Category Archives: wingnuttery

History’s Discordant Rhymes

Trump’s ongoing crusade to overturn the election has had a weird split-screen quality that would be hilarious if it weren’t so dystopian. On one hand, you have all the overblown rhetoric and accusations of fraud and election-rigging, elaborate conspiracy theories about voting machines being manipulated by China and Venezuela, dead people voting by the hundreds of thousands, and the active suppression of Republican poll-watchers. On the other hand, you have the fact that Trump et al have had, at this time of this writing, thirty-two of their legal challenges often literally laughed out of court, while they’ve only succeeded twice, on minor procedural questions. Notably, once in the courtroom, the allegations of fraud, never mind fraud on a massive conspiratorial scale, evaporate—because unlike one of Rudy Giuliani’s hysterically inchoate press conferences, the courts demand that evidence be presented.

You might think that this contradiction between what the Trump people allege and their inability to produce evidence in court, coupled with the glaring fact of their 2-32 win/loss record so far, would start to sink in and make Trump’s followers start to understand that there was no fraud and that Biden won what Trump’s own Department of Homeland Security called “the most secure election in American history.” But then, in order to think that, you’d probably have had to be in a coma these past four years. About a week ago I broke a personal rule and got into an argument with someone on social media who was convinced that election fraud had been perpetrated. When I pointed to the fact that the Trump people had not been able to produce any evidence of systematic wrongdoing, he repeatedly and sarcastically demanded, “Oh, are you a lawyer? Are you there in the courtroom? You don’t know what evidence they have!” I have since seen this line of argument repeated, most prominently by Trump lawyer Jenna Ellis, as if these court cases are black boxes and not publicly available … or that if Trump and Giuliani actually had any actual evidence, that they wouldn’t be putting it on public display 24/7. (My argument with the fraud-advocate ended when he told me he was “terrified” for my students, as it was “obvious” that I couldn’t be trusted to let them offer opposing perspectives in class).

Meanwhile, as his legal teams racks up losses like the New York Jets on Dramamine, Trump keeps tweeting his confidence that his re-election is all but a done deal, and his supporters continue to close ranks. Even Trump’s most voluble advocates aren’t safe from their wrath should they voice even the slightest doubt, as Tucker Carlson found when he made the rather glaringly obvious observation that such subtly orchestrated fraud on a vast scale—which leaves no trace—strains credulity: “What [Trump lawyer Sydney] Powell was describing would amount to the single greatest crime in American history,” Carlson said on his show this past Thursday. “Millions of votes stolen in a day. Democracy destroyed. The end of our centuries-old system of government.” The backlash from Trump supporters and other Trump-friendly media figures was immediate, with Rush Limbaugh’s producer asking (and betraying an ignorance of how evidence and the law works), “Where is the ‘evidence’ the election was fair?” With trenchant understatement, the NY Times Jeremy W. Peters observes that “The backlash against Mr. Carlson and Fox for daring to exert even a moment of independence underscores how little willingness exists among Republicans to challenge the president and his false narrative about the election he insists was stolen.”

It goes without saying that this state of affairs is deeply dangerous, and serves to obviate any kind of amusement or schadenfreude at the spectacle of Trump’s presidency figuratively—and Giuliani literally—melting down.

I think the adhesive for Rudy’s human mask is dissolving.

As I wrote in a recent post, the incoherence of the aggregate accusations being thrown around is a feature, not a bug, of conspiracism. All it all needs to do is cement in the minds of Trump voters—not all Trump voters, but a critical mass of them, to be certain—the illegitimacy of the Democrats and the impossibility that Biden could have won without cheating. It was always a given that Trump would not concede, but there was always the milder possibility that he’d resign with high dudgeon and Nixonian resentment (“You won’t have Donald Trump to kick around any more!”), claiming that he’d been cheated, accept a federal pardon from President Mike Pence, and retire to Mar-a-Lago to sulk and tweet and plan his comeback.

But no. It seems he’s determined to go all-in. Whether he actually believes he has a chance to steal the election with his scheme to have state electors overturn the results is something we’ll likely never know; but what seems more likely is that he wants to be forced from office. He wants to be seen going down fighting, a victim of Democratic malfeasance, the Deep State, interference from China, Venezuela, and Cuba, and whatever other fecal matter they want to fling at the wall. And while the prospect of seeing Trump literally frog-marched out of the White House by the Secret Service one minute after noon on January 20th is too delicious to contemplate, that is probably one of the worst scenarios. Why? Because all of those people who have gone all-in on Trump and the narrative of the election being stolen will look up from their phones on January 20th to see Biden taking the oath of office, and see the culmination of their present fears and convictions. And what happens then is anyone’s guess, though the one absolute certainty is that a not-insignificant proportion of the U.S. populace will believe it has been stabbed in the back by the rest of the country.

More than a few times I’ve seen the fantasy being built by Trump et al called the “stab in the back” narrative, and it never fails to chill. When Germany surrendered at the end of the First World War, it came as an utter shock to the soldiers and much of the civilian population. They had thought they were winning, due to a series of gains they had made in the spring of 1918, but in truth, there was nothing left with which to continue the war. The gains they had made were the result of the Kaiserschlacht, or “Kaiser’s Battle”—more commonly known as the “Spring Offensive,” that began in March 1918 and carried on for several months. The offensive was a gamble, and a risky one: the German High Command knew their resources were running low. The recent entry of the United States on the side of the Allies made the situation even more dire. So they went all-in on a massive series of attacks in the hopes of breaking the enemy lines and forcing them into a peace negotiation that would be favourable to Germany.

They failed, but they failed while looking as if they were winning. But the tank was empty. They could keep fighting, of course, with vastly denuded stocks of weapons and ammunition, with an ever-more demoralized army, and with starvation at home. They chose instead to surrender rather than put the military through the inevitable meat grinder.

But as is the nature or quasi-dictatorial monarchies, the German government wasn’t adept at messaging … the end came as a shock to the army and the civilian population because they had no idea how bad the situation actually was. And after the humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles, unsurprisingly, people looked for whom to blame. One of the most persistent theories was the “stab in the back” narrative, which held that powerful business interests with an internationalist character and therefore disloyal to Germany—i.e., the Jews—were responsible for bringing about Germany’s cowardly capitulation. For stabbing Germany in the back.

Yes, yes, insert Godwin’s Law disclaimer here. But it is more than a little uncanny to consider that these events occurred almost precisely one century ago—and doubly uncanny to further consider that 1918-1919 was the last occurrence of a truly global pandemic.

As the saying goes, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. Unlike most rhymes, however, these one can be discordant and jarring to the soul.

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The Mad King in his Labyrinth

For reasons I can’t quite put my finger on, I’ve been thinking these past several days about mad kings, both fictional and historical.

It started with a Facebook post, alluding to George R.R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire—which some will know better by the HBO adaptation Game of Thrones—in which I said “We could really use a young Jaime Lannister in the White House right about now.” The allusion, which anyone who has read the novels and/or watched the series, will know, is to a key backstory plot point in which the Mad King, Aerys II, was murdered by Jaime Lannister, a member of his sworn Kingsguard—clearing the way for the usurpation of the Iron Throne by Robert Baratheon.

Martin, a keen student of history, loosely based the conflict animating the first few novels on the Wars of the Roses, the English civil wars that convulsed the nation for the better part of the fifteenth century; indeed, the two principal warring families of his series, the Starks and the Lannisters, bear more than a passing resemblance (phonetically, at any rate) with the Yorks and the Lancasters. But the Mad King himself—glimpsed only secondhand in various characters’ accounts of Robert Baratheon’s rebellion—bears a closer resemblance to the handful of lunatic Roman emperors who populated the empire’s declining years: Caligula with his murderous licentiousness, Nero’s narcissistic self-regard, and so forth. Nero was declared a public enemy by the Senate and killed himself in exile; Caligula was murdered by the Praetorian Guard. Martin borrows from a raft of such histories, which also include the killing of England’s Edward II and Richard II.

The other figure Martin’s Mad King resembles is the more contemporary dictator, reduced to paranoid, delusional ranting, surrounded by toadies and sycophants because he has banished or killed everybody who dares voice the slightest dissent. It was only a matter of time (probably minutes) before somebody did a Trump version of the much-memed bunker scene from Downfall.

The mad king—or tyrant, or dictator—is a compelling character for much the same reason that car crashes are fascinating: whether it’s Hitler in his bunker or Lear on the heath, we’re witness to the unspooling of a formerly powerful, formerly charismatic person’s mind. What has been remarkable about the Trump presidency these past few weeks is how public the unspooling has been. Historically, infirmity in the highest of offices has been hidden, as much as possible, from the public view (the examples of certain Roman emperors notwithstanding). Only a handful of royal handlers were witness to the madness of George III. When Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke late into his second term, his wife and aides kept it quiet; ditto for Ronald Reagan’s latter-day dementia. We only found out about Richard Nixon’s drunken conversations with the portraits of former presidents in the final days before his resignation years after the fact.

But then again, Trump has arguably always been unhinged—that quality of mercurial unpredictability and volcanic temper is central to reality television, after all, and it was through The Apprentice that Trump was able to reforge his public persona in such a way as to delude a critical mass of Americans into believing that he was a brilliant and canny businessman and dealmaker. I’ve lost count of how many op-eds and think pieces have made the observation that his presidency has essentially unfolded like an exhausting four years (five, counting the campaign) of reality television conventions and tropes. He is himself not unaware of this fact; it is an open question of whether his tendency to do or say something outrageous when news unflattering to him breaks is a deliberate distraction strategy, or simply Trump being jealous of the spotlight.

