Tuesday, May 24, 2016

What Trump's Rise Means for the Future of the Country

Several months ago, there was a lot of discussion about whether Trump's campaign was edging toward fascism. Trump's incitement of the crowd to violence at some of his rallies and his ethnocentric nationalism contributed to the sense that he represented something new and dangerous in American politics.

But is it really fascism?

Throwing the word around so easily is a reflection of how unfamiliar we are with the horror of organized political violence and ethnic nationalism. Read a book about Europe between the world wars. Or better, reflect on our own history.

The practice of defining Americanness as Whiteness runs deep in American law and culture. And Whites often resorted to political violence to sustain this arrangement. During the Reconstruction era, whole states succumbed to paramilitary forces seeking the restoration of White rule. Call this fascism or something else; it was not a free country as you and I would ordinarily define it. During World War Two, African Americans launched a "Double V Campaign," seeking victory over what they saw as fascism at home and abroad. The civil rights movement achieved remarkable success in discrediting political violence and opening the way to multi-racial democracy. Unfortunately, there's now very little national memory of how White terrorism functioned politically in American history. So our unfamiliarity with fascist-like political movements is an indication both of how much has changed and of how much we have forgotten.
The NAACP compared the Jim Crow South to America's fascist enemies during World War Two
Remembering our history compels us to move from the theoretical, "It could happen here," to the quite concrete, "It has happened here and could happen again."

To be clear, Trump is not, at this stage, leading a fascist movement. Nor, in my judgment, is he ever likely to. But what is genuinely terrifying about Trump's emergence is that it shows the safeguards we thought our political system had built up are not there at all. Trump is so far beyond the pale, so manifestly unfit to exercise power, that the level of support he garners can be used to measure the health of our political system. The patient is more sick than we realized.

It's not that Trump is a fascist; it's that if people can support Trump they can support anybody. We must bear in mind that all this is happening at a moment of relative peace and prosperity. The economy is growing, unemployment is low, and Americans benefit from governance that is more efficient, responsive, and effective than in most of the world. Yet we're seeing the rise of a dangerous nihilism, a pervasive sense that we need an "outsider" to come in to Washington to blow things up. If Trump is empowered now, how much worse will it be in a moment of genuine economic crisis?

Perhaps the key question is whether Trump will act as a vaccine for our political system, inoculating it against future demagogues, or as an accelerant, paving the way for a strongman ten or twenty years down the road to seize power. Much depends on whether or not Trump wins the election. The Republican Party's cowardly falling in line has made a close election likely, and a Trump win a possibility.

My guess is that Trump will lose and that the worst possibilities inherent in his rise to power will be avoided. But the damage is nonetheless likely to be extensive and long-lasting. Trump will be both symptom and cause of a long-term degradation of our political institutions and civic fabric. In November, tens of millions of people will vote for him, a man who makes whole groups of Americans fear for their physical safety. In November, tens of millions of people will say to their fellow Americans, "we don't want you here."

Americans are not natural lovers of liberty in a way that other people aren't. We don't magically correct our course toward our constitutional foundations. We simply have a set of institutions that have worked well and have proven remarkably durable. Donald Trump is an obvious threat to those institutions. And millions of people don't seem to care, because at least he'll "shake up the system."

This is a dangerous state of mind. We must discard the assumption--at once complacent and utopian--that radical change will necessarily be for the better. Steering a course between the horrors of fascism and communism is not an inevitable condition of American life but a hard-won achievement that must be constantly maintained. Trump threatens that achievement. In staking out this ground, I find myself a truer conservative than many of the self-styled "conservatives" of the Republican Party.

Polling shows that White Americans have become deeply pessimistic about the future of the country. Whiteness does not deliver the wages it used to. The opening up of more opportunity for all is perceived by many Whites as an unfair reduction of their own position. Their resulting pessimism threatens to harden into an extremism that could power a figure worse than Trump to the presidency in the future. We must not accept the lazy belief that White pessimism is merely a function of economic hardship. Wage stagnation is real enough, but the most oppressed and economically desperate Americans have rejected Trump decisively. Most of them aren't feeling the Bern either. Instead, they're voting for the ultimate conventional politician: Hillary Clinton.

They're not doing so because they're naive. They know better than many of us how oppressive the United States can be. But they also have cultural and institutional memory of how much worse it was, and how hard-fought and precarious are their gains. In this dangerous moment, preservation is as important as transformation.

