Category Archives: The Trump Era

The Reality of QAnon

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.

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R.I.P. (Rot In Perdition)

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.

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The Sound of Mitch’s Hypocrisy

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.

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Fascism By Any Other Name

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.

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A Few Things

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 Expanse     Well, 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.

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Filed under A Few Things, The Biden Presidency, The Trump Era

Some Post-Inaugural Thoughts

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.

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Filed under politics, The Trump Era

Wide Awake in America

This morning as we sat on the couch with our coffee, Stephanie looked up from her phone and asked, “Did we get right-wing propaganda in our mailbox this week?” She was referring to The Epoch Times, a well-funded anti-Chinese “newspaper” that has been one of Donald Trump’s biggest supporters. According to the Reddit thread she was reading, it has been showing up in mailboxes in Newfoundland. Curious, I stepped outside and checked—and sure enough, there it was.

As I flipped through it with distaste—seeing headlines claiming that Mark Zuckerberg donated $500M for the purposes of undermining the U.S. Election,  or “With Coronavirus, Chinese Regime Launched a Geopolitical Masterstroke,” authored by none other than Conrad Black, and my personal favourite,  “The Destructive Fallout of Male Emasculation” (to be distinguished, presumably, from female emasculation)—Stephanie read out loud some of the comments being made. While many of them were helpful suggestions about what to do with the paper, such as using it to kindle your wood stove or clean shit from your boots, there were of course the inevitable commenters yelling about how The Epoch Times got it right and that Canada is on its way to being a wholly owned subsidiary of the Chinese regime.

My favourite one, however, was the person castigating the naysayers with every conspiracy theorist’s favourite term of derision—“sheeple”—and suggesting that we wake up and engage in a little critical thinking for once.

I love it when conspiracists tell me to think critically, especially considering that I wrote a doctoral dissertation on conspiracy theory in American literature and popular culture. I appreciate the concern that we should think critically, but it’s the “wake up” that is the more familiar refrain of the conspiratorially-minded.

Conspiracist thinking is magical thinking: it is predicated on the promise of revelation. In this respect it possesses an element of religiosity, to say nothing of religious fervour. This should not, perhaps, be surprising, given that conspiracy is usually figured as vast, omnipresent, and omniscient, while simultaneously being all but invisible, revealing itself only in elusive but suggestive fragments that mean nothing to the casual observer but everything to the conspiracist. Belief in conspiracy thus functions as a kind of displaced theism. Sociologist Karl Popper suggested that conspiracism becomes more prevalent when societies become more secular—that with the waning of religion as a life-organizing principle, in its place there arise cabals of shadowy figures who are the true, secret power of the world. Or, as novelist Don DeLillo put it more succinctly, “Conspiracy is the new faith.”

Conspiracy as a trope in fiction is animated by the promise of revelation, that what was hidden will be seen. There is no more perfect articulation of this premise than a scene from Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 when his protagonist Oedipa Maas—just before she is to get caught up in the machinations of the mysterious conspiratorial group the Tristero—has something approaching a vision when she looks down on the city of San Narciso:

She looked down a slope, needing to squint for the sunlight, onto a vast sprawl of houses which had grown up all together, like a well-tended crop, from the dull brown earth; and she thought of the time she’d opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit. The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle, sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit card had. Though she knew even less about radios than about Southern Californians, there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate. There’d seemed no limit to what the printed circuit could have told her (if she had tried to find out); so in her first minute of San Narciso, a revelation also trembled just past the threshold of her understanding.

Aside from being one of my favourite passages in prose fiction, Pynchon conveys the hallucinogenic quality of conspiracy, and its allure: the promise of secret and arcane knowledge (“a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning”).

