In 1974, when The New York Times first published transcripts of what became known as Richard Nixon’s White House tapes, many Americans were shocked not by the corruption or depravity the tapes betrayed, but by how often the President of the United States said “cocksucker.”
Or they imagined he was saying “cocksucker.” Nixon himself, after reviewing the transcripts of the tapes, was appalled by how often Oval Office conversations descended into profanity, and ordered that all dirty words — even “Christ” or “hell” — be replaced with [EXPLETIVE DELETED] before public release. But the effect was the same: The American people learned that even the President of the United States sometimes must have to say “fuck it.” But the cursing scandal didn’t last long and on the whole came to many as a kind of relief: Even sweaty, fidgeting Nixon was just a regular guy, who got mad sometimes and cursed about it as men do.
But for a certain set of citizens, for the respectable and professional types invested in what the Dutch writer Harry Mulisch called the “golden curtain” between power and its subject (if you can’t see what power is up to, you might believe they know what they’re doing back there), revealing the ordinariness of even Powerful Men was the beginning of a disaster. Now people might get the idea that their masters weren’t so different from them, weren’t so much wiser or calmer or more in control, that the only real difference between them was money and power.
As Aaron Sorkin once ventriloquized through his West Wing avatar Toby “You Will Respect The Office God Damn It” Zeigler, the Nixon tapes “demystified” the presidency and led people to believe that “anybody” could do it. Anybody might be vulgar. They might flout norms. They might imagine, for better or worse, that the byzantine halls of American power were not navigable only by the Serious and Sober, that somebody might get in there and ruin the grift that our elites had going.
Forty years later, our civility police and radical Sorkinists appear to have been vindicated by the election of Donald Trump. Who could better embody the dangers of believing that anybody can run this empire? Trump, with smirk and his jowl, and his shrinking asshole of a mouth; Trump, hobbling into his seventh decade in daddy’s-too-big suit, lying and gurgling and gasping a nonstop stream of what many people don’t know and what many people are saying, so tough, believe me, tougher than the losers and the haters, a babbling brook of vulgarity, none of it really comprehensible, much less subject to bivalent assessment or review.
Forget Dick Nixon: the White House communications director wants you to know that his colleagues are sucking their own cocks, and the Times prints it in full. Trump is the test case for “any idiot could do it” and after failing to implement his travel ban, failing to pass his health care policy, failing to retain any continuity of staff or vision, failing, really, to do more than the bare requirement of sitting down in the chair every day and working up a lather for some savage tweets, the only good news seems to be that no, any idiot — or at least this idiot — can’t do it, in fact. The civility crowd should be thrilled.
Forget Dick Nixon: the White House communications director wants you to know that his colleagues are sucking their own cocks.
And yet. In these first six months of the Trump era, every blunder, every pointless clusterfuck disaster has been attributed to secret genius, a kind of animal instinct for messaging and distraction that goes beyond superficial questions like “Can the president read?” Yes, Trump couldn’t possibly speak in any detail about his own policy proposals — but that’s what makes him so popular. No, he can’t control his staff, but it’s all a distraction, an elaborate ploy to keep the American people from seeing what’s really going on with Putin.
Trump might not be book-smart, but he’s street-smart, and all of this is prelude. He’s surrounding himself with generals. He’s waiting for orders from Putin. He’s playing twelfth-dimensional chess and the only people standing in his way are the idiots in the Democratic Party who couldn’t even beat this idiot in an election. The other shoe is going to drop any day now—read 1984, this guy is trouble. Perhaps Trump is losing his mind, but when you read about it, it’s always a bit more Hitler-in-the-bunker than Bozo’s last stand. There’s a conspiracy afoot, our sober analysts say, we’ve just got to ignore the deliberate distractions and keep our eyes on the ball. Get Eric Garland on the case.
When Trump took office, the better part of the American commentariat was convinced that he was a fascist. Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism sold out on Amazon and choice excerpts were shared avidly on Facebook and Twitter. Below nearly every Trump tweet, brave blue-checks replied with photographs of the “signs of fascism” poster hung in the United States Holocaust museums and a scathing question like, “Sound familiar?” Mainstream Trump opponents formed into a self-styled #Resistance, predicated on the notion that writing hot takes about the abnormality of Trump and antifa black-bloc protesters alike is essentially akin to risking Auschwitz in order to blow up Nazi weapons depots in occupied France.
