Fascism By Any Other Name

A good friend of mine is fond of saying that Nazis make the best villains. Why? Because you don’t need to expend any exposition on why they are villainous. (This is, he continues, a lesson Stephen Spielberg learned early in his career).

I have had many occasions in the past few years to reflect that we have been ill-served by American popular culture on this front. The post-WWII figuration of Hitler and the Nazis as Absolute Evil across all media was of course understandable, but it has served to drain all nuance from the historical record—not the least of which was the fact that a not-insignificant portion of the American populace in the 1930s thought fascism an entirely reasonable system of governance, and many were actively supportive of Hitler’s regime.

But America’s entry into the war served to suppress such sentiments, and the images that emerged from the Nazi death camps effectively silenced them (it is telling that, even today, actual neo-Nazis dance a bizarre two-step in which they feel obliged to deny that the Holocaust actually happened, while hinting that it would have been a good idea).

Half a century’s worth of movies, television, media, and politics, have unfortunately denatured and decontextualized fascism. It’s an insult that has become too cheaply used, so much so that when Donald Trump’s candidacy and then presidency exhibited fascistic rhetoric and then policies, it was easy for naysayers to scoff—to invoke Godwin’s Law, or otherwise accuse those crying fascism of histrionics.

But in the aftermath of the January 6th assault on the Capitol, and the revelations that have emerged since, the label becomes more and more apposite. And the current schism in the G.O.P. that has Liz Cheney and Marjorie Taylor Greene as its points of inflection is instructive in this respect when you consider the nature of their respective offenses.

On one hand, you have Greene: a QAnon-subscribing conspiracist who has said such mass shootings as Sandy Hook and Parkland were staged; to that end, has harassed—on camera—Parkland survivor David Hogg; tacitly endorsed the execution of Nancy Pelosi; has claimed that no airplane struck the Pentagon on 9/11; has made numerous anti-Semitic comments, not least among them is the now-notorious claim that California wildfires were started by a space laser controlled by the Rothschilds. You’d think that when we arrive at the Jewish space laser stage of delusion, there might be more consensus among her peers that she is categorically unfit for office—or at the very least, unfit to sit on committees and draft legislation. I suppose there’s an argument to be made that if people are going to vote for her, there’s little to be done about that; but does anyone want someone who denies school shootings sitting on the House education committee?

On the other hand, there is Liz Cheney, daughter of Dick Cheney, and very much cut from her father’s ideological cloth. And while someone like myself might find everything about her politics reprehensible, it cannot be denied that she is at least tethered enough to reality to have seen the January 6th assault on the Capitol for what it was: a violent uprising against a free and fair election incited by the sitting president. She and nine of her peers in the Republican House Caucus had courage enough of their convictions to vote to impeach Donald Trump.

Both Greene and Cheney faced sanction and censure this week. The pressure to punish Greene came largely from outside the G.O.P. as Democrats railed against her lunacy, at once genuinely outraged, but also astute enough to see that tarring the Republicans with the QAnon brush would be politically advantageous. A number of Republicans also made that calculation, and denounced Greene’s public comments as “loony” and unacceptable. But when the House Republican Caucus had their first meeting this week, about half of them gave her a standing ovation when she stood to speak.

The movement to discipline Cheney, by contrast, emerged from within her own party, in retaliation for her impeachment vote. She isn’t the only one: other Republicans in and out of office have received backlash for not supporting Trump, often from Republican state parties. Former Arizona senator Jeff Flake, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, and Cindy McCain were all censured by the Arizona G.O.P. Illinois Representative Adam Kinzinger, who also voted to impeach Trump, was similarly censured by Republican officials in his district. Ditto South Carolina Representative Tom Rice.

Neither Greene nor Cheney, conversely, ended up being punished by their own party (Greene was stripped of her committee assignments by the Democratic majority). House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy ultimately decided not to censure Greene, even as he condemned her words. And a secret ballot passed comfortably in Cheney’s favour (145-61-1).

That Cheney’s position as the #3 House Republican was saved by a secret ballot speaks volumes, as it confirms a general, if empirically unconfirmed, wisdom—that a critical mass of Republicans want to be rid of Trump and Trumpism, but are mostly afraid of saying so out loud. One wonders what the vote on Cheney would have looked like if it hadn’t been secret; how many of those who voted to keep her in her position would have balked in fear of retribution from the Trump base?

And herein lies the rub: those in opposition to Marjorie Taylor Greene are opposed to the idea that someone so divorced from reality should wield anything resembling political power. Those supporting Greene are of a piece with those attacking Liz Cheney et al—their larger preoccupation is their slavish devotion to Donald Trump. Greene’s adherence to QAnon is merely the most extreme manifestation of this devotion: putting aside the distractions of blood-quaffing Satanist Democrat and Hollywood pedophiles such as depicted in Q’s fevered imagination, the core of the QAnon belief system is the conviction that Donald Trump—the “god emperor,” as he’s characterized—is the saviour who will bring all of these truths to light and all of those malefactors to justice. Whether or not Greene’s tepid apologies for her Q-influenced words and behaviour were sincere, she continues to make her slavish devotion to Trump clear. Whether or not Greene’s fellow travelers who want to punish Cheney, Kinzinger, Rice, and the rest, buy into her delusions is immaterial—the point is that their devotion is not to the United States of America, but to Donald Trump.