If conspiracy in fiction trades on the promise of revelation, in real life conspiracism is animated by the conviction of having experienced that revelation, of having had the scales fall from one’s eyes and seen the true, malevolent shape of things. It’s not coincidental that one of the filmic touchstones of conspiracism, especially amongst its “men’s rights” iterations, is The Matrix—a film whose premise is a veritable apotheosis of the conspiratorial imagination. In it, the world as we know it is false, a computer program humanity inhabits that keeps them ignorant of the reality that they are being used by intelligent machines as a power source. The choice Morpheus gives Neo—a blue pill, that will let him remain blissfully ignorant, or a red pill, which will make him “wake up” to reality—has passed into conspiracist jargon. For the men’s rights advocates (MRAs) and other virulently anti-feminist fellow-travelers, to be “red-pilled” is to come to the realization that women effectively run the world and men are the true victims. Though the metaphor of the red pill is specific to the so-called manosphere, the sense of waking up to the true, conspiratorial reality of the world is held in common across the broad range of conspiratorial thinking.

Such thinking, I would hope it goes without saying, is the antithesis of critical thinking. It is the difference between theology and dogmatism, both of which entail a basis of faith—”the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1)—but the former of which entails the intellectual labour of sorting through ethical and moral armatures by way of dialectical reasoning; the latter is slavish devotion to an idea and does not brook heresy.

Like unthinking piety, conspiracism is not easily persuaded by facts or logic. It is sobering to think of the number of American voters who probably agree with many of the policies Democrats mean to pursue in the coming years, but still voted for Trump because they just couldn’t get past the fact that Joe Biden is a human-trafficking pedophile who drinks the blood of children. That, in a nutshell, is the core belief of the QAnon fantasy: that such high-ranking democrats as Biden, Obama, and the Clintons are the heart of an evil cabal that also includes George Soros and economic and political elites the world over, and that Donald Trump is the bulwark against their malevolence, that he has been working throughout his presidency to bring these malefactors down. QAnon covers probably the largest amount of real estate on our conspiracy Venn diagram, but overlaps with the Proud Boys, neo-Nazis, Three Percenters, Oathkeepers, MRAs, and a host of others eluding my memory right now, in its anti-Semitism, white grievance and white supremacism, anti-feminism, anti-globalism, and above all in its veneration of Donald Trump—who has become an unlikely standard-bearer for all of these people.

A QAnon adherent in the Capitol Building.

Why Trump? How did such a preening, vain, manifestly physically unfit whiner whose only clothing choices seem to be overlarge blue suits and golfingwear become the object of adulation for hordes of masculinist ammosexuals given to paramilitary cosplay? I think there are any number of answers to that question—not least is the fact that he gave them license to say the quiet part of their racism and misogyny out loud—but I think a big one is that he’s the perfect amorphous vessel for their hatred, resentment, and longing for something that makes sense. In all of the articles I’ve read about the people who stormed the Capitol, all of the interviews with such people I’ve seen, not one person has offered a coherent account of what they want, and what sort of alternative they envision to the current system. They talk a lot about freedom and seem pretty convinced that Biden and his people are determined to take that freedom away, but nothing of what they say bears even a passing resemblance to reality. As for the “coup,” it further appears that the only concrete political goal they have is more Trump. In the QAnon lexicon, Trump is the “god-emperor,” and while that is typical of QAnon’s absurdly hyperbolic discourse, the larger MAGA devotion to him is indiscernible from religious fanaticism.

Which means that for a not-insignificant number of Americans, Donald Trump is their revealed truth. Which does not bode well for the Republic.

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Filed under The Trump Era, wingnuttery

A Few Things (About the Attack on the Capitol)

Welcome to a special edition of “A Few Things.” I’m currently working through my thoughts in a (much) longer piece that I hope to post in a day or two, but along the way I’ve digressed into a few rabbit holes that don’t quite merit full-length posts. Or possibly they do, but I also need to prep my courses for next week and try to get some non-blog writing done. So this will have to do.

It Was Way Worse Than We Originally Thought   Which is saying a lot, because my first impression was that it was really bad. But there was also in many of the initial images of the attack the sense of a frat party gotten out of hand—the proverbial dog catching the car. This seemed especially apparent in the footage of the rioters milling aimlessly around the Senate chamber, as if confused about what to do now.

