionaire would become the object of adulation of a segment of America wedded to guns, pickup trucks, and a nativist conception of Jesus, remains a matter of some bewilderment.
At this point, I am several years past any desire to seek empathy with the MAGA crowd. I see no reason to ameliorate my evaluation of their intellects, or, more specifically, the lack thereof. They are idiots. Deluded, pernicious idiots. And in a delicious irony—considering their sub-literate tendency to throw the label “communist” around—they are useful idiots. Useful to Trump in particular, though they may well prove too unruly for Trump’s would-be successors. It is entirely possible that Josh Hawley or Ted Cruz or Mike Pompeo might saddle this particular tiger for their ever-so-obvious presidential 2024 ambitions … but do any of them seem like a likely successor to Trump? Perhaps I’m missing something important, but I cannot see it—it seems highly improbable that any of them, or any other would-be MAGA leader, would be able to capture lightning in a bottle in the mode of Trump. The irony, in my reading, is that Hawley, Cruz et al are too nakedly ambitious; as David Von Drehle observed in the Washington Post, Trump’s adherents aren’t impressed by Joh Hawley:
Hawley believes that there exists in America a “Trump vote” somehow distinct from President Trump himself. But Trumpism is not a philosophical torch that can be passed from one runner to the next; Trumpism is nothing more or less than the star power of Trump. The senator compounds that mistake by failing to see that Trump’s star draws much of its power from the humiliation of people exactly like Josh Hawley.
Let us not forget, Drehle points out, that Trump’s rise “was built on the serial destruction of ambitious men and women with distinguished résumés, flattering suits and neat haircuts,” whom he brought low one after the other during the Republican primary—Bush, Rubio, Graham, and the rest of the clown car. Of all his conquests, only John Kasich retained something resembling dignity; Jeb Bush simply disappeared. And while it looked for a brief moment that Ted Cruz would remain a Trump antagonist—earning boos at the convention when he implored Republicans to “vote your conscience”—it wasn’t long after that that Cruz was phonebanking for the man who (fairly) labelled him “Lyin’ Ted,” as well as mocking his wife’s appearance and suggesting that his father had a hand in JFK’s assassination. I have little doubt that the spectacle of ambitious Republicans yoking their tiny wagons to Trump’s nova was a matter of deep satisfaction to Trump’s base. If there is a “new” Trump to step into his role—assuming that he’s too emburdened and embattled by lawsuits and prosecutions in the coming years to run again in 2024, which is by no means a sure thing—it will almost certainly not be somebody who has subjugated themselves to him these past few years.
My hope in the current moment is that Trump’s ignominious departure, acceding meekly in the end to the reality of his loss, his social media voice silenced, will break the spell. I’m cautiously optimistic: the Proud Boys are now disavowing and mocking him, calling him “weak” (an epithet almost as bad as “loser” in the Trump lexicon); the fact that Biden’s inauguration went ahead without a hitch rather than culminating in arrests and executions and the continuation of Trump’s presidency caused consternation among QAnon adherents; and there is a general sense of Trump’s diminishment—without the presidential bully pulpit, and without Twitter, he can no longer be a squatter in our mental real estate to the same extent.
Which is not to say we’re out of the woods: Hawley and Cruz et al will do their misguided best to vie for the love of Trump’s base, and those forces of reaction and hate that Trump cultivated and unleashed aren’t likely to just fade into the woodwork. On the other hand, I was struck by the diversity of the groups storming the Capitol two weeks ago—not diversity of race, creed, or ethnicity, but the coalition of hate and reaction represented by Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, neo-confederates, neo-Nazis, Tea Partiers, and the broad range of paramilitary and MAGA cosplayers. Granted, they all share a set of grievances (some real, mostly imagined), but the one person who served to galvanize them into a bloodthirsty mob proved not to be the god-emperor in whom they had invested their devotion.
Perhaps Trump stages a comeback. Perhaps Don Jr. will step into his father’s shoes, but he lacks the unerring cruelty of his father that so animated the MAGA crowd (he tries, bless his socks, but he’s even dumber than his dad). And perhaps there is someone waiting in the wings we haven’t anticipated.
But yesterday I saw a president speak in complete sentences and speak honest, hard truths to a nation in crisis. And after four years of cruelty, mendacity, and narcissism, that will buoy my spirit for some time to come.