And that is the difference: however much Liz Cheney might be a vehicle carrying forward her father’s pernicious politics, she has at least made it clear that her first loyalty is to her nation. As have all the others attacked by the MAGA mob. And if we’re going to seriously consider what fascism is, and what fascism means, this is the starting point: the conflation of nationalism not with nation, but with a strongman leader.

Let’s have a moment of review: what are the hallmarks of fascism? First and foremost is a nativist—and populist—ethno-nationalism. Second is a cult of personality attached to a strongman who doesn’t represent the idea of the nation so much as embody it—he becomes conflated with his followers’ national identity. Third is that it is invariably a “he,” because fascism is emphatically patriarchal and masculinist. Fourth is a necessary and pervasive mendacity, in which the lies of the leader supplant reality. In what is possibly the most-quoted passage of political philosophy over the past few years, Hannah Arendt writes in The Origins of Totalitarianism that “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (ie, the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (ie, the standards of thought) no longer exist,” and further that “Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it.” Let’s remember that it was on January 22, 2017—a mere two days into Donald Trump’s tenure—that Kellyanne Conway entered “alternative facts” into the Trumpist lexicon.

Part of the problem people have had with the “fascist” label these past four or five years is because of how we’ve represented it to ourselves, which is to say, it has become synonymous with the Third Reich (and to a lesser extent with Mussolini’s Italy)—that is, with an established dictatorship. The writers and thinkers who have most consistently labelled Trumpism as fascistic have been those who recognize that fascism is more a method and style than specific ideology—that it is in fact something of a moving target, and if we think of it in static terms, we’re certain to miss the warning signs. Several months before Trump’s election, Adam Gopnik wrote an article in the New Yorker that alarmed me at the time, and remains, for me, one of the most astute (and prescient) comments the propriety of applying the fascist label to Trump and Trumpism:

[T]o call [Trump] a fascist of some variety is simply to use a historical label that fits. The arguments about whether he meets every point in some static fascism matrix show a misunderstanding of what that ideology involves. It is the essence of fascism to have no single fixed form—an attenuated form of nationalism in its basic nature, it naturally takes on the colors and practices of each nation it infects. In Italy, it is bombastic and neoclassical in form; in Spain, Catholic and religious; in Germany, violent and romantic. It took forms still crazier and more feverishly sinister, if one can imagine, in Romania, whereas under Oswald Mosley, in England, its manner was predictably paternalistic and aristocratic. It is no surprise that the American face of fascism would take on the forms of celebrity television and the casino greeter’s come-on, since that is as much our symbolic scene as nostalgic re-creations of Roman splendors once were Italy’s.

As I’ve observed in a handful of previous posts, it is difficult to delineate precisely what Trump’s followers—whether the MAGA hordes or his acolytes in elected office—actually want, vis à vis policy, aside from immigration restrictions. They, like Trump, are defined less by their ideas than by their enemies. People at Trump rallies and at the Capitol assault, when asked, speak in angrily vague terms about freedom, and when pressed, express their conviction that somehow Biden et al will take their freedom away; but really, the gist of their actual goals seems basically to be “more Trump.” The mob attacking the Capitol sported many flags—a good number of American flags, some Confederate flags and others bearing white-supremacist symbols, but the greatest number were Trump flags of one form or another. Images such as the one below should be exhibit A at the impeachment trial.

Further, Trump’s devotees in Congress have signalled that their highest loyalty is to him. Marjorie Taylor Greene wore a mask with the words “Trump Won” on the floor of Congress, and said that whenever Trump reveals his “plan,” she’ll be on board. Representative Matt Gaetz (R-FL), a frat paddle in human form (h/t to Crooked Media for that lovely description), recently said on Steve Bannon’s podcast,

I would leave my House seat, I would leave my home, I would do anything I had to do to ensure that the greatest president in my lifetime—one of the greatest presidents our country has ever had, maybe the greatest president our country has ever had—got a full-throated defense that wasn’t crouched down, that wasn’t in fear of losing some moderate Republican senator but that was worthy of the fight that he gave to the great people of this country for four years.

Gaetz, let us not forget, also travelled to Wyoming—in the winter, in case we question his fervor—to speak at a rally condemning Liz Cheney.