But in the days since, we’ve learned a lot of deeply disturbing details, not least among them the accounts of the D.C. and Capitol police who stood their ground … as well as those who, it now seems, aided and abetted the attackers. Indeed, the presence in the MAGA crowd of off-duty law enforcement, as well as both active service military and veterans is frightening (though sadly unsurprising). And for all of the rioters who weren’t actually expecting to successfully breach the Capitol, there were significant segments of the mob who were well-armed and -equipped, and coordinated in their movements, communicating on a walkie-talkie app on their phones. They brought guns, tasers, bear spray, gas masks, and flex-cuffs—this last item presumably for the purpose of taking hostages. They were determined to kidnap and kill members of Congress, especially Nancy Pelosi. They chanted “Hang Mike Pence!” for the VP’s unforgivable sin of not attempting the impossible task of single-handedly overturning Biden’s victory. Hence the gallows constructed outside weren’t just a racist symbol of Jim Crow era America, but apparently purpose-driven.

It was, it turns out, a matter of mere minutes and the quick thinking of a Capitol cop that allowed the senators and representatives to escape to an undisclosed safe location. If they had not, the death toll might have been much worse.

Strange Bedfellows   I’ve quipped a few times these past few years that I’ll know things will have gotten back to normal and Trump is finally out of office and the public eye when I can go back to hating David Frum. Frum, a Canadian expat who was a speechwriter for George W. Bush and went on to work as a high-profile conservative pundit, reliably wrote stuff that made me spit in anger—not least of which was his reliable cheerleading for the Iraq War. But since the rise of Trump, Frum has become one of the more eloquent never-Trumpers. It has been a measure of the unreality of the past five years that I’ve agreed with 95% of what he has written.

By the same token, while Twitter’s lifetime ban on Trump made me veritably drunk with schadenfreude, it makes me uncomfortable to be on the same page as Jack Dorsey. Ditto for Mark Zuckerberg also banning Trump, for Amazon’s effective silencing of the right-wing app Parler, and further for Twitter’s removal of some 75K accounts linked to QAnon. On one hand, the conservative howls of rage claiming that their First Amendment rights are being infringed upon makes me chortle—either because they’re misunderstanding how the First Amendment works, or are being deliberately obtuse. The right to free speech extends to not being silenced by the government. As private companies, Twitter et al can ban whomever they please, for whatever reason. Trump’s behaviour, and the behaviour of his followers, has suddenly become toxic for these companies—almost certainly because, with the Democratic capture of the Senate, they’re now running scared about regulation and want to make a high-profile break from Trump—and according to the logic of the market, they’re making changes. The same goes for the coterie of corporations that have cut off donations to all the Republicans who voted to overturn the electoral votes.

And yet. The issue of free speech and expression has become fraught in the age of social media, not least because the juggernauts of Twitter and Facebook and Amazon—and all of their subsidiaries—have become something akin to public utilities. I certainly don’t disagree with Trump’s ban—according to Twitter’s terms of service, it should have happened years ago—but the quasi-godlike power of massive corporations to arbitrarily silence citizens—even citizens whose vile opinions should disqualify them from public discourse—is deeply disturbing.

Remember That Time Pete Davidson Said Something Stupid About Dan Crenshaw?   Remember, he made a joke about Crenshaw’s eyepatch, which was tasteless and idiotic because Crenshaw lost his eye to an IED on his third tour in Afghanistan? And then by way of apology and conciliation, Davidson apologized to Crenshaw in person on SNL’s Weekend Update? And then in good fun, Crenshaw proceeded to roast Davidson, and much was made about unity and Americans all being Americans?