But now we’re in the endgame. True to form, he’s playing a character, however inadvertently: sequestered in the White House, his general avoidance of the public eye speaks about as loudly as his all-caps tweets. Structurally, it is a bizarre situation, by which I mean the mad king in his labyrinth would normally be invisible to all but his closest advisors, some of whom would trot out to podiums every so often to offer anodyne updates. But of course this White House, as my mother would say, leaks like a chimney (as opposed to smoking like a sieve), and so we have frequent reports of Trump brooding, and details of the argument within his inner circle about whether to convince him to concede or keep fighting. But even without such leaks, we still have the logorrhea of Trump’s Twitter feed to keep us abreast of his downward spiral into increasingly deranged conspiracy theories about George Soros and Dominion Software voting machines. And of course we also have his devoted sycophants, like Rudy Giuliani and Lindsey Graham, taking every possible opportunity to go on television and propagate his paranoid maunderings.

The one bright spot in all of this is that at least there’s an expiration date: January 20, 2021, obviates the need for a Jaime Lannister or a Praetorian Guard. Which is fortunate for Trump.

Though that would make for good TV.

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Post (Mid?) Election Thoughts: The Incoherence of Conspiracy Theory

Sixteen years ago I defended my doctoral dissertation, which I’d titled “The Conspiratorial Imagination: Economies of Paranoia in Postmodern Culture.” You’d think that would make me an expert on conspiracism, and it does, but I have to admit that the proliferation of conspiracy theory over the past ten years or so—from Birtherism to Glenn Beck’s manic chalkboardsto the frenzied speculation over the Mueller investigation to the juggernaut of QAnon—makes my head spin. Every time I’ve had the thought that I should dust off the old thesis and revise it for publication in this context of renewed relevance, my mind has shrunk from the prospect. There was just too much. I would most likely have to start from scratch, and in the Age of Trump, where does one find an Archimedean foothold from which to form a critical methodology?

One thing I am finding rather fascinating, however, as we watch the election returns trickle in with excruciating slowness, is this bizarre conspiratorial split-screen in which Trump makes accusation after accusation of a Democratic conspiracy to steal the election, accusations which are themselves part of the execution of his own longstanding conspiracy to disrupt the election in the hopes of stealing it.

Though I suppose to call what Trump’s doing a “conspiracy” founders a bit on definitional shoals. Trump and his people—as the saying has gone these past four years—always say the quiet part out loud. Can we properly call something a conspiracy when it unfolds out in the open? It has long been something approaching a certainty that Trump would not go easily into the night if he lost, that he would accuse his enemies (a group that comprises anyone who isn’t a sycophant) of rigging the election. He did it in 2016, and he has been sounding that horn again at least since the Democratic primaries began. But then, over the past few months, he has sketched out his plan in greater detail: repeatedly claiming (falsely) that mail-in voting would be rife with fraud; “enlisting” an “army” of poll-watchers to monitor voting for the fraud he claimed was inevitable (and, presumably, intimidate voters and poll-workers, though mercifully there doesn’t seem to have been much of that so far); promising that he would challenge an election loss in the courts; and to that end, ramming through the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett prior to the election, because—again, he said this out loud and repeatedly—he wanted a 6-3 majority on SCOTUS to adjudicate his court challenges (and though he didn’t say as much, Trump’s nakedly transactional nature dictates he believes Barrett, Kavanaugh, and Gorsuch owe him).

And now, as his prospects for victory dim with every tallied mail-in vote, he has twice addressed the nation and (a) claimed victory, (b) accused his opponents of voter fraud and a long list of other nefarious acts. His address from the White House on Thursday night was really quite shocking in the sheer number of blatant lies he told—and after four years of Trump’s rank mendacity, the fact that he can still shock is nauseatingly impressive. The gist of his speech, however, was an inchoate laundry-list of the ways in which his enemies have conspired to steal the election from him, starting with the accusation that the pre-election polling, which erroneously showed large leads for Biden and other Democrats, was deliberately inflated: “These really phony polls, I have to call them phony polls, fake polls, were designed to keep our voters at home, create the illusion of momentum for Mr. Biden and diminish Republican’s ability to raise funds. They were what’s called suppression polls, everyone knows that now.” He then went on to tell bald lies about how Republicans had been barred from poll-watching, that millions of unsolicited ballots had been mailed out, and continually suggested that the “whittling down” of his leads in Pennsylvania and Georgia was happening because the poll workers kept mysteriously “finding” ballots … and, oh, wasn’t it so interesting how one-sided the mail-in ballots were proving to be?

Never mind the fact that the scenario of Trump’s early leads evaporating wasn’t just predicted over and again, but that it was entirely predictable from the moment he started vilifying mail-in ballots and thus turning them into a partisan issue; predictable also because he turned the pandemic into a partisan issue, with Democrats believing the science and behaving accordingly, while Trump’s enthusiasts flouted mask-wearing and social distancing. Never mind the fact that he never made clear precisely how voter fraud on a massive scale was supposed to be perpetrated. Never mind that fact that, if the polls showing a significant Biden lead and the likelihood of a blue wave were consciously fabricated, then everybody in the news media and the polling industry at large is doing a really good job of pretending to wring their hands and beat their breasts at their abject failure. And finally, never mind the fact that if Trump’s enemies had in fact managed to orchestrate voter fraud on a huge scale, why would they have let Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham, and Susan Collins keep their Senate seats?

But of course, that is how conspiracism works: you have to never mind the facts. It is essentially the antithesis of Occam’s Razor: conspiracist thought flourishes on obfuscatory complexity in which apparent contradictions are actually subtle connections to which non-conspiracists are blind. Take a half hour to read about QAnon for what is perhaps the most spectacular example of this thinking to date. And as Fredric Jameson notes in his book The Geopolitical Aesthetic, the two basic elements of conspiracy theory are contradictory: the predication of a vast, omniscient cabal or group, and its invisibility. Where most conspiracy theories fall apart is in the assumption that a huge group of people can conspire to malevolent ends with preternatural silence and competence. Faking the moon landing would have entailed the labour of thousands of people. My simple question to 9/11 Truthers is: do you honestly believe that the Bush Administration was competent enough to carry that off without a hitch? And for the same reason, I never believed that there was a complex conspiracy between Trump and the Russians. Were Trump et al collusion-curious? Absolutely. But the smoking gun, the desire for a spectacular revelation that lies at the heart of conspiracism’s appeal, was never in the cards. And as for the spectral conspiracy Trump keeps flinging about, Stephen Colbert did a tidy job of summing up just how ludicrous it is: “If Donald Trump is right—if Joe Biden did pull the strings behind the scenes in Republican states like Arizona and Georgia while coordinating with Democratic states like Pennsylvania and Nevada and Wisconsin and Michigan and throwing in the red herring of letting the Republicans keep the Senate and gain a few seats in the House while just barely removing Donald Trump—wow! I mean, kudos to that level of interstate coordination. I mean, anyone who could accomplish that many things at once right now really would be the president we need during a global pandemic.”

There have been moments in the past four years when I’ve looked at Trump’s mendacity and the obvious fact that he has, at best, a tenuous grasp of reality; and I’ve looked at the stubborn support he has from forty percent of America’s electorate; and I’ve listened to the torturous logic employed by his enablers and mouthpieces to support and justify his presidency; and I’ve had moments in which I’ve honestly had to wonder whether it wasn’t me getting everything wrong. To be clear, these moments are rare, but they’re worrisome—not least because they are reflective of the broader cultural trend in which such touchstones as science, fact, and just a generally shared reality have been so deeply eroded—and are, in fact, anathema to Trump and the phenomenon of Trumpism.

So however anxiety-inducing and—as regards the Senate—disappointing this election has so far been, it’s been a weird comfort to see these two forms of conspiracy: the actual conspiracy articulated openly by Trump, and the manic conspiracism he flails about in as the reality of the election results encroach. It’s distressing to know that millions of people accept his conspiracy theories without question, but at least the contrast offers me a bit of mental stability in the moment.

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The Chaos is the Point

Hoo boy. Okay, so wrote this post in part as a failed effort at catharsis. I’ve been running election scenarios in my head, and none of them are happy. I don’t mean I think Joe Biden will lose—I mean I think Trump will render it all moot. I was not encouraged when I read about the “war games” played out by the Transition Integrity Project. Suffice to say, there were no scenarios that did not involve violence in the aftermath of election day.

I went back and forth about whether to post this, or relegate it to a lonely folder of forgotten musings on my desktop. But, well … misery loves company.

caravan

A truck from the pro-Trump “caravan” in Portland.

Two years ago, The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer wrote what I think has been the most incisive evaluation of Trump, his administration, and the phenomenon of Trumpism as a whole. It’s also one of those articles whose thesis is plainly stated in its very title: “The Cruelty is the Point.” I feel as though the “is” in that title should be italicized, in tacit response to the sort of punditry that affects bafflement or bemusement at Trump’s behaviour and that of his acolytes, and attempts the Sisyphean task of framing it in terms of everyday politics. What ideology exists in Trumpism is the ethos of resentment and revenge, in which the infliction of pain and suffering on one’s foes is not a bonus accrued in the process of political gamesmanship, it is the game. Serwer writes,

We can hear the spectacle of cruel laughter throughout the Trump era. There were the border-patrol agents cracking up at the crying immigrant children separated from their families, and the Trump adviser who delighted white supremacists when he mocked a child with Down syndrome who was separated from her mother. There were the police who laughed uproariously when the president encouraged them to abuse suspects, and the Fox News hosts mocking a survivor of the Pulse Nightclub massacre (and in the process inundating him with threats), the survivors of sexual assault protesting to Senator Jeff Flake, the women who said the president had sexually assaulted them, and the teen survivors of the Parkland school shooting. There was the president mocking Puerto Rican accents shortly after thousands were killed and tens of thousands displaced by Hurricane Maria, the black athletes protesting unjustified killings by the police, the women of the #MeToo movement who have come forward with stories of sexual abuse, and the disabled reporter whose crime was reporting on Trump truthfully.

It is this cruelty, and the outrage it reliably incites, that bonds Trump to his base and makes his stubborn refusal to do anything that might disappoint them comprehensible. “Their shared laughter at the suffering of others,” Serwer says of Trump’s most loyal adherents, “is an adhesive that binds them to one another, and to Trump.”