Such slavish devotion to a buffoon such as Trump is baffling, but authoritarians are clownish figures more often than not—and absurdity is invariably a component of fascist tendencies, not least because it requires belief in the outlandish. The idea of Jewish space lasers is risible, but then so too were the Nazis’ laundry-list of supposed Jewish offences. Taken out of context, the contradictory suggestion that international Jewry is responsible for both Communism and the predations of the big banks is similarly absurd; taken in context, it is sinister and pernicious.

About the best thing that can be said of the past five years is that they’ve been … educational. Comfortable myths and assumptions have been shattered, and we’ve been given a crash course in what is law and what is convention. Hopefully one of the most valuable lessons going forward will be a clearer and more nuanced understanding of fascism, and, more importantly, how it stalks the always-fungible borders of democracy, looking for weaknesses. This will be an important lesson to keep in mind when we remember that the Hitler’s Beer Hall Pustch of 1923 was a failed coup that was roundly mocked.

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A Few Things

The Phantasm of Bipartisanship     I really hope that, going forward, President Biden and the Democrats point out the fact that “unity” is not something to be solely accomplished in the well of Congress. I just finished reading Obama’s memoir, and the sections where he details his administration’s attempts to get Republicans—any Republicans—to sign onto any of his early pieces of legislation should be required reading for every congressional Democrat, everyone in Biden’s administration, and, most importantly, every single centrist pundit currently warning Biden not to abandon bipartisanship so soon into his tenure. Obama acknowledges in hindsight that he was naïve, not grasping the depths of bad faith of the Republicans and their willingness to let a nation suffer in the name of political expediency. I’m cautiously optimistic—and so far, my optimism looks like it might be borne out—that Biden will make good-faith gestures toward bipartisanship, but isn’t about to be played like he and his former boss were twelve years ago.

Every time the Republicans, and their media mouthpieces, wail that Biden’s rhetoric of unity was a lie, Democrats should point out that the majority of the nation is on board with the Biden platform—that a plurality of Republican voters want more stimulus rather than less, want larger checks and not smaller, want a bolder roll-out of vaccinations—which can only happen with a significant federal investment—and want a $15 minimum wage. Democrats should also point out that, while the might resort to budget reconciliation to pass the $1.9T bill to sidestep a filibuster, there’s nothing stopping a handful of Republican senators from voting for it. And they should also point to the fact that a significant number of Republican governors and mayors want the relief funds.

They should say: We’re being bipartisan. We’re doing what the country wants. The fact that you, Senate Republicans, don’t want it, is an issue you should perhaps take up with your constituents.

That Whole Gamestop Thing     Trump may be out of office, sulking at Mar-a-Lago while he plots to retain his grip on the Republican party, but we’ll be dealing with Trumpism and the aftershocks of his reign for a long time to come. And I’m not even talking about Marjorie Taylor Greene (though I would be surprised not to see a blog post dedicated to her in the future). No, I mean the tendency during the past four years to have certain things one might have considered law shown to be mere convention, or things we would have assumed to be illegal to be common practice.

I was as schadenfreudistically delighted as anyone to hear and read the laments of hedge fund billionaires about the army of Redditors hoisting their stock-shorting arses by their own petard. At first, the saga had the quality of a virtual storming of the Bastille: humble citizen traders, in numbers large enough to inflict damage, playing the tricks of the ancien regime against them. As Jon Stewart tweeted, “The Redditors aren’t cheating, they’re joining a party Wall Street insiders have been enjoying for years.”

But as Derek Thompson writes in The Atlantic, “Waging war against Big Finance by becoming a day trader is like waging war against the casino industry by becoming a gambling addict.” Sure, there’s the chance you might win big betting on double zero at roulette, but you’re still playing by house rules—and the house always wins. Thompson adds, “trying to punish the rich by buying and selling stocks all day doesn’t make any sense. We’ve seen over and over and over that most day traders lose money; they routinely get smoked by bigger players.” Indeed, “while some Redditors made millions recently, the largest holders of GameStop stock, like the giant asset manager BlackRock, made billions.”

More to my point, Stephanie remarked a day after Gamestop became big news, “I’ve learned more about how the stock market works in the last twenty-four hours than in my entire life until now.” I concurred, and I added my incredulous observation that all of this—the shorting of stocks, the revolt of the Redditors—was perfectly legal. To again cite Obama’s memoir (which, not to belabour a point, is an excellent read), he commented on how much grief he and his justice department received in the aftermath of the financial meltdown when none of the major Wall Street players responsible for it were arrested and tried. Though it was a politically unpalatable answer, Obama dryly acknowledged, the sad fact of the matter is no one went to jail because none of what had caused the meltdown was technically illegal.

This is where I’m at with this whole Gamestop thing. While I’m happy to stick it to billionaires in the short term, the problem is the financial system itself writ large. The strategy of shorting stocks, as well as the dozens of other perfectly legal games traders play of which I am currently ignorant, is reflective of a morally bankrupt system. It makes me think of the moment towards the end of the film The Big Short—in which a handful of small players predict the 2008 collapse and make enormous amounts of money off it—when Brad Pitt’s character rebukes his fellows for being exultant. This is people’s lives, he remonstrates. Their homes. Their savings. Their retirements. You might be able to justify gaming a corrupt system, but corrupt systems impact real people.