Well, Representative Crenshaw (R-TX) is all about unity again. Along with many of his fellow Republicans in the aftermath of an attack on Capitol hill explicitly fomented by the President, Crenshaw tweeted “We can’t ignore the President’s behavior leading up to the violence in the Capitol last week. He bears enormous responsibility for it. But impeachment is not the answer. We all need to deescalate, lower the temperature, and move forward together as a country.” A nice sentiment, if it wasn’t so full of shit. Never mind that Crenshaw has been one of Trump’s many enablers in Congress … for someone now so interested in “lowering temperatures,” he was quite happy to bring things to a boil in mid-December when he released the following ad in support of David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler.

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The Rhetorical Laziness of Whataboutism

For me, one of the more reliably comforting shows to watch over the past four years has been Late Night With Seth Meyers. Of all the late night hosts, I find Meyers the sharpest and the funniest; his “A Closer Look” segments are among the best pieces of political commentary I’ve seen. And yet, about a year and a half ago, I found myself yelling at him on my television screen.

His guest was Meghan McCain, daughter of the late Senator John McCain, who has in the past few years polished her brand as a conservative truth-teller, largely in the context of her seat on The View. Though she situates herself as an anti-Trump Republican, she often ends up tacitly defending him in the name of calling out ostensible liberal hypocrisy. The bone in her teeth the night she appeared with Meyers was Representative Ilhan Omar—who had, at some point prior, made comments over Twitter that many people (Democrats included) perceived as anti-Semitic (basically, accusing Washington politicians of being in thrall to pro-Israel lobbyists; she was accused of indulging in Jewish stereotypes regarding money). Around the same time, she had also made comments to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, saying the council “was founded after 9/11 because they recognized that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties.” The phrasing “some people did something” predictably pissed a lot of people off because of the glib way it glossed over the horror of the attack. Even more predictably, the right-wing media latched onto both of these instances and used them as evidence of Omar’s putative radicalism and capital-O Otherness.

Hence, it was thus unsurprising that McCain would similarly voice her umbrage, but when Meyers pushed back, pointing out that Trump has a long history of anti-Semitic remarks, as well as numerous impolitic comments about 9/11 (such as falsely claiming that, with the collapse of the Twin Towers, the tallest building in NYC was now one of his), she grew increasingly irate, ultimately accusing him of having a double standard. Sure, you’ll attack Trump, she spat, but not someone on your side of the political coin.

This is when I started yelling at the TV. Not because I disagreed with anything Meyers was saying, but because he wasn’t making what, to me, was the most obvious point: that of course there’s a double standard for the words and behaviour of a freshman congresswoman on one hand, and the President of the United States on the other. The former represents something just north of 700,000 constituents in Minnesota. The latter was elected president of 330 million people; is the face of America to the world; has access to the codes for the nuclear arsenal; commands the largest military on earth; and occupies the most powerful political office in the world. The idea that we wouldn’t hold him to a different standard is categorically insane.

There is much about the attacks on Omar that were infuriating, even if you grant the premise that her comments were as offensive as people charged. For one thing, she apologized (something Meyers pointed our several time to McCain, who was dismissive), and promised to learn from her colleagues how best to educate her perspective, whereas Trump has never admitted error or apologized for anything. In his life. For another thing, it’s hard not to speculate on how much grief a white dude would receive for such comments as opposed to a hijab-wearing Black Muslim woman.

I cite this interview because it’s what tends to leap to mind every time I encounter the rhetorical gambit of whataboutism. You’re familiar with it, of course: equal measures of deflection and the implication of your own hypocrisy. “Trump has been credibly accused of sexual assault and harassment of numerous women.” “Oh yeah? What about Bill Clinton? Where’s your #MeToo sanctimony with him?” On some levels, there’s a value to such a turnaround, as it can raise discomforting questions. How do we now think about Bill Clinton’s behaviour while in office, to say nothing of the prior credible accusations against him? And while that can be at times a helpful and necessary exercise in taking a moral inventory of one’s positions, in the context of an argument, whataboutism tends to erase context and nuance. The most obvious answer to my above example would be to say, “We’re not talking about Clinton, we’re talking about Trump. We can talk about Clinton later if you want, but that’s not the subject at hand.” That is unlikely to satisfy your interlocutor, however, and almost certainly will evoke a sneering charge of hypocrisy. On the other hand, any good-faith attempt to address the question necessitates teasing out distinctions of context and changing societal attitudes, which inevitably takes you away from the original premise of your argument. And if you’re up against an inveterate whatabouter, you’ll be peppered with the machine-gun fire of follow-ups. “What about X? What about Y?”