Even now, pundits and columnists not employed by Fox News still wonder why Trump can’t seem to grasp the fairly basic political ramifications of not presenting at least a thin façade of statesmanship and condemning violence on all sides, of saying something tepid that gestures toward de-escalation. And this after he’d actually managed to be relatively disciplined for four days. The Republication National Convention somehow managed to keep the president on a tight leash and somehow convinced him to stick to the teleprompter during his speech, and presented a carefully stage-managed spectacle specifically designed to give disaffected or alienated Trump voters a permission structure to vote for him again: trotting out every Black Trump supporter they could find, staging a naturalization ceremony for conspicuously dark-skinned new citizens, parading a veritable cavalcade of women (the balance of whom were, true to Trump’s pageant-owning past, blonde and statuesque) attesting to Trump’s kindness behind the scenes and his equitable treatment of women; all of which was by way of soothing people’s misgivings about Trump’s racism and misogyny. Don’t believe the liberal liars and Fake News, and don’t believe everything you think you’ve seen and heard for more than four years—this is the REAL Donald J. Trump.

Cue the panicking of the Chicken Littles, suddenly terrified that the Republicans had been successful in snowing the public yet again.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m afraid the sky is falling, too. I’m just not quite so worried about electoral math. If that was the only problem now, I’d sleep a lot better.

I’ve had a lot of people asked me if I think Trump can win in November. I say no, I don’t. The worry creasing their faces eases for a moment as I break down my reasoning. As we’ve seen since the 2016 election, Trump has a strangely resilient approval of around forty percent. It goes up and it goes down, but never by too much. For any other president, never once cresting fifty percent in the polls during a first term would be catastrophic, something we tend to forget in the present moment, because, however egregious Trump’s behaviour, however monumental his incompetence, and however disastrous his mismanagement of the pandemic response, the economy, and race-based civil unrest, that forty percent remains durable. That is, of course, cause for concern, as that was more or less the number he had going into 2016. But there are a handful of factors at play in 2020 that make a key difference. First, Trump is no longer an unknown and untested quantity. In 2016, it seemed a lot more reasonable to some people to give the chamber a spin and play Russian roulette with a Trump vote. What’s the worst that could happen? was asked a lot—or, as Trump said in his plea to Black voters, “What have you got to lose?” (Which is one of the many, many reasons White liberals need to pay more attention to Black voters—they’re very keenly aware of what they have to lose). After almost four years of corruption and self-dealing, and of course an economy cratered by a pandemic and a death toll pushing two hundred thousand, we’re now living “the worst that could happen.” Second, for a critical mass of unwarranted reasons (and a handful of warranted ones), Hillary Clinton was a deeply unpopular candidate whose unfavourables were comparable to Trump’s. Couple that with the divisiveness caused by a bitter primary fight, and it exacerbates the problem of the third item—third party candidates, who provided safe haven for people who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Clinton (but who also believed she would still win in a walk). A possible Kanye West candidacy notwithstanding, third party candidates aren’t a factor this time around. And even if they were, anyone who bought into Trump’s spiel in 2016 about deal-making and his promises to build infrastructure and tax the rich aren’t about to be fooled again (I sincerely hope).

All of that makes Trump’s chances quite dire, even with that static forty percent popularity, and I haven’t yet mentioned the name Joe Biden. To be clear, he was never near the top of my list during the primary (Team Warren all the way!), and in the present moment I think a ficus in a fedora would give Trump a run for his money, but I’m not unconvinced he’s the person for the moment—someone whose history of tragedy and heartbreak has gifted him with the humility and empathy needed to heal a suffering nation. That, and (touch wood) it looks as though the Democrats have their shit together this time around.

Remember, Trump lost the popular vote; he won the electoral college by eking out victories of less than one percent in three key states. I’m not saying that can’t happen again, just that the factors listed above make it far less likely, at least mathematically.

And this is the point, when I’ve eased my friend’s worry somewhat, that I make their face fall by saying, “But that probably won’t matter.” Because I’m not worried about electoral math: I’m worried about Trump’s capacity to foment chaos.

Which brings us back to the ostensible confusion among some of the pundit class about Trump’s apparent inability to help himself politically by, say, condemning the vigilantism of armed pro-Trump militias in the same breath as he attacks rioters. Or possibly disavowing the ludicrous QAnon conspiracy theories. On one hand, it shouldn’t be surprising—these are, after all, of a piece with his refusal to condemn neo-Nazis after Charlottesville. But this close to an election he looks poised to lose, shouldn’t he do the politically expedient thing?

Well, no. For one thing, as I’ve already pointed out, he loves the adoration of his base too much to ever do anything that might ameliorate their ardour. But he is also by nature a provocateur and an agent of chaos. It’s tempting to quote Littlefinger’s “chaos is a ladder” speech from Game of Thrones, except that would be entirely inappropriate to the example of Trump—Littlefinger is a character of comparable amorality, but one who sees five moves ahead and foments chaos to further his own plans.

Trump, by contrast, doesn’t plan. In the present moment, chaos isn’t a ladder—chaos is the point. Chaos is an end in itself.

As we’ve learned from innumerable articles and books about Trump, his “management style” has always been to pit people against each other and see what comes of it. His multiple bankruptcies speak to the fact that, however many times he refers to himself as a “builder,” he’s never really been interested in building (indeed, his entire election campaign isn’t so much asking voters to be amnesiac about the past few years as it is an attempt to declare Chapter Eleven and start from scratch in January 2021). And there’s a reason he was so adept at reality television, a form that privileges conflict for the sake of conflict, and rewards cruelty and betrayal.

This is my fear: for months now, Trump and his acolytes have been laying the groundwork for abject chaos in November. The pandemic—or rather, Trump &co.’s catastrophic mismanagement of the response—might be the principal torpedo in the hull of Trump’s re-election, but it is also providing him his best means to disrupt the process and the results. Trump and his people have been banging the drum for weeks now about widespread mail-in voting fraud. The fact that this claim is itself demonstrably fraudulent is immaterial—the point is to make the claim as loudly and often as possible. Couple that with the fact that a preponderance of mailed ballots will almost certainly mean that the election won’t be called on the night of, but will take days or even weeks to tally votes, and there is a wide window for Trump to make mischief. I fear that the “Brooks Brothers Riots” of the 2000 recount in Florida—when Republicans organized preppie mobs of lawyers and political operatives (something Roger Stone had a key hand in, let us not forget) to harass the poll workers—will come to seem a genteel exercise. Imagine instead mobs of Trump supporters, many armed, descending on polling locations to denounce the “rigged” election; imagine also counter-protesters, and imagine what side law enforcement will take in such confrontations.

We’re seeing the first glimmers of such a scenario now. Why on earth would Trump make any move to de-escalate the violence of this latest round of protests? Why, indeed, would he discourage wannabe militiamen like Kyle Rittenhouse, who killed two people in Kenosha with his friend’s AR-15, or the “caravan” who went to Portland to shoot paintballs and pepper spray at Black Lives Matter protesters? As John Cassidy observes in The New Yorker,

By cheering on the members of the Portland caravan—“GREAT PATRIOTS,” he called them on Twitter—and defending Rittenhouse, despite the fact that he has been charged with two counts of first-degree homicide, the President has crossed a threshold. Faced with the prospect of losing an election, and power, he has gone beyond mere scaremongering and resorted to fomenting violent unrest from the White House.

It doesn’t help matters that Trump obviously sees chaos and disorder as helping his re-election prospects. In keeping with her boss’s habit of saying the quiet part out loud, Kellyanne Conway said on Fox and Friends, “The more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for the very clear choice on who’s best on public safety and law and order.”

Trump thus has several reasons not just to abdicate any obligation to cool temperatures, but to actively raise them; but the central and unavoidable reason is that he knows no other way. As he has made painfully clear in everything he has ever done, his worldview is zero-sum. You’re either a winner or a loser, a predator or a mark; to be a loser is the worst fate, and so he has crafted his self-image with a single-minded determination to always be a winner, at least in his own eyes. While he obviously fears losing the presidency and, with it, legal immunity from the various investigations currently being pursued, it’s obvious that his greatest fear is being seen losing on the largest and most visible stage he’s ever been on.

And I think—I fear—he will do literally anything to avoid that.

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Isolated Thoughts: Conspiracy Corner—The China Syndrome (no, not the movie)

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I learned a new term this morning as I listened to the most recent episode of “Pod Save the World,” one of the many excellent podcasts by Crooked Media. It is hosted by Tommy Vietor and Ben Rhodes, both of whom worked for Barack Obama’s foreign policy team, Vietor as the National Security Spokesman, Rhodes as Obama’s head foreign policy speechwriter (Rhodes’ memoir of his time in the Obama Administration, The World as it Is, is an excellent read). Speaking of recent reporting that Trump and his lackeys are pressuring intelligence officials to find evidence that COVID-19 was produced in the oft-mentioned infectious diseases lab in Wuhan, China, Vietor called this “conclusion shopping,” which describes an effort find—or, ultimately, manufacture—evidence that will support an already-assumed conclusion. They offered the example of, say, the conclusion being that Iraq must be invaded … or in this case, the conclusion that the novel coronavirus was entirely China’s fault, and quite probably not accidental.

One of the things I find particularly depressing about the present moment generally, and about this issue specifically, is that Trump et al are making absolutely no pretense about this: Trump needs an enemy he can berate and point to and tell his base they’re the reason your life sucks, and he does it with all the subtlety of a carnival barker because he knows that Fox News and the rest of the conservative noise machine will take up the refrain and that a rump of the American population—his MAGA-hat wearing base—will unquestioningly believe him over anyone whose job it is to know better. Conclusion-shopping is easier when your supporters will accept your conclusion unquestioningly, and be indifferent to whatever evidence you present, except as talking-points to be shouted. The Bush Administration at least attempted subterfuge, using the trauma of 9/11 to paper over the inconsistencies in the charge that Saddam Hussein was involved, and planting stories that were picked up by useful idiots like Judith Miller at the New York Times, creating a narrative that did not hold together if you looked closely, but which was convincing enough that a plurality of Democrats in Congress—including Hilary Clinton and Joe Biden—voted in favour of invading Iraq.

