One day Donald Trump will succumb to the fate that awaits every fat seventy-year-old who refuses to exercise on principle, and die. It will probably be quick and it will probably be soon. It may be happening now. When it happens, he’ll be gone, and that’s all I propose to say about the president today.
When Trump goes, his strain will go with him. All his Periscope hucksters and brain pill salesmen — the Mike Cernoviches, the Scott Adamses — will atrophy, shilling for YouTube followers among the few Proud Boys whose sperm backlog hasn’t yet caused them to explode. The smart ones will cash out as lifestyle gurus, Gorilla-Mindset men who might not MAGA anymore but who know the real America to Make Great Again was inside you all along. The rest will find their peace in middle management. They were always Subaru dealers in their hearts. It isn’t that their ideas will be over, but the grift won’t be so obvious some day. The howl and nakedness of their reaction will give way to more circumspect successors, consultants who love the brand but hate the uncertainty of entrusting all that power to the kinds of folks who slide into one another’s DMs to talk phrenology, then leak the transcripts. That’s how it always goes with these movements.
When they’re gone, the ghouls will come back. You know them. The Bill Kristols and the David Frums, the John McCains and Lindsey Grahams. The respectable men and principled heroes. The patricians who don’t mind the violence and class spite of the American Empire but who cannot stand the thought of a vulgarian like Donald Trump fucking the empire up so badly. I had a dream the other day where the top reply to every Trump tweet was Aaron Sorkin reply-threading an all-new episode of The Newsroom. The ghouls are Aaron Sorkin, but their monologues are about how real men, brave men, men of purpose don’t lose focus when it’s time to drop bombs on children. When the parody fascists go, the ghouls will come back, and they know how to make the trains run on time. It must make them crazy to watch all of this from the sidelines. You can see it in every David Frum tweet, a man driven mad by the incompetence of a Republican administration. In my day, we knew how to get away with it! Some day soon he’ll have the chance to prove it.
When the parody fascists go, the ghouls will come back.
When the ghouls return, when they retake their position at helm of American reaction and declare the last decade to have been an embarrassing mistake we should all just forget about, I am worried that the American left — already in a position more precarious than it cares to admit — will find itself in a fight far more difficult than the one it faces right now. The fracture that exists right now between the whole of the right and the center-left will collapse: Nobody will welcome the ghouls back faster than our liberals.
How could they not? They already dream of President Mike Pence as some avatar for a return to normalcy. The ghouls won’t demand conversion therapy before any willing American can be turned into cannon fodder. I have heard so much about the dangers of “rehabilitating” the neocons, but rehabilitation requires an initial fall from grace. The ghouls never lost anything but their immediate hold on power.
By the day of Donald Trump’s election, Bill Kristol had already completed his transformation into figurehead for the right wing of the woke resistance. Evan McMullin, whose seven-year pre-political career as a CIA officer consisted of undisclosed activities on behalf of our freedom in the Middle East and North Africa, is promoted incessantly by our most prominent liberal writers — if they can’t impeach Trump, then good old Evan will primary him, general election strategy TBD. Last week, a lobotomized John McCain lurched out of his government-funded deathbed to rapturous bipartisan applause, swooping in as he has since Vietnam to rain down death on unsuspecting civilians. These reactionaries are already heroes to our centrists, lauded as heroes after last last week’s health care vote for falling an inch to the left of the furthest reaches of their own party’s depravity. I look forward to the 2018 Democratic campaign to put John McCain on Mount Rushmore. While it may be tempting to say that all of this doe-eyed adulation is just another blunder by the Democratic Party, it’s not. Policing the bounds of discourse is as important to their power as it is to their rivals. Elite politics is built on civility among thieves.
The ghouls and liberals only want to go back to normal. They only want to go back to the ordinary crisis, the kind that only threatens the lives of small people. They only want the old fights. How many women should manage the corporations sucking the last slurps of oil from the earth? How diverse should we make the drone operator team? What will make the workers more compliant, the jackboot or the bribe?
The ghouls never lost anything but their immediate hold on power.
For several weeks now, our official discourse has debated the usefulness of dominance politics on the new left. Is anger a useful tool in politics? Shouldn’t we be building coalitions, instead of teams? Did a podcast invent socialism? All politics have limits, but it feels strange to debate whether or not the rage of present left-wing culture has had an effect. It has broken, or at least cracked, the hegemony of the liberals and the ghouls, given lie to a respectability spectrum that previously ran from the folks like Jonah Goldberg, who wanted to strip even half-affordable crumbs of medical access from poor people, to folks like Jonathan Chait, who compared that desire to the Iraq War, despite having supported the Iraq War. For all the silliness and limitations of predicating a political movement on its rude cultural output, there is an irreducible value in giving permission and form to everyone who has ever found these options lacking.
The real trouble is in what comes next. Dominance politics apologists have staked their fight on historical grounds — civility, after all, is just a tool of power, and no less a force than the present incarnation of the GOP rose to power through domination and fury. I don’t have any objection to that argument, but in practice it is worth remembering that the GOP had an infrastructure and an army to take over. What does the American left have? Nothing but its rage.
This week, the Democratic Socialists of America will host their largest convention of all time in Chicago, the largest official gathering of anti-capitalists that the United States has seen in decades. Its membership is just short of 25,000 people, and its revenue is around $1,000,000 per year. That’s smaller than the average check our plutocrats cut every year to each one of far more than their 25,000 pawns. The American left holds few offices and less power. It has no accomplishments to point to, despite the fact that many of its members are not socialists at all — they only want a better welfare state, and that’s easier to come by than the collective ownerships of the means of production. Rage can be useful. Ending the discursive stranglehold of the serious and sober is a good in its own right. But dominance requires more than a leading edge. It requires weapons that the left does not yet have.
Elite politics is built on civility among thieves.
I don’t say any of this because I believe the cause of socialism in the U.S. is doomed. These are hopeful times for all their darkness. But it will take years and possible decades for any party like the DSA to build a bite commensurate to its bark. It will require long, tedious, and thankless organizing in cities and towns across the country, building infrastructure and community ties and winning city council seats and county board positions, building up from 25,000 members to 250,000 members to 25,000,000 members before it can begin to compete in earnest.
Most of this work will not get written up in the papers. Most of it will not be cool or fun. All of it will take places while the whole world wraps its mouth around the barrel of a gun and wonders whether to pull the trigger for ecological catastrophe or nuclear war. I believe that all the work the left has before it is possible, but a debate over the usefulness of an angry culture misses the point. The culture is here and it has proven its usefulness already. The point is to see where that usefulness ends and to see what else must be done to fulfill the promises that all this heat and noise has made already.
I raise all of this because when I say that these are hopeful times, I do not only mean that they have seen the beginnings of politics that would have been unimaginable just six or seven years ago. I mean they are hopeful because the country is in crisis, and it is only in this crisis that citizens raised in the heart of our empire have become the least bit amenable to radical solutions.
It is only in this crisis that the dull centrists have let slip their total monopoly on the possible, and admitted that more radical solutions exist at all. Don’t mistake what all these cluck-clucking takes mean: they mean that our rulers and their dupe-servants have taken notice of the left, and for the moment, while everything around them is not normal, they’re willing to countenance the left’s existence. Even then, they barely tolerate it at all. When Trump is gone and the ghouls come back, the whole bourgeoisie alliance will turn its full power on the left. Anger won’t be enough then. We’ll need power. But we don’t have power yet, and we’re running out of time.