To be fair, there are times when whataboutism is unavoidable, but these tend to be fairly narrow and specific; when the Biden camp put Neera Tanden’s name forward as head of the Office of Management and Budget, a handful of Republican senators protested that they probably couldn’t vote to confirm her, because she’d been frequently caustic and pugilistic on Twitter. Which, honestly, is one of those moments when you just have to say … seriously? What about Trump’s tweeting habits? After four years of being silent on this President, now you choose to take issue with someone being mean on social media?

But for the most part, whataboutism isn’t about opening up the discussion, it’s about shutting it down in a way that promulgates a sense of political cynicism. Meghan McCain’s false equivalency between a freshman congresswoman and the President is merely just a more glaring example of this kind of thinking. Over the past few weeks, there have been a three recurring examples, which taken together comprise a pernicious narrative thread that culminated in the attack on the Capitol: in response to people upset over Trump refusing to concede, you’ve reliably heard people pointing out that Stacy Abrams never conceded her loss in 2018’s gubernatorial contest in Georgia; in the run-up to Republicans’ plan to contest the electoral votes on January 6, many on the Right have pointed out that Democrats contested electors in 2001, 2005, and 2017; and in the aftermath of the MAGA crowd’s storming of the Capitol, the charge has been that liberals and progressives cheered on the BLM “riots” all summer, but now they’re calling for law and order when Trump supporters perpetrate something similar?

The appeal of whataboutism is that it’s easy, and provides a blunt rhetorical cudgel easily taken up by people with little interest in context and nuance. Not one of the three examples I cite here holds up on examination, but to engage each of them on their merits requires making distinctions in which those inclined will see no difference. There is no equivalence, none whatsoever, between Stacy Abrams’ refusal to concede and Trump’s recalcitrance. Abrams’ refusal was a symbolic protest—she accepted the fact of Brian Kemp’s electoral win and did not attempt to overturn the election results. But she held, not that the results were fraudulent, but that her opponent had acted inappropriately in his dual role as gubernatorial candidate and Georgia’s Secretary of State, and thus in charge of overseeing the election in which he was running—and in the process, enacting voting restrictions that disenfranchised thousands of Black voters. Which is not even remotely similar to Trump’s refusal to concede based on his repeated claims of voter fraud on a massive scale that was somehow perpetrated with such subtlety that no evidence of it could be produced in over sixty lawsuits. The difference between Abrams’ refusal to concede and Trump’s is that hers did not deny the reality of the election results—it was, rather, a protest against voter suppression perpetrated through entirely legal means (and the fact that it was entirely legal is one of the crucial problems she sought to address). Trump, by contrast, is a conspiracist and a fantasist, and his repeated assertions of fraud—repeated and amplified by his useful idiots in conservative media—have created a dangerous alternative reality among his supporters.

Indeed, the flimsy tautology cited by the senators and representatives contesting the electoral votes on January 6 was that they had an obligation to open an investigation into the election because so many people believed it was fraudulent … belief fabricated out of nothing by Trump and his mouthpieces. And, further, contesting electoral votes was hardly uncommon, given that Democrats had done so after the 2000, 2004, and 2016 elections. But again, that whataboutism infers equivalence where there is none: in each of those cases, the election had been conceded—by Al Gore, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton, respectively. And in each case, the protests were raised by outliers in the Democratic Party; in 2001 and 2017 they were gavelled down by the outgoing Vice Presidents Gore and Biden (“Come on man, move on,” was Biden’s characteristic rebuke). Last Wednesday, we saw twelve senators and over one hundred representatives in an organized effort to disrupt and delay the confirmation of Biden’s presidency, egged on by a delusional lame duck President stuck in a bubble of resentment and rage, while the insurgency he had spent months fomenting made its way to Capitol Hill.