It didn’t take long for the subterfuge to be exposed, but by then the die was cast, and Bush and his people were singularly unapologetic. At the time I was fond of being ironically nostalgic for Watergate and Iran-Contra, in which Nixon and Reagan’s elaborate cover-ups at least hinted at a measure of shame. Never in a million years could I have imagined a presidential administration that would be more shameless than Bush et al … but here we are.

(Also, as an aside: as much as I appreciate the sentiment of George W. Bush’s recent paean to solidarity in the face of adversity, let’s not get nostalgic for a president whose deliberate, calculated mendacity not only precipitated a disastrous and unnecessary war, but whose tactics in doing so laid the groundwork for where we are now. By all means, enjoy the schadenfreude of Trump’s unhinged Twitter response to Bush’s anodyne call for unity, but don’t for a second let Bush off the hook for being at least partially responsible for where we are now).

The problem Trump has now in bashing an enemy is that it is difficult to fit his usual suspects—the media, the elites, the Establishment, immigrants—with the black hat, because not only does a virus not discriminate in who it infects, its effects are plainly visible and cannot be spun. Nor, for that matter, can the incoherent ramblings of his press briefings and his painfully obvious lack of empathy. Until now, red states have been spared the worst of the pandemic, but that is changing as governors like Brian Kemp of Georgia and Ron DeSantis of Florida charge onward to re-open their states well ahead of the advice of medical experts.

So Trump needs a new enemy, and has signaled that it will be China. I don’t for a moment want to be an apologist for Xi Jinping and his dictatorial regime, nor do I want to downplay the unavoidable fact that the regime’s reflexively secretive and oppressive tendencies exacerbated an outbreak that more an honest and transparent response would have, at very least, ameliorated. But then, criticism of Xi’s regime isn’t the ultimate point of Trump’s current conclusion-shopping; if it was, we might have a more nuanced discussion about authoritarian versus democratic responses to such a crisis. The ultimate point isn’t to place blame on a system of governance, but a non-white ethnicity—which is why you’re likely to see a confusion of conspiracy theories about the collective malevolence of a technocratic dictatorship conflated with racist depictions of backward, bat-eating Chinese peasantry. The fact that these two elements are obviously at odds hasn’t mattered, nor will it going forward. The narrative, such as it is, given Trump &co.’s utter shamelessness, is painfully predictable: China is America’s implacable enemy, and ruthless, so the virus was almost certainly created in this Wuhan lab and released to cause a debilitating global pandemic; also, Chinese people are culturally other, and have backward social practices (they eat bats! At “wet markets” no less, and doesn’t that just sound disgusting?); then, Joe Biden will be hammered in ad after ad, and Fox News piece after Fox News piece, for being “soft” on China, and Hunter Biden’s questionable financial dealings in China will be held up as evidence of his and his father’s corruption. Ad nauseum.

Of course, this all isn’t a prediction: it had already happened, it is still happening, and it will continue to happen, with the only difference being the volume as we go forward.

As with any conspiracy theory, none of this needs corroboration or even a logical through-line. Already there have been countless conservative op-eds and think pieces attacking liberal objections to this narrative, characterizing the response as mealy-mouthed political correctness and identity politics more concerned with ostensible racism than the hard facts on the ground. Why shouldn’t Mike Pompeo insist on calling it the “Wuhan virus”? That is where it originated, after all! China has been the epicenter of many outbreaks! You libtards are more worried about offending people than with solving problems! … and so on.

One of the key reasons for objecting to designating COVID-19 as a “Wuhan” or “Chinese” virus isn’t because it didn’t originate there—because of course it manifestly did—but because such characterizations are (a) counterproductive in the diplomatic realm, where China, like it or not, is a key player—especially now, with a feckless and incompetent U.S. president who has effectively abdicated America from its usual role in global crisis management—and (b) because those making the objection are doing so in recognition that the designation is, more often than not, being made in bad faith by individuals more interested in assigning blame than finding solutions. Did the virus originate in China? Yes. Does that implicate Chinese (and thus by extension in the white imagination, all Asian) people? Of course not. But that is what happens, as we have seen in the uptick of anti-Asian hate crimes perpetrated in the U.S. and elsewhere.

One of the ironies at work here is that a scenario in which a tech at the Wuhan lab got infected, or there was an error made in the disposal of hazardous waste, is entirely plausible. (Trust me when I say you do not want to, even casually, look up info on human error in research labs, not if you want to sleep well). Thus far, intelligence officials and medical investigators have said this was unlikely, that the outbreak probably did occur because of zoonotic transmission.  But if the outbreak did occur because of human error? Well, blame the error, and perhaps safety protocols. This is why medical research of this nature and pandemic prevention tends to be international in character—to have as many expert eyes on things as possible, something denuded by the Trump Administration’s firing of their representative in Beijing. The problem with Trump’s conclusion-shopping is that it is basically conspiracy-shopping—all he needs is the slightest hint that it may have been the lab’s fault for his enablers and supporters to go all in on the assumption that the virus was specifically manufactured as a bio-weapon.

And hey, did you hear? Joe Biden is in league with them.

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Isolated Thoughts: (Un)Acceptable Losses

If you were looking for a useful summary of where American fiscal priorities lie, you could do worse than the recent flyovers performed by the Navy’s Blue Angels and the Air Force’s Thunderbirds.

On April 28, the two elite fighter wings did routines over New York City, Newark, Trenton, and Philadelphia. They started at noon with NYC, and finished with Philadelphia just after 2pm. The entire point of the exercise was to pay tribute to healthcare workers, first responders, and other essential workers putting themselves in danger of infection.

This completely unnecessary display was monumentally idiotic for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that it would either be lost on people practicing self-isolation, or, worse—as predictably happened—it would lead people to flout social distancing guidelines in order to go out and see the show.

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New Yorkers out watching the flyover show.

I get that it is important to find ways to keep people’s morale up in this difficult time, especially those who put themselves at risk. And while I’m sure healthcare workers appreciate the daily rounds of applause from New Yorkers, I’m doubly sure they’d appreciate more the resources and the funds necessary for doing their jobs safely and effectively. Being called “hero” isn’t a sufficient substitute for proper PPE, or, in the case of food service and grocery workers, a living wage.

The Thunderbirds and the Blue Angels took just over two hours to perform their shows. The Blue Angels are F/A-18 jets, the Thunderbirds F-16s; both classes of aircraft burn $25,000 worth of fuel in an hour, which multiplied over twelve jets over two hours comes to a price tag of $600,000. All for a tribute that people obeying the rules couldn’t watch.

If we take the calculation a step further: the fly-away cost of an F/A-18 Superhornet is $70M. The Thunderbirds’ F-16s are a much better deal at $19M apiece, but that still makes for over half a billion dollars worth of hardware flying in formation, paying tribute to people who almost certainly wish that kind of money would be spent on ventilators, or going to ameliorate the hospital bills of the uninsured, or supplementing the income of those stocking shelves and delivering food.

The other day featured a whole bunch of headlines in my news feed announcing that the total number of deaths in the U.S. due to COVID-19 had exceeded the number of American deaths in Vietnam. And a traitorous, sneering voice in my mind I can never quite root out snarked, “Well, at least the Vietnam War was good for the economy.” I’m not proud of having that thought, but it seems germane here: for a nation that tends to cry “socialism!” when Democrats try to increase funding for food stamps or talk about universal health care, there is a broad and blithe acceptance on both sides of the aisle for mind-numbing military budgets, and I find it baffling that nobody seems outraged at the expense of sending two aviation teams into the skies above the tri-state area as a tribute to people dealing with significant equipment shortages.

Meanwhile, we have been treated on almost a daily basis to another example of priorities as Fox News and right-wing astroturf groups beat the drum for ending the lockdown.

To be certain, there is a serious and important discussion to be had about the deleterious effects that quarantining has had on people’s mental health, and the fact that the shuttering of the economy is hurting many, many people in ways both physical and psychological. Too often, however, that point is being made in bad faith as an argument to “re-open the economy.” If you’re going to point to the erosion of people’s mental health, then you also need to address how we improve treatment and access to resources going forward in ways that move beyond simply getting back to work.

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But again, priorities: I couldn’t help but notice that the vast majority of complaints the anti-lockdown protesters in Michigan and elsewhere were making betrayed their privilege: “I want a haircut!” read one sign, and someone else complained that he wasn’t able to buy grass seed for his lawn. Other people complained about the stupidity of the rule that prevented them from traveling to their second in-state property. I will agree that this last provision seems odd, but then again, if your biggest problem is getting to your second house, you’re not suffering all that much. I might have had more sympathy with the protests if the general sense expressed was “I need to get back to work!”, but what was being said was more along the lines of “I need OTHER people to get back to work!”—to cut hair, sell grass seed, and so forth.

What lives are valued? The way in which the “need” to re-open the economy has been framed has largely been a question of what comprises acceptable losses. The earliest voices making this case characterized it in terms of patriotic sacrifice. Texas’ Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, appearing on Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News, declared that grandparents should be willing to die from the virus if need be, if it means getting the economy humming again. He said to Carlson, “No one reached out to me and said, ‘As a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all Americans love for your children and grandchildren?’ And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in.” Another voice joining the chorus was none other than Glenn Beck, who said on his radio show—or possibly podcast, I’m not sure of his platform—that at fifty-six years old, he was right on the edge of the “danger zone,” but that he was willing to put himself at risk to help jump-start the economy. “I would rather have my children stay home and all of us who are over 50 go in and keep this economy going and working,” he declared. “Even if we all get sick, I’d rather die than kill the country, because it’s not the economy that’s dying, it’s the country.”

Very noble sentiments, to be sure, or they would be if the first wasn’t coming from a politician with a gold-plated health plan and the latter from a man whose actual job entails yelling into a microphone in his home studio—not exactly an occupation that puts you at a high risk of infection. Both of them have the option of working from home; like the people protesting in Michigan about haircuts and grass seed, it’s not their right to work that animates their rhetoric so much as their perceived right to have other people work for their benefit. “Re-opening” the economy will not put the affluent at risk, but the workers.