In this year when so many Americans seem to want radical change and a shattering of the "establishment," we would do well to remember that if we get our wish, picking up the pieces may not be as easy as we think. Conventional politics, with its moral compromises and frustrating incrementalism, can be infuriating. But it might be just what we need right now.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Inevitability of Memory

The journalist David Rieff has a new book called In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies. In an intriguing interview about the book, Rieff says historical memory can be dangerous and a certain amount of forgetting is often more socially responsible. Here's the crux of his argument:
Today, and for quite some time, probably since the end of the Second World War, the dominant view among decent people, good people, nice people, has basically reflected the words of the American philosopher George Santayana, who has said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The view is that it’s moral to remember the past, and if we don’t remember the past, as Santayana said, we’re going to repeat all its horrors. And by extension, or by implication, it’s immoral to forget. You have a kind of sacralization—a kind of memory of past horrors made sacred. On two grounds: one moral, that to forget is to do the most profound kind of injustice to those who suffered and those who died. And on the other hand an empirical claim, which is that if people remember, they’re less likely to either fall into the trap of these crimes, or be the victim of them....

What I’m saying is, there are examples—not a few, but quite a number of examples—where remembering, far from leading to truth, justice, and reconciliation, has led to more war. Three obvious examples of that are the Balkans in the 1990s, where I was a correspondent; Northern Ireland, for 30 years and, some people would say, for 800 years; and the Middle East. And in all three of those cases it seems to me that invoking history, invoking the wounds of the past, the crimes of the past, the conflict of the past, has led to more bloodshed.
There are two claims here. First, Rieff is simply saying that we don't actually learn from history. Given humanity's capacity for death and destruction that's a plausible case to make, though I disagree with it. But what about his second claim? Would it really be better to forget troubled pasts?

It seems to me that Rieff is making a philosophical point that has little application to the real world. It may well be true that it would be better if certain things could simply be forgotten. But how is this collective forgetting supposed to happen in the real world? Forgetting is not passive or natural. As Iwona Irwin-Zarecka has written, “The absence of memory is just as socially constructed as memory itself...when we speak of forgetting, we are speaking of displacement (or replacement) of one version of the past by another." The call to forget is not a call to let nature take its course. It's a call to replace one kind of memory project with another.

Remembering is not moral or immoral as much as it is inevitable. Societies are going to remember the past whether it is advisable to do so or not. As Rieff himself emphasizes, the past is fertile terrain for demagogues who seek to stir up animosities in the present. We can't contain such destructive forces by insisting on forgetfulness. Instead, we need to find usable pasts that can counter destructive memories.
White supremacist memory at work: the highest-grossing film of all time.
Rieff uses American memory of the Civil War as an example of the negative effects of remembering. He says,
I would submit that the collective memory that existed in this country until well into the 1960s of the war was actually a terrible version...So that it’s not as if we have any guarantee that a society’s version of events, version of the past, that is commemorated is going to be either accurate or moral. Which again isn’t a reason to scrap memory, but is a reason to be more skeptical and be less sure that it’s always “better to remember.” 
This is obviously true, but it seems to cut against the point he's trying to make. The solution to White supremacist memory is not forgetting. It's better memory.

Indeed, if American society somehow forgot slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, the consequences could be dire. The material conditions and social relations resulting from those histories would still be with us, but we would be left without any understanding of what produced them. In such a vacuum racism might actually increase.

This raises the deeper problem that forgetting poses. The most contentious issues of memory often involve pasts in which one group really did wrong another group, and the material results of those wrongs are often concrete, active, and ongoing. These are not abstractions. Telling indigenous people in the United States to forget genocide will not restore their sovereignty.

So when we speak of remembering and forgetting, we cannot ignore present-day power relations. It is no coincidence that the descendants of perpetrators are often the most ardent advocates of forgetting. Rieff is certainly correct that memory can be used irresponsibly in the service of hate and grievance. It would be wrong, for example, if Armenians used the memory of genocide to promote political violence against Turks in the present. But the onus should be on the Turks to remember their crime, not on their victims to forget it. To say, as Reiff seems to edge close to saying, that this is all a kind of fiction, that no one living actually "remembers" these events and we should therefore focus instead on the present, raises the question of whether political and social collectivities across time actually even exist, or should exist.

No one "remembers" the founding of the United States, yet we think of ourselves as Americans, and imagine that George Washington was an American too. Humans seem hard-wired to make group identities based on imagined shared pasts. Faced with this inevitability, the challenge is to remember what we have done to each other in the name of these identities, so that we might somehow transcend them in the recognition of our common creation in the image of God. Memory is inevitable. Peace-producing memory is a choice and must be continually constructed. It may be true that we will never learn, that we will go on killing each other. But if we don't remember well, it's a certainty.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

In Defense of Uncertainty

"Fools find no pleasure in understanding but delight in airing their own opinions."
     Proverbs 18:2

I read a lot of books this semester. That's what comprehensive exams are all about. So, what does all that reading do to you?