The End of The Expanse     Well, not the end. Not yet—there will be one more season before it rides into the sunset, but today the final episode of season five airs. I haven’t yet watched it, as I’m saving it for this evening; but I look forward to it with the combination of anticipation and sadness that always accompanies the final instalment of something you’ve been enjoying.

The Expanse is a show that has gotten steadily better with each season—because with its growing viewership, it has garnered bigger effects budgets, because the writers have settled into a groove, and because the actors have made the characters come into their own.

I will likely have something more expansive to write about it (see what I did there?) at some point in the future—possibly when I have binge-watched the entire season over again—but for now I will be content to note that this season has been the best so far … a remarkable fact considering that the four core characters, the crew of the Rocinante, who have grown from a crew of mutually suspicious misfits into a genuine family, spent this season separated, each of their storylines having taken them on distant and perilous tracks. Some viewers voiced concern early in the season—how could The Expanse pack the emotional punch of previous seasons when Holden, Naomi, Amos, and Alex were scattered across the solar system?

I was not overly concerned (not least because I’ve read and enjoyed the novel Nemesis Games, on which this season was based), but still quite impressed at how well this cast, whose chemistry has been the basis of the show thus far, still shine in their separate (but linked) narratives.

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A Few Things

The Hill They Climb     Like almost everyone who wasn’t hate-watching Biden’s inauguration with the expectation that he and everyone on the dais was about to be arrested and possibly executed (see below), I was amazed and awestruck by the performance of Amanda Gorman, the twenty-two year old Youth Poet Laureate.

There are many reasons to be concerned and even cynical about the immediate future, but I have to say that most of the cynicism I’ve seen has been coming from the older generations. Millennials and Gen Z have more reason than I do to be cynical—the world they’re inheriting from us, after all, is more polarized than at almost any time in the past, the climate crisis is upon us and will affect them most acutely, and the twenty-first century has bequeathed to them a set of circumstances in which it is structurally almost impossible for them to do better than their parents.

There’s a lot of scornful talk in media and think pieces about the fecklessness of today’s youth, but I don’t see any of that. In my job I am in constant contact with people in their early 20s, and they humble me. They humble me with their energy and their earnestness, which makes me think of the louche irony of Generation X with something approaching shame. They see what they’ve inherited, but aren’t fatalistic. Theirs is the world of the Parkland shooting survivors, of Greta Thunberg, of Malala Yousafzai, of my niece Morgan and nephew Zachary. And of Amanda Gorman.

Gorman’s entire poem was mesmerizing, but one line has become stuck in my head: “America’s not the pride we inherit / It’s the past we step into / And try to repair it.” When I first watched her speak, I heard “prize” instead of “pride,” and was struck by that sentiment—that an American citizenship is a prize, a winning ticket in the global lottery. Then, when I read the transcript, I realized I’d gotten it wrong, and that her phrasing was superior—subtler, though not entirely dissimilar. Inaugurations are invariably forward-looking: setting the stage for the next act, heralding the promise of the future, often in contrast to the troubles of the recent past. But Gorman’s poem reminds us of a sentiment articulated by William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” If seeing the confederate battle flag paraded through the Capitol building precisely two weeks before Gorman performed her poem isn’t the most horrifying articulation of this point, I’m at a loss to suggest what is.

And Amanda Gorman, with a deft turn of phrase that is all the more impressive coming from a twenty-something, throws down the gauntlet to the incoming Biden administration: if you ignore the past, you’re abdicating your responsibility.

Qonfusion     Like cult members awaiting the end of the world, QAnon adherents had what effectively comprised a thousands-strong virtual viewing party on inauguration day. As a quick recap: the QAnon conspiracy theory asserts that high-ranking Democrats, Hollywood elites, and liberal-leaning billionaires (i.e. George Soros) are all part of a secret cabal of Satanist, pedophile, child-slave-traffickers, and that Donald Trump has been working this entire time to thwart them and eventually expose them for the malefactors that they are. There have been various times in the past two years when QAnon’s adherents believed their moment of victory—i.e. when Trump would expose the cabal and arrest, and quite possibly execute, them—but like all good doomsday cults, there was always the rationale for kicking the can down the road. BUT. The actual inauguration of Joe Biden as president did seem like a make-or-break moment, and the QBelievers were convinced the inauguration would be the moment when Trump finally played his, ahem, trump card.

Except … not so much.

There was, not unpredictably, a great deal of confused incredulity and outrage, as well as the more astute among the cult wondering if in fact they’d been played this entire time (spoiler alert: DUH).  