As a popular meme that has made the rounds lately says, with mock disingenuity, “It’s almost as if it’s the workers who create value. Huh. Someone should write a book about that.”

But all that is at least partly beside the point I want to make. The very idea that it is acceptable to sacrifice the elderly and the infirm in the name of economic stability isn’t just pernicious and cruel, it’s also wildly inconsistent with past conservative hysterias. Glenn Beck might opine that the elderly are expendable in the name of the greater good now, but ten years ago he was one of the people screaming bloody murder at the fiction that the Affordable Care Act would necessitate “death panels” to rule on who would receive health care and who would not. Remember that fun time? It was all scare-tactic bullshit of course, but the premise was that expanding health coverage would lead to a shortage of available care, which would have to be rationed by cruel government factotums—the aforementioned death panels—based on who was a worthwhile subject, and who was a lost cause. In this case, there was no suggestion that the elderly and infirm sacrifice themselves for universal health care, but rather that they would be brutally culled by lefty ideologues. Or as Beck pithily put it on his bananapants Fox show, “Night night, Granny!”

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All of this is by way of making the obvious point that what qualifies as “acceptable losses” tends to conform to one’s priorities. In the name of universal health care? Stalinism! In the name of a stable stock market? Not just acceptable, but indeed noble and patriotic! (Of course, this contrast is itself a fallacy, as the prospective holocaust of the elderly under Obamacare was always already a fiction invented by Republicans).  Remember when Dick Cheney defended the egregious rollbacks of civil liberties in the Patriot Act, saying that even one single death due to terrorism was too many?

Mind you, as I pointed out in a recent post, one of the Bush Administration’s strategy’s for defeating the terrorists was to keep shopping. The nostalgia for the volunteerism and sacrifice of the Greatest Generation in Max Brooks’ World War Z is more and more attractive … not least because in Brooks’ imagined future, all jet fighters are mothballed because they consume too much fuel and are too expensive to use. Just a thought for the present moment.

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Jordan Peterson’s “Identity” Fallacies

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Happy Pride Month, everybody! And what better way to celebrate Pride than with a screed by Jordan Peterson in the National Post?

Ugh. Sorry. Bad joke. But still, he has resurfaced and written a column so chock-a-block with Petersonian fallacies that I really couldn’t do anything else than write a post about it.

What ostensibly inspired Peterson to write this was a piece of reporting by Barbara Kay about a case involving a six-year-old girl whose teacher apparently taught a series of classes on gender fluidity and gender identity, and caused the girl distress when she asserted that there was no such thing as gender, no such thing as boys or girls.

Honestly, I don’t know what to make of that story, except that it feels a little hinky, and I habitually take anything Barbara Kay says or writes with a grain of salt. Leaving aside for a moment the question of its substance, it’s safe to say Jordan Peterson knew precisely what to make of the story. What his column basically says is this is what I’ve been telling you, people!, i.e. that postmodern neo-Marxist gender theory is dangerous and will lead to psychological distress in society at large.

He ends up writing what we might call a reverse-Wente. Where Margaret Wente’s modus operandi is to cherry-pick a story that reflects badly on leftists and extrapolate out from some isolated incident to bemoan the general idiocy and moral bankruptcy of liberalism, what Peterson does in his column is save the story of the distressed little girl to the end, after he reiterates his arguments against the inclusion of “gender identity” and “gender expression” in legislation pertaining to discrimination laws and hate speech.

You all of course remember that time! September, 2016—Brexit had happened, but Trump wasn’t yet president, and a U of T psychology professor was vaulted from relative obscurity to alt-right superstardom by railing against Bill C-16 and refusing, loudly and often, to refer to his students by their preferred pronouns.

How innocent we were back then.

But about his reverse-Wente: Peterson spends the first two-thirds of his column reiterating what by now is essentially boilerplate for him, and comes to the Kay piece as a vindication for his earlier extrapolation.

What’s interesting to me is not the Kay piece, but Peterson’s boilerplate. I have, for a variety of reasons (self-loathing and masochism not least among them), read an awful lot of Peterson’s work—12 Rules For Life and (gods help me) large swaths of Maps of Meaning—and watched about as much of his YouTube lectures as I can stomach. So when I read his column, it was not at all unlike reading a Sparks Notes summary of his, well, everything.

I’m not going to link to his column, but I do reproduce most of its text below. I go through bit by bit, parsing what he says and offering my own perspective. It’s my Pride gift to everyone: I read and respond so you don’t have to.

Peterson opens by reminding us of Bill C-16 and his initial response to it, and then asserts that the most basic problem with the contemporary conception of identity, ostensibly articulated in C-16, is “that ‘identity’ is something solely determined by the individual in question (whatever that identity might be).” This is a dangerous notion, he says darkly, one that not even sociologists agree with, as they know that “identity is a social role, which means that it is by necessity socially negotiated.”

OK, so before we get into it, it’s important to emphasize the distinction he’s making, because everything that follows is more or less predicated on it. First, actual identity is a socially negotiated thing, whereas the delusional conception of identity as apparently promulgated by C-16 and “the tenth-rate academic dogmas driving the entire charade” emerges entirely as the sole product of an individual’s whim.

Here’s the thing, and I say this as a paid-up member of the postmodern neo-Marxist club: Huh? Did I miss that section of reading on my comprehensive exams? Because I’m pretty sure that all the theorists and philosophers of note who comprise the pantheon of Peterson’s hated postmodernists are all pretty much in agreement that individual identity is a product of negotiation, of power relationships, of performance, or, to use the term coined by Louis Althusser (who, now that I think about it, might actually have been a postmodern neo-Marxist), “interpellation”—i.e. the process through which the individual is “hailed” by various ideological state apparatuses (e.g. school, family, church, etc.) and forms an identity through these interactions.

The other thing to keep in mind going forward is how slippery Peterson’s prose is. Basically, this column is a repetition of his anti-transgender sentiments. He doesn’t of course say as much, but that’s what forms the substance of his complaint: people who have the selfish temerity to identify as a gender they weren’t born with, or to reject a gender distinction at all.

All set? Let’s dive in.

Your identity is not the clothes you wear, or the fashionable sexual preference or behaviour you adopt and flaunt, or the causes driving your activism, or your moral outrage at ideas that differ from yours: properly understood, it’s a set of complex compromises between the individual and society as to how the former and the latter might mutually support one another in a sustainable, long-term manner.

OK, first of all: can it be more obvious that Peterson is writing this screed during Pride Month? Referring to “fashionable sexual preference” and “behaviour you adopt and flaunt” is really just a more elevated way of castigating the very deliberate and glorious excesses of Pride—another way of phrasing the old complaint “do you have to shove your sexuality in our faces?” Also, let’s parse this for its most telling words: “fashionable” and “adopt,” both of which suggest that queer identity has more to do with individual whim than anything emerging from personal struggle and pain.

That being said, I wonder if Peterson is aware of just how postmodern this formulation is? (Spoiler alert: probably not). The thing is, I have to imagine that he thinks the first part of what he’s saying here is entirely representative of postmodern thought. But really, nobody—at least, nobody with any intellectual credibility—is arguing that identity resides absolutely within a solipsistic conception of self. What he then goes on about—identity as a negotiation between self and society—is actually a central component of what gets blandished as “identity politics,” the central premise of which (insofar as it has a central premise) is not that identity is wholly subjective, but that it is not determined by any absolute or extrinsic principles.

By contrast, Peterson’s own unreconstructed Jungian psychomythic conception of identity, as outlined in Maps of Meaning and 12 Rules For Life, specifically suggests a sense of immutable identity, mostly rooted in gender. Although we (like the noble lobster) might interact with our culture and society and forge identity by way of pitting whom we want to be against whom we are by way of whatever unpleasant or uncomfortable realities we might face, all we’re really doing in these agonistic sagas is playing out the timeless conflict between order and chaos. Peterson’s antagonism to questions of transgender identity specifically and feminism more generally becomes more comprehensible once one grasps this basic premise, which Peterson argues through an odd grafting of myth-criticism and biology.

He then goes on to say:

It’s nothing to alter lightly, as such compromise is very difficult to attain, constituting as it does the essence of civilization itself, which took eons to establish, and understanding, as we should, that the alternative to the adoption of socially-acceptable roles is conflict — plain, simple and continual, as well as simultaneously psychological and social.

We start getting into typical Petersonian verbiage here, so let’s start with the first assertion: “It’s nothing to alter lightly.” The “it” of this statement is one’s identity, which in the broader context of his column refers most specifically to one’s gender identity. And if I may say: I agree with Peterson completely on this point. I will hazard a guess that everyone who has struggled with this issue would also agree. There’s an awful lot in this column with which to take issue, but one of the most galling things is the casual suggestion running through it—which runs though most of his arguments on transgender identity—that people who come to identify as a gender other than their birth assignation, or who identify as gender non-binary, do so “lightly.” That it is akin to a “fashionable sexual preference” which one “adopts” for trivial or selfish reasons.

This is always where Peterson and his ilk lose me. (To be certain, they lose me much earlier, but it’s on this point that I can no longer see the taillights of the car and all I’m left with is blessed silence and the stars). I think there are reasonable arguments to be made about speech codes and the excesses of political correctness, but what we’re on about here is basic empathy and compassion. “It’s nothing to alter lightly”? No fucking shit. Show me, please show me, the person who comes out as transgender who hasn’t gone through the emotional and psychological wringer to arrive at the point where they declare to the world who they actually are. That person in your classroom asking you to refer to them by their preferred pronoun didn’t arrive at that request on a whim.