“But what about all the violent riots by Black Lives Matter protesters this summer?” I find this one particularly saddening, mainly because it was disheartening to watch the perception of an historic nation-wide movement calcify into the overdetermined and inaccurate memory of “riots.” It is crucial to remember the widespread shock and horror inspired by the images of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a callous and indifferent police officer; it is equally crucial to remember that BLM’s national approval was over sixty percent in the weeks that followed, most specifically because, in addition to the cruelty of Floyd’s murder, millions of people witnessed the police doubling down on their brutal methods when faced with mass protests: confronting BLM marchers in riot gear; being the ones to incite violence as they charged the protesters; bombarding them with pepper spray, tear gas, and rubber bullets; driving their vehicles into their lines. While some police precincts attempted more peaceful conciliation, they were the outliers—for the most part, police met protesters in quasi-military garb and militant tactics, while largely ignoring or winking at right-wing groups like the Proud Boys when they showed up after curfew to clash with the protesters.

The summer was long, and memories and attention spans are tragically short. Frustration mounted. More bad actors inserted themselves into the protests. Was there violence? Yes. Did some of the protests devolve into riots after dark? Also yes. But the confluence of participants–the police, BLM protesters, anarchists, opportunistic looters, right-wing counter-protesters and wannabe militiamen like Kyle Rittenhouse–meant that the excesses could not be blamed on any one group, and the BLM leadership always called for peaceful protests. Sadly, though, what was always a national movement proceeding from a long history of racial injustice became distilled for many as a series of images of fire, violence, and smoke—usually at night—and the nuances evaporated from the larger national discourse and tacitly laid the blame on Black Lives Matter.

The point being that the complexity of the summer of protest bears no resemblance to the stark insurgency that took place on Wednesday. The former sought to wake a nation to its long-standing history of racial injustice, and was met by overwhelming force by law enforcement. The latter was an almost entirely white mob fomented by a delusional president, a mob that sported confederate flags, neo-nazi garb and tattoos, and who—for all their protestations of patriotism—replaced an American flag with a Trump flag. And they were met not by overwhelming force, but by a paucity of Capitol police who apparently did not think a mass of Trump supporters was a threat.

The former was protest. The latter was insurrection. There is no equivalence.

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The (Ironically) Monarchical Presidency

So, five days into 2021, I’m about halfway through Barack Obama’s memoir A Promised Land; my partner and I just yesterday finished watching season four of The Crown; and we’re all (that is to say, everyone I know) watching with varying degrees of incredulity what we can only hope is the final phase of Donald Trump’s post-election meltdown.

While these three things might seem at best tenuously connected—I suppose they’re all about leadership in troubled times, one way or another—they comprise in my mind an oddly serendipitous trifecta. This feeling of serendipity is a product of my own idiosyncratic thought processes, to be certain, not least because I’ve found myself musing at various points over the past few years about the irony that America’s Founding Fathers, in their antipathy to kings, tyrants, and demagogues, created a system that, 227 years later, facilitated the election of a demagogic king-wannabe with a tyrannical temperament. And in the determination to create a republican rather than a parliamentary democracy, they and those who followed them introduced certain rigidities that circumscribed a presidential term of office in ways that are anathema to a parliamentary system: the absolute scheduling of elections and inaugurations, for one thing, but also, more significantly, the designation of the President as somehow different in kind from other officeholders. While a prime minister is “first among equals,” the U.S. President inhabits a dual identity—the person himself (or hopefully sometime soon, herself), coterminous with the Office of the President. Again, considering the Founders’ aversion to kings, the relationship between the president and the Office is weirdly not unlike the principle of the King’s Two Bodies, a bit of medieval legalese designed to account for how a person supposedly divinely sanctioned to rule could also be lascivious, cruel, or just generally sinful. The principle distinguishes between the corporeal, temporal, and corruptible person of the monarch, and the monarch’s eternal, divine role as God’s Anointed (if you’ve ever wondered why British kings and queens refer to themselves as “we,” this is why—they’re speaking for their two bodies).