I can’t help but feel that QAnon is going to be a bellwether going forward. Some of its adherents have cried bullshit, but there has already been a regrouping. And let’s not forget that QAnon has at least one representative in Congress, in the person of Marjorie Taylor Greene, as well as a handful of others who, while not quite as committed to the conspiracy theory, are certainly Q-curious. But like all cults that promise a moment of cumulative apotheosis—whether that be the aliens coming to take the true believers away, Armageddon, or the mass arrests of blood-quaffing Satanists—excuses are needed to account for why the apocalyptic thing didn’t happen. Apparently, the new line for QAnon is that Trump is still in command, and the entire inauguration was faked (either with doubles standing in for the key players, or the real Biden et al playing their parts under threat of death) so as not to expose the U.S. to attack from an opportunistic foreign power.

Yeah, it makes no sense to me either. Not that any of the other stuff did.

How long will QAnon continue to have traction? I think that will be the measure of whether Trumpism continues to be a significant power in the U.S., or whether it dwindles and fades.

Cats in the Morning, Cats at Night     Last night after I finished writing the previous section, I did what I frequently do after turning off the computer before going to bed—I turn in my chair, lean back, and put my feet up for five or ten minutes and just lose myself in my thoughts. I love that little interregnum between writing and sleeping; I love the darkness and the silence, and the clarity it lends to my thoughts. And I especially love the fact that my cat Catesby almost always senses my meditative state, and comes warbling into my office to climb into my lap, purring loudly.

Moments of quiet contemplation are always made better by the presence of a cat, especially one keen to have her ears and neck skritched.

If the moments just before I go to bed are for Catesby, the moments just after waking are for my cat Gloucester. When I first brought him home as a kitten, I woke the next morning with him curled in the crook of my arm. That was my usual morning, until I started using a CPAP for my sleep apnea. Gloucester didn’t care for the wheezing face mask, but the moment every morning I turn the machine off and remove the mask, I hear a trill and there he is, standing on my chest and snurfling my cheek with his nose. Then he settles in, purring, for however long I lay in bed after waking, and I often think of that first morning when I woke up with a tiny black kitten in the crook of my elbow.

Catesby and Gloucester.

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Some Post-Inaugural Thoughts

Yesterday was a salve to the soul—seeing the footage of Donald Trump leaving the White House for the last time, watching Joe Biden take the oath of office, and finally turning the page on four years of cruelty and spite—all while, thanks to Twitter’s belated enforcing of their terms of service, we heard nothing from the outgoing President. Good riddance to bad rubbish, as my grandmother would say. But of the many questions worrying those of us who loathe Donald Trump and everything his presidency represented, possibly the most concerning is: will there be another Trump? Who is waiting in the wings to don his mantle and lead the MAGA hordes next? And is it even possible for someone to be the next Trump, or was he sui generis this entire time?

I have spent way too much brain power running counter-factuals these past four years, especially as we approached what mercifully proved to be the end of Trump’s tenure. Adam Serwer, who has been one of my lodestones in this era, posted a characteristically astute essay in The Atlantic yesterday, whose title was, helpfully, the thesis of the piece: “An Incompetent Authoritarian is Still a Catastrophe.” In it, he details the number of times pundits and political commenters have waved away Trump’s threat, under the aegis of “Oh, he’s too incompetent to really do any damage.” And then Serwer proceeds to detail all the ways in which Trump, incompetent boob that he is, managed to do grievous damage to the nation that had elected him president.

And yet. I have had many occasions to marvel at Trump’s ability to miss the most obvious opportunities. In hindsight, the nightmare scenario was a Trump who actually carried out some of his promises. Imagine a Trump who didn’t just gesture at “infrastructure week,” but actually devoted serious money to it? Or who followed through on his pledge to tax the rich? Or got real on health care? The X factor here, of course, is whether the GOP would have had his back—there’s a real possibility that this counter-factual would have entailed the invocation of the twenty-fifth amendment before the end of 2017; but would also have entailed a Trump Administration that hamstrung the Democrats by, on one hand, putting forward a critical mass of policies with which they could not argue, while simultaneous enacting the cruelest and most divisive immigration policies in American history. And four years on, instead of conspiracist fantasies, his fan base could point to genuine accomplishments, while all those ambivalent suburban voters who defected to Biden could reassure themselves that Trump wasn’t just a nativist reactionary.

But now, in the hours and days after Trump’s sad and pathetic skulk out of the White House in the early hours of January 20th, we know better. We know that such strategic thinking was never in Trump’s wheelhouse. That he was and is a man of sheer compulsion without the capacity for a sober second thought—or for that matter, sober thought to start with. That even those people around him who might have thought themselves clever manipulators who could use this blunt instrument to their own ends—Steve Bannon leaps to mind—found themselves ousted the moment Trump perceived them as less than absolutely subservient. That even those staffers with altruistic intentions were tainted by their connection to him. And that, in the end, it was only the most lunatic and fanatical of his true believers whom he tolerated to have in his presence.