But to move on to the rest of the quoted passage: this is all so very characteristic of Peterson’s prose. Which is to say, it is convoluted and vague, and rooted in a mythic-historical sensibility that makes sweeping pronouncements on the nature of humanity and civilization, and which tends to crumble under scrutiny. If you’re not familiar with Peterson’s pseudo-scholarly schtick (which, make no mistake, totally informs his public persona schtick), he’s basically, as I say above, an unreconstructed Jungian—a myth-critic in the mold of Joseph Campbell and Mircea Eliade. What he says here in his confused, run-on sentence, is typical of his worldview. To break it down:

  • the “essence of civilization itself” resides in the stability of male and female identity
  • this stability? dude, it took EONS, hence has the authority of ANCIENT HISTORY
  • also, this “stability” comprises “socially acceptable roles,” i.e. men and women knowing their place
  • the “alternative” to these “socially acceptable roles” is conflict; which is to say, when men and women forget their roles (but, really, it’s mostly women), society devolves into chaos

(Let’s be clear on something: this is my reading of Peterson’s words based on my reading of his many, many other words, but there’s a method to the madness of his prose. His vagueness and indeed obscurantist writing invariably contains a rhetorical trap door. “You completely misunderstood me!” is his most common riposte when anyone tries to pin him down on anything he says or writes. “‘It’s nothing to alter lightly’ has nothing to do with trans identity,” I can easily hear him complaining, “I was merely referring to the broader currents of postmodernist neo-Marxist thought in society!” Imprecision is this man’s greatest friend).

To the degree that identity is not biological (and much, but not all of it is), then it’s a drama enacted in the world of other people. An identity provides rules for social interactions that everyone understands; it provides generic but vitally necessary direction and purpose in life. If you’re a child, and you’re playing a pretend game with your friends, you negotiate your identity, so the game can be properly played. You do the same in the real world, whether you are a child, an adolescent, or an adult. To refuse to engage in the social aspect of identity negotiation — to insist that what you say you are is what everyone must accept — is simply to confuse yourself and everyone else (as no one at all understands the rules of your game, not least because they have not yet been formulated).

Oh, my … so if identity is a “drama enacted in the world of other people,” does that then make it—oh, what’s the word—PERFORMATIVE? Is Peterson about to invoke Judith Butler?

Just kidding. Of course not—the point isn’t the drama, but the rules of the game. See how he switches the analogy up in the middle there? In order to play a game, we must agree upon the rules, yes; you can’t play a proper game of chess when your opponent decides to randomly change the moves the pieces can make, but that’s not what Peterson’s example evokes. Rather, the kind of “pretend game” he mentions is improvisational, and if the game is ruined because one player can’t stick to the provisional rules, it is also ruined when you have a bossy player who sucks the joy out of the game by refusing to allow any degree of improvisation and flexibility.

That’s where the aspect of negotiation comes in, a term whose meaning seems to have passed Peterson by. The suggestion being made in this analogy is that someone identifying as transgender or non-binary is being perverse in refusing to play by the rules, and instead play only by their own private rules, which Peterson then dismisses as being nonexistent anyway. What seems lost on him is the fact that someone saying “this is who I am” is precisely engaging with “the social aspect of identity negotiation.” It is, in fact, an act inviting a re-negotiation of the “rules.” The problem with what Peterson argues here isn’t the idea that social negotiation of identity is a matter of give and take, it’s that ultimately Peterson refuses to give. He’s the kid taking his ball and going home because he’s upset the gang decided to let a girl play.

Peterson then goes on to list four increasingly dire consequences of individuals asserting identities at odds with normative “rules.” We’ll break those down one at a time, but first we need to address his prefacing assertion: “The continually expanded plethora of ‘identities’,” he writes, “recently constructed and provided with legal status thus consist of empty terms.” Again, imprecision is a hallmark of Peterson’s writing: one is left wondering what “the continually expanded plethora of identities” is, because he never specifies. One assumes he’s referring to the spectrum of LGBTQ+, but he doesn’t say. If, as seems borne out by the substance of the column, his preoccupation is with transgender and gender-fluid identities, then it’s hardly a “plethora”—it’s male, female, and non-binary. I suppose that, theoretically, these three create a spectrum with an infinitude of points between its poles, each representing a possible unique identity, but then we get into a variation on Xeno’s Paradox. Just as the hare will always catch the tortoise, so we know, commonsensically, that people are people.

Also, pay attention to the weasely “thus” thrown in there: based on what he has said so far, this “plethora” of identities “thus consist of empty terms.” I have to imagine he feels he has proven his point and earned his “thus,” but I beg to differ.

At any rate, he then enumerates the problems including this putative proliferation of identities in C-16 will cause.

(1) [They] do not provide those who claim them with any real social role or direction.

Remember, what he’s talking about is the inclusion of gender identity and gender expression in the legal questions of discrimination and hate crimes. The legislation wasn’t about giving transgender and gender non-binary people social roles or direction, it was about protecting them from the actions of others.

(2) [They] confuse all who must deal with the narcissism of the claimant, as the only rule that can exist in the absence of painstakingly, voluntarily and mutually negotiated social role is “it’s morally wrong to say or do anything that hurts my feelings.”

“The narcissism of the claimant.” Here it is again: the premise underlying Peterson’s entire argument in this piece is that trans identity isn’t real. Therefore, anyone identifying as anything other than that signified by their genitalia at birth must be an unserious and selfish person choosing an alternate identity for reasons passing imagination, with no consideration for the confusion it causes in the innocent bystanders upon whom they inflict their petulant demands for recognition. Because they’re the real victims.

I’ve read enough of the science on this subject to accept that there are real genetic and biological underpinnings to being transgender, but really all I need to do to accept and respect somebody’s gender expression is answer a commonsensical question: considering the social stigma, the hatred, and the real danger of violence facing the transgender community, why would anyone choose to so identify for reasons other than for a deeply felt need to be true to oneself? Peterson frames his opposition of using people’s preferred pronouns as a question of free speech, but in reality it articulates a profound lack of empathy. Know that when you are faced with someone asking that you use a pronoun that seems wrong to you, that person has endured a probably traumatic struggle to arrive at the point where they can voice the request.

Also, not for nothing, but nobody who has this as his author bio should be casually accusing others of narcissism:

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(3) [They] risk generating psychological chaos among the vast majority of individuals exposed to the doctrines that insist that identity is essentially fluid and self-generating (and here I’m primarily concerned about children and adolescents whose standard or normative identity has now merely become one personal choice among a near-infinite array of ideologically and legally defined modes of being).

Psychological chaos? Seriously? Seriously. This makes about as much sense as the old chestnut that exposing children to depictions of gay people will somehow turn them gay. Acknowledging and respecting alternative identities and challenging traditional repressive figurations of sex and gender isn’t about to destabilize “the vast majority of individuals”—except perhaps those who incorrectly see their protected status as straight white men threatened. (Considering how many of those dudes probably bought 12 Rules For Life, Peterson might not want to complain too much).

Also, let’s keep some perspective on the size of the issue. Transgender, gender-non conforming and non-binary people comprise a tiny fraction of the population, and they suffer disproportionately from violence, sexual assault, and suicide. As a white cishet man, my own quality of life and my own sense of self does not suffer from the presence or visibility of trans people. It behooves those of us with such privilege first to acknowledge it, and secondly to listen and learn. I have, to the best of my knowledge, known six people identifying as transgender. Six people—in my life. So let’s be real here: they’re hardly storming the Bastille, which you would never know from the edge of hysteria in Peterson’s warnings.

(4) [They] pose a further and unacceptably dangerous threat to the stability of the nuclear family, which consists, at minimum, of a dyad, male and female, coming together primarily for the purposes of raising children in what appears to be the minimal viable social unit (given the vast and incontrovertible body of evidence that fatherlessness, in particular, is associated with heightened risk for criminality, substance abuse, and poorly regulated sexual behaviour among children, adolescents and the adults that they eventually become).

All right. You know what, folks? I’m done. This is some Focus on the Family shit he’s now getting into. All I’ll say about this particular head-smacker is that at least it pulls the curtain briefly aside: as I observe above, Peterson frames his anti-trans and anti-feminist rhetoric as being about freedom of speech, railing against the PC left and SJWs for their ostensible attempts to impose Sovietesque speech codes on everyone. But at the heart of it all is the stern 1950s dad persona he has cultivated, and much of his popularity proceeds from nostalgia for a time when white, straight men’s centrality wasn’t questioned or characterized as “privilege.”

***

I’ll end with a message of love. To all of my queer friends: I am in awe of you. You are the embodiment of strength. I hope your month of Pride is fabulous and remains undimmed by such assholes as Peterson or the hate-mongers who disrupted the festivities in Hamilton. I am with you, and I will go with you.

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Wente, again.

dalhousie-sign

Anyone who has followed my blog over the years knows the contempt in which I generally hold the Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente, not least because it seems that, whenever she’s at a loss for something to carp about in her column, she reverts to her favourite target: the contemporary university, especially humanities programs, and even more especially English departments.

Reader, she’s at it again.

I’d gotten pretty good at ignoring Wente, something made easier by the Globe’s general decline—given that I no longer read the paper as a matter of course, that has tended to relieve me of the occasional temptation to click on her invariably cickbaity columns, and I’ve been of much sounder mind for it. But in her most recent screed, she’s taken aim at the Dalhousie University English Department, and I can’t help but take that a little personally: I know a significant number of the professors in that department, people whose devotion to teaching and research and to generally making the world a better place is unimpeachable.

Well, unimpeachable if you’re not a lazy, sinecured columnist with little actual idea of what she’s talking about.

Let’s start with her title: “Universities preach the new religion of anti-racism and anti-oppression.” I could go on for a long while about the reactionary right’s antipathy to “social justice,” but I’ll try to be succinct: who, precisely, is pro-racism and –oppression? Aside from the obvious, I mean; Wente isn’t stupid enough (not yet, anyway) to come out and declare that racism and oppression are net positives, but it’s emblematic of our current cultural moment that the Wentes of the world are comfortable slagging people actively engaged in opposing racism and pursuing social justice. The usual argument tends to say that racism and sexism are bad and all, but the puritanical PC left (or, in Jordan Peterson’s framing, postmodern neo-marxists) have morphed into the equivalent of Orwellian thought police, silencing all who dissent.