What is strange is that nothing in the past six months of Trump’s ineptitude has done anything to curb any of this hysteria. Despite the failures, despite the lack of any indication that this White House possesses a coherent notion of strategy (much less an actual strategy), despite the fact that a Senate unable to pass the health care repeal they’ve spent seven years campaigning on is unlikely to pass a emergency powers enabling act, the scolding anti-fascism of our analysts continues. Anthony Scaramucci is no Joseph Goebbels, my friends, but no matter: The #Resistance lives on. The whole notion of #Resistance serves a useful purpose for our liberals, one beyond the satisfaction they take in LARPing the horror and violence enjoyed by their grandparents. What it does, more than anything else, is say no to politics.
Liberalism is not working.
It is clearer today than it has been in generations that a significant portion of Americans, though horrified by the naked corporatism of the Republican Party, are no longer content with the impotent collaborationism offered by the Democrats. Despite what Jonathan Chait says, liberalism is not working. The election of Trump itself signaled the reactionary side of this discontent, but far more worrying to our liberals is the radical side.
An American left, spanning from overt Marxism to the still-too-spicy-for-the-DNC social democracy of Bernie Sanders, has begun to emerge. This nascent left is not very powerful yet, but where they are most visible — in the academy, in magazines, in the precious mentions of the serious and sober — is precisely where the liberals are most likely to hear them. Whether or not this new left wins so much as a county commissioner’s race in the coming years matters less than the recognition of what has already happened: people are starting to ask larger questions about society and economy and politics. They are beginning to ask how wealth has such a stranglehold on power, how a nation as violent as ours can claim to stand for freedom in the world, how all of it got so miserable that an idiot like Trump got elected in the first place.
Other writers have pointed out the Iron Law of Institutions: the people who control them care more about their power within the institution than the power of the institution itself. These questions, this discontent, threatens the respectability and status of our failed liberals, and that is what all of this talk of fascism is meant to deal with. The purpose of the #Resistance is to collapse all political questions into a single binary: are you with us, or with the fascists?
When the choice is to be a fascist or to #resist, it hardly matters what the #resistance really stands for. Asking is suspect. Demanding that it stand for more is treason. Criticism of the #resistance or, more essentially, of its well-positioned and self-professed leaders, amounts to giving aid and comfort to the enemy — the Nazis! — and so the only acceptable course of action is to fall in line. It’s all a high espionage drama, a fantasy in which every social question has been reduced to a final apocalyptic battle between the goose-stepping Trumpenreich and respectable professional types who know how easily democracy dies in darkness. What comes after the #resistance? Who knows. It’s best not to think about it too much.
The purpose of the #Resistance is to collapse all political questions into a single binary.
If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because the #Resistance framework is only a more extreme version of what the Democratic Party has been selling for 30 years. It’s what they’ve finally formalized into a 2018 slogan: Just look at the other guys! In 2016, certain radical accelerationists believed that the crisis brought on by Trump would ultimately prove more valuable to the left than enabling a Clinton presidency, but they were wrong. The discrepancy between the promises of liberals and the inadequate reality of their administrations is what drives the left. Reactionary governments only let liberals constitute themselves as a generalized opposition. The left grew far more under Barack Obama than it ever did under George W. Bush. The purpose of the #Resistance is to resist radical alternatives. The next phase has begun already: question the latest 2020 savior coming down the Democratic Party consensus line, and you’re no better than all those deplorables who voted for Trump. You’re either with us or against us.
For the masters of the American empire, the real threat of “anybody could do it” has never been the election of a man like Trump. His cardinal sin, in their eyes, is only being so stupid and malicious that he might crash the whole long con into the ground. The threat is that one day they will lose their power to one of the anybodys, to all of the little nobodies. That power will wind up in the hands of people who will not comply with the consensus of the American aristocracy, not even in a stupid and rude way, in the hands of people who will not ensure that GDP keeps growing, no matter the cost, or ensure that our currency powers the world, no matter the body count, and who might envision a society wherein our tremendous productive power is rededicated to meeting the material needs of all people, not extracting every ounce of pain and tragedy required to keep the engines of capital going. If that happens, then they might at long last be forced to reckon with the conclusion that all of this was meant to avoid: they were the vulgar idiots who couldn’t do it all along. That, as much as Trump, and more than Trump, is what our best and brightest want to #resist.