Both conceptions entail a logic of succession: upon the death of the monarch, the title then passes to the heir; and as we’ve heard many, many times over the past several weeks, the moment Joe Biden takes the oath of office on January 20 is the very instant in which Donald Trump ceases to be President—and, if he has thus far refused to exit the White House, the same moment he becomes a trespasser to be frog-marched out of the building by the Secret Service (fingers crossed).

When I think of the logic of succession, I can’t help but think of a passage from Terry Pratchett’s novel Mort:

The only thing known to go faster than ordinary light is monarchy, according to the philosopher Ly Tin Wheedle. He reasoned like this: you can’t have more than one king, and tradition demands that there is no gap between kings, so when a king dies the succession must therefore pass to the heir instantaneously. Presumably, he said, there must be some elementary particles—kingons, or possibly queons—that do this job, but of course succession sometimes fails if, in mid-flight, they strike an anti-particle, or republicon. His ambitious plans to use his discovery to send messages, involving the careful torturing of a small king in order to modulate the signal, were never fully expanded because, at that point, the bar closed.

Except that, in the case of the U.S. constitution, the “republicon” particle repurposes the instantaneous transmission of monarchy for its own uses.

For all of the very self-consciously constructed philosophical and political distance between republicanism and monarchy, I find it oddly amusing to find such vestiges of the latter embedded in the former. While we Canadians might still constitutionally have the British Crown as our head of state—and while that might irk and chafe a good number of us—on the whole we don’t tend to think of it as that big of a deal, given the purely ceremonial nature the Queen plays. And there is something comforting in the fact of the “first among equals” principle, that we don’t invest the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) with the same sort of eternal, enduring quality as the office of the President (indeed, references in the media to the PMO figure it for what it is—a political communications shop).

But to be fair to the American system, it has largely functioned well, lo its relatively short life. Watching Trump wreak havoc on norms and behavioural expectations has been a disturbing object lesson in just how many things we assumed were matters of law were in fact just norms and behavioural expectations. In some ways, it’s remarkable that it’s taken this long for a president to test the boundaries of presidential power and privilege in such egregious ways. Even Richard Nixon treated the office with a measure of respect that is simply alien to Trump. But then, Nixon was also a career politician and, for all his faults, an intelligent man who understood the history of the U.S. republic and its laws—which is likely why he went to such length to hide his crimes, whereas Trump consistently says the quiet part out loud. In the end, however “swampy” Trump proved to be, he did ultimately prove, in this respect, his status as an outsider: an inveterate grifter, he is also simply ignorant of history and tradition and, more significantly, has no use for it. (Perhaps at their base, the most elemental characteristics of the loathed “elites” and “establishment” are a grasp of political history and a sense of that knowledge’s worth).

It is then perhaps ironic that, even as we were shocked to discover what we assumed to be laws were just norms, it was constitutionally circumscribed law that made Trump more or less untouchable for these long four years. To be certain, he was enabled by a craven and opportunistic Republican congress; but even if the G.O.P. had been inclined to stifle his more extreme behaviour, what in a parliamentary system could be resolved with a vote of no confidence is subject to a much higher bar: either the invocation of the twenty-fifth amendment, or impeachment and removal. The twenty-fifth, presumably, is still a possibility should Trump truly go off the deep end in the next two weeks, but it was never a viable option with his sycophantic cabinet and VP (two-thirds of the former and consent of the latter are required to invoke the amendment). And of course he was impeached, but a two-thirds vote in the Senate for conviction was never in the cards … as it hasn’t been historically.

All of which conspired to give Trump a level of impunity we associate with monarchs. In the words of John Mulaney, “I don’t remember that from Hamilton!”

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