Because, yeah … hardly a peep to be heard. It’s not as if Canada’s newspaper of record would employ such dissenting voices.

I suppose this argument is now so frequently made that Wente doesn’t really feel the need to rehearse it; she spends the first half of her column sneering at Dal’s attempts to address the fact that their founder (George Ramsay, Earl of Dalhousie) was, well, hella racist, a fact made more problematic by the city of Halifax’s troubling past of racial injustice. She similarly sneers at the university’s attempts to promote diversity among its faculty and student population, writing:

Why is diversity so important? “Diversity is a powerful agent of change,” insists Dalhousie. “Indeed, diversity is an imperative that must be embraced if colleges and universities are to be successful in a pluralistic and interconnected world.”

Actually, I thought that colleges and universities got to be successful through excellent scholarship and teaching. But I guess that’s old-fashioned thinking.

This is why reading Wente is bad for my blood pressure. First, a proven plagiarist has no standing to opine on “excellent scholarship.” But more importantly, the canard here is the suggestion that diversity, and excellence in scholarship and teaching, are somehow mutually exclusive. Wente’s columns on the sorry state of university curricula today almost invariably nostalgize the halcyon days when the canon was ascendant and only Great Books by Great (Male) Authors were considered worthwhile of study. (I wrote a post eerily similar to this one five years ago on this very topic). So rather than continue to harp on Dalhousie’s social justice preoccupations, she turns to their English department offerings, and needless to say,

I was shocked. I knew the field had fallen on hard times, but little did I realize how marginal it has become. Judging by the meagre offerings, would-be English Lit majors have fled to the greener fields of Social Justice Studies.

Gone are many of the staples of my youth, when I was an English Lit major at a different university. Now on offer is less taxing fare, seemingly designed for people who are ambivalent about reading books: a heavy sprinkling of courses on pulp fiction, popular culture, mystery and detective fiction, science fiction, fan culture, and afrofuturism. I did find one lonely little course on Shakespeare – but it’s not required. One thing you can say for it, though the English curriculum is certainly diverse.

(Excuse me while I take some blood pressure medication).

The second most galling thing about this characterization of Dal’s course offerings is how easily refuted it is. Check it out for yourself: the courses ostensibly “designed for people who are ambivalent about reading books” are crowded out by such “traditional” fare as Chaucer, Renaissance poetry and drama, medieval literature, as well as a course devoted entirely to the Brontes.

The most galling thing about this characterization of Dal’s course offerings is that I felt obliged to write the two previous sentences. What the actual fuck is wrong with offering courses on “pulp fiction, popular culture, mystery and detective fiction, science fiction, fan culture, and afrofuturism”? None of which, I feel compelled to add, suggest that students will not have to read. All of those topics Wente apparently disdains are embedded in the contemporary cultural moment: if an English degree is at least partly about developing critical reading and writing skills, it doesn’t hurt to be able to deploy those skills with regard to the various discourses in which we live.

***

While I was writing this post, my friend Jason, who is chair of Dal’s English Department, wrote a wonderful response to Wente’s idiocy. He begins by imploring people not to read Wente’s column and thus reward her trolling with ad revenue for the Globe (which is why I just removed my own link to the column—if you must read it, by all means do so, but I won’t facilitate it).

I’ll end here by quoting Jason:

We don’t need to defend ourselves against Wente’s spurious claims; we need to double down on what we do. Nothing would make me personally happier than to have a program that makes Margaret Wente shudderingly, inconsolably uncomfortable, simply because that would mean it more fully and accurately reflects the growing and ever diversifying field of English Studies as new and previously silenced authors, texts, approaches, and contexts, past and present, make themselves heard.

Let’s walk past the braying calls for a bounded and bordered ignorance and into an open space resounding with an ever more complex cacophony of voices. Let’s commit curiosity.

Amen.

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Don’t Ruin My TV With Politics! … and other absurdities.

Nikki and I will have this week’s Game of Thrones recap and review up in a day or two, but in the meantime I want to share my newfound Twitter celebrity.

Well … Twitter celebrity by my standards, which is to say the standards of someone whose blog posts top out at maybe one hundred page views and who tweets about once a millennium.

It’s my turn to lead off our Thrones discussion this week, so I wanted to get my first pass done before going to bed. I was in the middle of talking about Varys’ amazing speech defending his ostensibly flexible loyalties when a thought occurred to me. Quickly finding that scene on TMN Go, I took a screen cap of Varys and memed it. I posted it to Facebook and then—as an afterthought, because I hardly ever use Twitter—I tweeted it.

main tweet

Within a few minutes, my phone was buzzing every few seconds to tell me someone liked it and/or retweeted it (as I write this the next day, my phone is still going off with alarming regularity). I woke this morning to see that I had over a thousand likes, which by my standard makes me want to don a Garbo-esque scarf and seek solitude. I mentioned this to my girlfriend as we had coffee, and she immediately called it up on her phone. “Oh my god,” she said. “Have you read any of the replies?”

I had honestly forgotten than people can reply to tweets, mainly because I’ve had so few replies in the past. But now that I had a tweet being fairly broadly disseminated, it was inspiring responses beyond just likes and retweets—and many of the responses were, shall we say, less than enthused. To put it briefly: I’m apparently a lunatic libtard intent on destroying a great TV show by bringing politics into it. Case(s) in point:

justatvshow

politics

lib-lunatic

OK. So, I’m going to talk about the political content of Game of Thrones later in this post, but for now can I just say: Wha? Getting your nose out of joint because someone “brings politics” into Thrones is like getting upset with someone for suggesting that The Wire has a lot to do with race. The show is about politics, as a few respondents pointed out …

realvsfantasy

And here, a classic misapprehension of precisely what fantasy—and fabulation, fiction, and imaginative invention more broadly—is about. Perhaps you watch Game of Thrones to distract yourself from the world, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t, in some variety of ways, about the world.

But again, more on that below.

First, here’s a few of my favourite responses. It is taking ALL MY WILLPOWER not to respond to them individually on Twitter, but as my girlfriend reminded me this morning, it isn’t worth it to feed the trolls. As Jayne Cobb would say, there ain’t no percentage in it. Instead I’ll respond to them here for the benefit of my tens of readers.

swampMAGA

And how’s that working out for you?

At least one person granted that the show might have an allegorical dimension:

hilary

Then there was this one, a variation on the Trump-wrestling-CNN gif:

OK, so with this one I just have to ask: you do know that Euron is the bad guy, right? He’s a despot and rapist, and his attack on these key female characters is …

Sigh. Never mind.

democratsheep

By what metric? Obama was worse than Hoover, Filmore, or Pierce? Or Bush Jr.? Look, even if you think everything Obama did was disastrous, the key question here is competence. Hate what he did all you want, but dude at least got shit done.

Here’s someone who apparently took the few seconds to read my profile:

associateprof

Two things: one, what “associate professor” actually means is that I have tenure. Two, that’s the lawyers’ business what they call themselves. “Counselor” is a pretty cool title, so perhaps they’re happy with that. And for what it’s worth, the title “doctor” was employed by doctors of philosophy for centuries before physicians adopted it.

This one makes me wonder if the guy knows me:

jackass

That seems a wee bit personal. But as it happens, I’m in good company. There are plenty of jackasses who see real world politics in GoT (and over 1500 of them have liked my tweet so far).

entitlement

I’m just going to assume this one is a knee-jerk response this person tweets to anything resembling liberal/lefty sentiment, given that I really don’t see what it has to do with my tweet.

Speaking of WTF tweets:

republicans

I … what? I suppose I would be … if I had been. I mean, I am Canadian, and I suppose the balance of my bosses might have been card-carrying Tories, but …

Yeah. Really don’t get this one.

libtard

Dear Americans: fix that electoral college already, wouldya?

workday

Well, except for those who obviously watched the show and made a special point to take the time to call me an idiot.

sopolitically

I think my Twitter handle confused this poor fellow.

And my favourite thus far (as the hits keep coming):

butthurt

Yes. Yes. It’s true. I cannot hold more than one thought in my head. Trump is the only thing there is any more, and he has ruined every pleasure I might otherwise have. Samwell in the Citadel Library? All I can think of is Betsy DeVos. Ser Jorah’s greyscale? OMG, Medicaid cuts! I wonder if Melissandre is plagiarizing Michelle Obama. What bathroom would Grey Worm use in South Carolina? Is Cersei going to build a wall? Are all Dornishmen bringing drugs? Are they rapists? Littlefinger? Little hands! Ahhhhhhhhh!!!!!!

Idiot.

***

So, back to the question of Thrones and politics.

Is Game of Thrones about politics? Of course it is. It’s a show all about individuals and groups jockeying for power, and striving to maintain what power they have. It’s somewhat amusing that people would question this with regard to this episode in particular, considering that three out of the five principal storylines have to do with political maneuvering: Tyrion counseling Daenerys to proceed in a manner that will win her the support of the major houses, Cersei attempting to frighten other houses into falling in line behind the throne (and Jaime making an extra effort to recruit Randyll Tarly), and Jon Snow considering the risk vs. reward scenario of allying with Daenerys. The episode might have given us a thrilling sea-battle, and might have distracted us with the sexual shenanigans of Grey Worm and Missandei, and Yara and Ellaria, but ultimately this episode—like so many episodes preceding it—was a meditation on what it means to attain, retain, and exercise power.

And the show depicts the contestations of power and politics in a manner far more consonant with other HBO offerings like The Wire and Deadwood than with The Lord of the Rings or the Chronicles of Narnia. To the dude above who tells us “Don’t compare real and fantasy,” I say don’t confuse fantasy with “fantasy.” Game of Thrones might have magic and dragons and take place in an alternative reality, but it is an eminently political show.