At the risk of people calling down Godwin’s Law on my head, I would point out that Trump desperately wants to be a fascist, but never learned the first lesson laid down by Mussolini and Hitler: get shit done. Make the trains run on time, as the saying goes. Contra Adam Serwer’s otherwise spot-on article, a halfway competent Trump would have been a catastrophe and a half.

And yet. Would even a moderately competent Trump have commanded the same authority over his base? This is the problem with counter-factual musings—they tend to assume a parallel set of circumstances with a few changed variables, but there’s no way to predict how those changes would affect the base circumstances. Trump was always something of a black swan event, even though the cultural forces he unleashed—white grievance, anti-feminist backlash, the reignition of Confederate sympathies, among others—were always present and predictable. As I said in my previous post, that a preening, vain, pompadoured New York billionaire would become the object of adulation of a segment of America wedded to guns, pickup trucks, and a nativist conception of Jesus, remains a matter of some bewilderment.

At this point, I am several years past any desire to seek empathy with the MAGA crowd. I see no reason to ameliorate my evaluation of their intellects, or, more specifically, the lack thereof. They are idiots. Deluded, pernicious idiots. And in a delicious irony—considering their sub-literate tendency to throw the label “communist” around—they are useful idiots. Useful to Trump in particular, though they may well prove too unruly for Trump’s would-be successors. It is entirely possible that Josh Hawley or Ted Cruz or Mike Pompeo might saddle this particular tiger for their ever-so-obvious presidential 2024 ambitions … but do any of them seem like a likely successor to Trump? Perhaps I’m missing something important, but I cannot see it—it seems highly improbable that any of them, or any other would-be MAGA leader, would be able to capture lightning in a bottle in the mode of Trump. The irony, in my reading, is that Hawley, Cruz et al are too nakedly ambitious; as David Von Drehle observed in the Washington Post, Trump’s adherents aren’t impressed by Joh Hawley:

Hawley believes that there exists in America a “Trump vote” somehow distinct from President Trump himself. But Trumpism is not a philosophical torch that can be passed from one runner to the next; Trumpism is nothing more or less than the star power of Trump. The senator compounds that mistake by failing to see that Trump’s star draws much of its power from the humiliation of people exactly like Josh Hawley.

Let us not forget, Drehle points out, that Trump’s rise “was built on the serial destruction of ambitious men and women with distinguished résumés, flattering suits and neat haircuts,” whom he brought low one after the other during the Republican primary—Bush, Rubio, Graham, and the rest of the clown car. Of all his conquests, only John Kasich retained something resembling dignity; Jeb Bush simply disappeared. And while it looked for a brief moment that Ted Cruz would remain a Trump antagonist—earning boos at the convention when he implored Republicans to “vote your conscience”—it wasn’t long after that that Cruz was phonebanking for the man who (fairly) labelled him “Lyin’ Ted,” as well as mocking his wife’s appearance and suggesting that his father had a hand in JFK’s assassination. I have little doubt that the spectacle of ambitious Republicans yoking their tiny wagons to Trump’s nova was a matter of deep satisfaction to Trump’s base. If there is a “new” Trump to step into his role—assuming that he’s too emburdened and embattled by lawsuits and prosecutions in the coming years to run again in 2024, which is by no means a sure thing—it will almost certainly not be somebody who has subjugated themselves to him these past few years.

My hope in the current moment is that Trump’s ignominious departure, acceding meekly in the end to the reality of his loss, his social media voice silenced, will break the spell. I’m cautiously optimistic: the Proud Boys are now disavowing and mocking him, calling him “weak” (an epithet almost as bad as “loser” in the Trump lexicon); the fact that Biden’s inauguration went ahead without a hitch rather than culminating in arrests and executions and the continuation of Trump’s presidency caused consternation among QAnon adherents; and there is a general sense of Trump’s diminishment—without the presidential bully pulpit, and without Twitter, he can no longer be a squatter in our mental real estate to the same extent.

Which is not to say we’re out of the woods: Hawley and Cruz et al will do their misguided best to vie for the love of Trump’s base, and those forces of reaction and hate that Trump cultivated and unleashed aren’t likely to just fade into the woodwork. On the other hand, I was struck by the diversity of the groups storming the Capitol two weeks ago—not diversity of race, creed, or ethnicity, but the coalition of hate and reaction represented by Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, neo-confederates, neo-Nazis, Tea Partiers, and the broad range of paramilitary and MAGA cosplayers. Granted, they all share a set of grievances (some real, mostly imagined), but the one person who served to galvanize them into a bloodthirsty mob proved not to be the god-emperor in whom they had invested their devotion.

Perhaps Trump stages a comeback. Perhaps Don Jr. will step into his father’s shoes, but he lacks the unerring cruelty of his father that so animated the MAGA crowd (he tries, bless his socks, but he’s even dumber than his dad). And perhaps there is someone waiting in the wings we haven’t anticipated.

But yesterday I saw a president speak in complete sentences and speak honest, hard truths to a nation in crisis. And after four years of cruelty, mendacity, and narcissism, that will buoy my spirit for some time to come.

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Filed under politics, The Trump Era

Wide Awake in America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A QAnon adherent in the Capitol Building.

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

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

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A Few Things (About the Attack on the Capitol)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Few Things

What I’m Reading  Aside from my reading for the term and for research, I’m about three-quarters of the way through Barack Obama’s memoir A Promised Land. It is a very long book (700+ pages) that doesn’t even get to the end of his first term; it is reflective, often pausing in its narration of events so Obama can ponder the vagaries of decisions he made or didn’t make, and ruminate on the broader significance of this or that detail in the broader context of American history; he also frequently digresses into little potted lectures on history and political philosophy to better frame the stories he’s telling.

Or to put it another way: I’m loving it. There are many reasons why I have such vast respect for this man, and why I think history will ultimately rank him as one of the best presidents; his humanity, intelligence, and passion are among those reasons, and they come through on every page, along with a professorial and nerdy wonkishness that I aspire to. After four years of Trump, this book is a salve to my soul.

What I’m Watching  Really, my life these days in measured out in week-long increments of impatience between each new episode of The Expanse. I latched onto the novels by James S.A. Corey (the pseudonym of Daniel Abrahamson and Ty Franck) soon after the first one (Leviathan Wakes) was published, and have read them obsessively since (we’re now eight novels along, and I’m waiting for the ninth and final installment rather impatiently). So when I saw they were adapting the novels to TV, I experienced the usual excitement and trepidation one often does when beloved books are being adapted to the screen. Will it be good (Good Omens, Game of Thrones) or bitterly disappointing (American Gods) or just … meh (The Magicians)?

The Expanse not only did not disappoint, it has gotten steadily better every season as the writers have found their groove and the special effects budgets have grown. This season—the fifth—is the best so far. It benefits in part from the narrative build of the previous seasons, in which otherwise seemingly insignificant plot points and elements of world-building have culminated in some pretty virtuosic storytelling, matched by amazing acting and visuals that now rank The Expanse among the best SF/F that has been brought to TV.

I don’t want to get into detail, because spoilers, but I will almost certainly write a much longer and spoiler-filled post once this season is done.

The Pleasures of Zoom-Teaching  To be certain, I miss being in the classroom with the intensity of a nova—teaching and interacting with my students is easily my favourite part of my job, and the classroom has always been a quasi-sacred space to me. Talking to the Brady Bunch arrangement of squares on my laptop screen is nowhere near the same thing … but there are aspects of it I like. Not the least of which is I can conduct classes wearing pyjamas. Also, they don’t know what’s in my mug, heh …

There is also Zoom’s chat function. As class discussion progresses, sometimes students will carry on a parallel conversation in text. It’s as if they’re passing notes in class, but I get to read them.

But by far my favourite aspect is the presence of pets. My cat Gloucester is a frequent visitor, jumping up onto my lap and staring at the faces on my screen with his golden eyes. And there is a petting zoo worth of dogs and cats—and in the case of today’s class, a bunny!—perched on my students’ laps or occasionally pushing their snouts close in to the webcams.

Oh, Yeah—Classes Started Today  Memorial delayed the start of term for a few days to give students a slightly longer break (something I was grateful for, too), so today was day one of the winter term. My first class was my graduate seminar “The Spectre of Catastrophe,” and if today was any indication, this is going to be a good term. There was a wonderful energy to the class, and everyone was enthused and engaged.

Tomorrow I start with my fourth-year seminar “Utopias and Dystopias,” a class that was designed by a former colleague of mine, now retired. It was always a student favourite when he taught it, and I’ve been requesting it since he retired several years ago. My teaching dance card was always too full to slot it in previously, so I’m delighted to finally get to teach it.

Last semester I taught a course on pandemic fiction; this term, it’s utopias and dystopias and post-apocalyptic narratives of the 21st century. Sense a theme? It feels a little bit, after 2020, like I’m steering into the skid.

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Filed under A Few Things, teaching, what I'm reading, what I'm watching

The Rhetorical Laziness of Whataboutism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Few Things

So I’m trying something new on my blog. I often go long stretches between posts. Sometimes this is because I’m otherwise occupied, or unstruck by inspiration, or just plain lazy. Often, however, it is because an idea I have for a post doesn’t pan out … I’ll sit and write and write, but whatever observation I’d intended to make doesn’t quite warrant my standard verbiage.

Partially for my own mental health—and for the fact that I do enjoy writing blog posts—I’m trying to correct my tendency to think that, if something isn’t worth writing 2000+ words on, it isn’t worth pursuing. To that end, I’m trying “A Few Things”: a recurring post in which I will write short and (hopefully) sweet blurbs on the random thoughts that excite my brain.

Wish me luck.