But then, The Lord of the Rings is also political—just not in the same manner as Thrones. Power is treated in markedly different ways in the two works, but both make political statements. Tolkien’s masterpiece is an expression of nostalgia for a premodern world governed by extrinsic, spiritual laws and a rigid religious hierarchy, and was written in part as a vehement reaction against what he saw as the depredations of modernity, secularism, and technology. Is that not a political statement? Daenerys’ challenge to Varys in this week’s episode articulates a tension in GRRM’s work between an essentially progressive sensibility embedded in an essentially conservative genre—Varys’ impassioned speech is populist and democratic, but reflects the difficulty of finding a vehicle for such beliefs in a monarchical, undemocratic world.

As it is, sadly, in our own at the moment.

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Well, That was Just Super

We interrupt our regularly scheduled post on genres to bring you this dispatch from the edge of despair.

electoral-map

For the past several days I’ve been making notes toward a post-election post, the title of which was to be something like “Now, the Long Slog Back From Trumpism.” I meant to talk about the radical divisiveness in America that Trump’s campaign made glaringly obvious, and the painful fact that the opposing sides in this divide might well prove to be incommensurable—but that it was the primary task of a Clinton presidency to try and heal that rift.

Well. That would have been nice.

I woke up this morning in a world where “President Trump” isn’t merely a terrifying prospect, but a reality … and it is taking a long while for that reality to sink in. Possibly it won’t—possibly while Donald J. Trump takes the oath of office, I will still be investigating the backs of wardrobes, searching for a way back to the reality I left when I went to sleep last night.

I cannot recall a time in recent memory when I have been so relieved to be Canadian, though even that relief is marred by my fear that Trump’s victory will be a gust of oxygen for the revanchist embers smoldering in this country.

For the last few months, I have been reading a lot in an effort to wrap my head around the Trump phenomenon—more specifically, to try and understand his appeal to what has turned out to be a plurality of the U.S. electorate. I’ve read a number of books and a lot of articles; possibly the most interesting one, and the one I would most recommend, was Alexander Zaitchik’s The Gilded Rage. In it, he follows around the Trump campaign and speaks to his supporters—basically, just letting them talk and listening. Most striking in the stories he records is a remarkable cognitive dissonance. To be clear, Zaitchik did not sit down with any of Trump’s most rabid and nativist supporters, but people who have felt left behind by Washington and by the economy, and who see in Trump an outsider not beholden to a broken system. But then, after preambles venting about Washington elites and Obama’s “disastrous” presidency, more often than not they complain about the erosion of the social safety net, about income inequality, and health care. To a person, all who mention it deem Obamacare a massive failure, but then voice a desire for a single-payer system. They want better educational opportunities and to improve the schools we have; and while many echo Trump’s sentiments about immigration, all of the people who live by the border articulate a much more nuanced reality, expressing compassion for the Mexicans who suffer at the hands of the drug cartels and who come seeking a better life, and disdain for border agents who behave, in the words of one rancher, as little better than thugs.

That they would put their faith in Trump as someone who would address any or all of these problems is frankly baffling, but is likely a measure of their alienation from the “establishment”—they want to throw a bomb at the government, and Trump is the grenade most ready to hand.

The biggest problem with Zaitchik’s book is its brevity: at 125 pages, it necessarily provides a highly selective sample, presumably chosen for how compelling their accounts are. And however reasonable they sound, I could not shake an oft-recounted experience of Trump rallies, at which attendees are often described as affable until the shouting starts—and then the venom and hatred emerges, given voice and license by Trump and his lackeys.

It is this very vitriol that defeats an attempt at a rational understanding. Most recently, I read Thomas Frank’s book Listen, Liberal!, which is a concise and lacerating critique of the Democrats’ shift from being the party of the working class to neoliberal boosters of the professional class. As I read it, it felt like one half of an explanation for Trump’s popularity: though Frank never puts it in racial terms, what he describes is the Democrats’ abandonment of White middle America. The second half of the story, of course, is the Republicans’ successful courting of southern and Midwestern voters, appealing to their social conservatism and their racial anxiety, soliciting and getting their votes while slashing the social safety net and implementing policies that facilitated the concentration of wealth at the top at the expense of the middle class (a process, Frank points out, that was not hindered by Bill Clinton but accelerated).

This erosion of social programs, it needs to be noted for a point I will make momentarily, was itself racially coded: as Heather McGhee of the Demos Institute points out, middle- and lower-class Whites accepted these depredations more often than not because they were sold as cuts to programs that disproportionately benefitted inner-city Blacks (think, for example, of Reagan railing against “welfare queens”).

Meanwhile, both parties oversaw the busting of unions, trade agreements that sent jobs overseas and denuded the country’s manufacturing base, and fiscal policies that increasingly benefited corporations and the wealthy.

One way to understand Trump’s appeal to this cross-section of White America is to see them as an economically dispossessed group who woke up to the Republican long con of appealing to their social conservatism, either because they no longer cared about those issues, or because they saw jobs as the more important consideration, or (most likely) because they saw the long con for what it was, a bait-and-switch perpetrated by hypocritical political elites with more in common with their fellows across the aisle than the people whose votes they court.

Enter Trump: a swaggering bully who spoke intemperately, gleefully slapped around the Republican establishment, and confirmed all their politically incorrect suspicions about Mexicans and Muslims. And promised to restore what they had lost.

But again, as much as laying it out in socio-historical terms provides an attractive narrative, it falls short. Indeed, while for a time I was most of the way to believing it, I now call bullshit. Back in March, Thomas Frank wrote an article in The Guardian in which he offers his own explanation for Trumpism, which is more or less consonant with what I outlined above. He writes:

[T]o judge by how much time he spent talking about it, trade may be his single biggest concern—not white supremacy. Not even his plan to build a wall along the Mexican border, the issue that first won him political fame. He did it again during the debate on 3 March: asked about his political excommunication by Mitt Romney, he chose to pivot and talk about … trade.

It seems to obsess him: the destructive free-trade deals our leaders have made, the many companies that have moved their production facilities to other lands, the phone calls he will make to those companies’ CEOs in order to threaten them with steep tariffs unless they move back to the US.

This much is impossible to deny: Trump is obsessed with the U.S.’s various trade deals, invariably referring to NAFTA as disastrous, and frequently banging on about how China and Mexico take advantage of America. Frank continues:

Now, I have no special reason to doubt the suspicion that Donald Trump is a racist. Either he is one, or (as the comedian John Oliver puts it) he is pretending to be one, which amounts to the same thing.

But there is another way to interpret the Trump phenomenon. A map of his support may coordinate with racist Google searches, but it coordinates even better with deindustrialization and despair, with the zones of economic misery that 30 years of Washington’s free-market consensus have brought the rest of America.

Again, as with Listen, Liberal!, I don’t think Frank is wrong, per se—just that the economic narrative is deficient in and of itself. One reason it loses traction is because the tacit media perception that Trump supporters are disenfranchised blue-collar workers is basically wrong: Trump voters have a median income of $72,000, which is ten thousand more than the U.S. national average. Which isn’t to say that you can’t be earning a comfortable income and not feel disenfranchised, but the reasons for that feeling are also where the economic narrative runs into problems.

Simply put, Trump’s insurgency is—to quote Danielle Moodie-Mills on CBC last night—“white supremacy’s last stand in America.” The economic narrative is attractive—and has been adopted by many in the media—not least because it helps paper over the discomforting racist dimension of his popularity. Thomas Frank’s argument about trade elides the fact that Trump’s preoccupation with trade and trade deals is not somehow a separate issue from his racism. Rather, he consistently conflates the two. Free trade is not something he abhors solely because of economic reasons, but because it entails a conception of an America with open borders. The rhetoric is of a piece with his signature policy items, the building of a wall and the banning of Muslims. Anyone identified as Other must be either removed or barred from entry. Those Others inconveniently in possession of American citizenship must be policed with more rigor. Since he first rode down that escalator to announce his candidacy, Trump has consistently advocated for a Fortress America, one that would somehow restore its “greatness.”

“Make America Great Again.” As I have written previously, Trump’s slogan is rank nostalgia, and I mean “rank” in the sense of the odor it emits. He of course does not specify when America was great—he lets his followers fill in the blanks. But his rhetoric of jobs and manufacturing, of bringing companies back to the States and punishing those that leave, speaks very obviously to the few decades after WWII when the U.S. was ascendant—when there was little economic competition because the rest of the world was rebuilding in the aftermath of a war that never touched continental America. When there were high-paying jobs available to men without college degrees, and a family could flourish on a single income.

But to again quote a professor I once TA’d for, “The problem with ‘the good old days’ is that they were invariably bad for someone.” The America Trump evokes is a White America, one in which all of the opportunities enumerated above were predominantly available only to Whites. Thomas Frank is not wrong when he outlines the ways in which both the Democrats and Republicans have dealt in bad faith with working-class Americans, but the rage and resentment, the vitriol and virulence of the Trumpistas, is rooted in that cultural shift of the late 1960s when Nixon recruited former Democrats with the Southern Strategy. Well, to be certain, it’s rooted in a much longer tradition of racism in America, but the voters who gave us President Trump last night are the scions of Richard Nixon and Lee Atwater.

As the saying goes, “to someone with privilege, equality feels like a loss.” A section of a speech by President Obama keeps rattling around in my head today. Remember when he was in the midst of a bitter primary fight with Hilary Clinton eight years ago, and for a brief time it looked like his candidacy was over because of intemperate words spoken by his pastor, Jeremiah Wright? Obama turned everything around, and ultimately won the nomination, by delivering a speech that is—to my mind—one of the greatest pieces of American political oration. At one point in the speech, he said:

Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience—as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.

It’s a sad thing to realize that the election of Obama did not do much—or anything, perhaps—to salve this resentment. Instead, it has only grown. While live-blogging the Republican National Convention, Andrew Sullivan wrote hopefully that perhaps Obama has functioned as a poultice, “bringing so much pus to the surface of American life,” which would allow for the cleansing and sanitization of America’s racial wounds. I’ve long harboured the same hope, which rested to a large extent on this election and the possibility that a Clinton victory would have provided a space in the aftermath to address the ugliness that had arisen.

Instead, America has embraced the ugliness.

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