The Stupid Coup. I’m still digesting the events of this past Wednesday. I might have something more thoughtful to say about it at greater length later, but for now all I have is this: people are clowns and buffoons until they’re not. Even as we watched, aghast, as a mob of neo-confederates, white supremacists, neo-nazis, QAnon devotees, wannabe droogs and paramilitary cosplayers, and Trump cultists (that Venn diagram has a LOT of fucking overlap), our social media newsfeeds were also filled with images that would be risible if they weren’t so unthinkable. The bare-chested MAGA Viking. The grinning dude in the Trump toque high-stepping out of the Capitol with the Speaker’s podium. The gypsy in the palace on the Senate dais with a raised fist. The people who, having stormed into the seat of American government, milled around aimlessly, no longer sure what they were about. The people who, having overrun the barricades and broken windows, kept within the velvet ropes in the statuary room.

In many ways, it was the Trumpiest way to end Trump’s term—ignorant clowns and buffoons storming a symbolic building whose symbolism is irrelevant to them, in the name of the clown-in-chief whose entire tenure has been marked by profound ignorance of and indifference to the history of his nation and his office.

But as we know, clowns can be terrifying. Trump went from being a punchline to the guy with the nuclear football. It was fortunate that he proved to be more like Krusty (“I’m a lazy, lazy man”) than Pennywise.

Designated Survivors. I first learned about the U.S. practice of keeping a cabinet secretary in a safe location during the State of the Union address from the West Wing first season episode “He Shall, from Time to Time …” The reason this is done is so someone in the presidential line of succession can assume the presidency in the event of a catastrophic attack in the Capitol that would wipe out the entire government. As noted by Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) in the episode, they usually select someone without much of a public profile, as they want the rock stars of the Cabinet visible in people’s TV screens—in this case, the Secretary of Agriculture (whom Buffy fans will recognized as actor Harry Groening, who played the cheerfully villainous Mayor Wilkins).

Several years ago, this practice became the premise for the TV series Designated Survivor, starring Kiefer Sutherland, whose similarly low-profile role as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development was tapped to sit out the SOTU, which—you guessed it—was bombed, and hence the erstwhile Jack Bauer became President.

Before Designated Survivor, however, there was the remake of Battlestar Galactica—in which the multi-planet human civilization apparently operated similarly to the U.S. republic. When the Cylons nuke most of humanity, reducing us to a handful of spaceships fleeing their androidial malice, the presidency falls to the Secretary of Education (Mary McDonnell), the only member of government in the line of succession to survive the attack. More recently—by which I mean, this past Wednesday—The Expanse replicated this logic. Former U.N. Secretary General Chrisjen Avasarala (Shoreh Aghdashloo), exiled to the moon by her successor, is approached by the Secretary of Transportation after an attack on Earth wipes out most of the government. The Secretary is now the Secretary General, and asks Avasarala to join his cabinet.

Granted, it’s only two SF television series, but isn’t it a bit weird that the U.S. system is what becomes the default in the speculative future? (It gets weirder when you think about Battlestar Galactica’s ending revelation, but I’d rather not be spoilery on that front).

The Crown, season four. Stephanie and I had not watched the three preceding seasons. Born in South Africa, she has a rather bitter antipathy to the British monarchy (she’s still rotted that, when she became a Canadian citizen, she had to swear allegiance to the Queen). But we’re both massive fans of Olivia Coleman, and even massiver fans of Gillian Anderson. In both cases, this led to some rather conflicted feelings, as neither of us wanted to feel sympathy for the Queen, and were even less inclined to be sympathetic to Margaret Thatcher … but both actors were brilliant, and in my opinion Coleman did a better job as QEII than Helen Mirren in The Queen, and Anderson outshone Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady.

I found the final episode oddly apposite to the current moment: it depicts Thatcher’s downfall at the hands of her caucus, and her resentment and bitterness as their betrayal. “These pathetic … men,” she grouses to the Queen about the mealy-mouthed ministers taking advantage of her unpopularity to oust her. It was, I thought, a particularly shrewd moment of television: whatever sympathy we might otherwise be inclined to have with a woman meeting her Waterloo at the hands of a group of mediocre men is entirely obviated by Thatcher’s own internalized sexism—having opined at length about women’s general weakness, and frequently shown determinedly playing the role of the housewife not just to her husband, but insisting on cooking dinner for cabinet ministers meeting at Downing Street.

I’ve been thinking of the opportunism of Thatcher’s ministers in her last days as PM as I watch Donald Trump’s erstwhile enablers head for the lifeboats. For eleven years, British Tories were happy to let Thatcher lay waste to British civil society, hating her behind her back while she won elections, never offering objections to her most egregious and cruel policies, finally only declaring a mutiny when they were safe from her barbs. If Twitter enacts a lifetime ban on Trump, and if Trump is suddenly embroiled in numerous criminal court cases, expect Republicans to pretend they’d always wanted him gone.

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The (Ironically) Monarchical Presidency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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