I honestly think I feel less knowledgeable than ever before. Really, I feel profoundly ignorant.

In our most self-serving moments, we subconsciously assume that expertise in one field is infinitely transferable. We know a little about something and suddenly we think we know everything about everything. In our more realistic moments, trying to learn a lot about something mainly just reminds us of how little we know.

This process is surprisingly unsettling. I used to have lots of opinions about lots of things, and I casually assumed those opinions were right. Well, ok, I still have lots of opinions. But now they're accompanied by all sorts of annoying questions. Questions like,
Wait a minute, why am I so sure about this?

What are the opinions of people who have spent their lives studying this?

How would my view of this change if I read 10 books about it? 100?

What complexities am I missing because I haven't experienced the thing I'm opining about? 
How would I feel differently if the issue touched my closest friends or family members? 
People often have strong opinions that are based on ignorance. That's not exactly news. But what's interesting is that ignorance hides itself. In the end, there's a sense in which we don't know what we don't know. People often have unfounded ideas about racism or American history, for example, but you won't hear them say, "I know my ideas go against the vast majority of people with experience or expertise on this subject, but I am sticking to my opinion." On the contrary, precisely because they are ignorant they don't know that their views contradict the evidence.

Before I get up on my high horse, I would do well to remember that this is basically the same thing I try to do all the time. Now those annoying questions keep getting in the way and make me question what I think I know.

I have opinions about climate change, pacifism, transgender rights, immigration law, ISIS, and even the Boxer Rebellion. They're all ignorant opinions. If this seems hard to admit, perhaps it's because we've become accustomed to thinking of ignorance as an insult to be lobbed against an opponent rather than a routine condition that affects us all.

This is not a call for radical skepticism about our ability to know things that are true. Nor is it a call for self-imposed silence until we attain some imagined threshold of competence. Rather, it is a call to dialogue, to listen to each other with the expectation--rather than the fear--that in listening we will be changed.

Indeed, the basic assumption that there is additional knowledge or experience that would change our thinking if we had access to it is a prerequisite for constructive conversation. We need to cultivate the capacity to be uncertain.

It might seem strange to think of uncertainty as a skill to be cultivated, but it is precisely that. Abiding in uncertainty is uncomfortable. It strips us of our easy assumptions and continually confronts us with the possibility that we may be wrong. It is much easier to be certain.

Social media rewards certainty. Strong and uncompromising opinions, baldly stated, are the currency of Twitter and Facebook. I've offered more than my fair share. And many of us have learned not to even try to have such conversations face to face. After all, if you and I are both so sure of ourselves, what is there to talk about? In the end, we'd rather change someone's mind than learn something new ourselves.

So yeah, I'm done with comps. I feel pretty ignorant. I feel uncertain. Maybe trying to make myself at home here wouldn't be such a bad idea. 

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The First Black President and the Self-Destruction of A Great American Political Party

In the day to day news cycle it's easy to lose sight of the big picture. As much as we talk about race in the era of the first Black president, we're often talking about the trees while failing to see the forest. Historians are likely to put race at the center of the story of Obama's presidency in a way that we haven't. Though we invoke race constantly in the current political environment, the broader contours of change and significance are obscured by our inability to think beyond the week's headlines. Historians will take a longer view, and a different story will emerge:

In response to the election of the nation's first Black president, one of America's two great political parties nearly destroyed itself. 

Right now, in the rush and confusion of events, it is hard to sort out what caused what, and what is truly important as opposed to what is merely interesting. What might seem like coincidence to us will, with the passage of time, begin to look like a clear causal chain of events:

After eight years of the nation's first Black administration, the opposing party nominated the first explicitly racist candidate in modern American history. 

We might like to think of this as a coincidence, but the early evidence indicates that Trump's racism is a decisive factor in his popularity.* This is a big, big story. Indeed, it's so big and so explosive and so incriminating of millions of Americans that we're not even willing to be honest about it right now. But it's the story our grandkids are likely to know.

Now, historians are not fond of single-cause explanations. Big changes come about through literally thousands of variables that are all but impossible to untangle. History is complex. But as we try to make sense of the past and as we create the stories we tell each other about our national history, we do pick out a few factors that seem more decisive than others. Historians will have plenty of space for the Iraq War, the financial crisis, and broader trends in media and culture. But race is going to be at the center of this story in ways we haven't really begun to fathom.

Think about how this story will go.

The election of the nation's first Black president was accompanied by a widespread sense of hope and possibility. There was much talk about the arrival of a post-racial moment. Millions of Whites appeared to feel that they were exorcising racial guilt in the act of voting for a Black president. Amid the heady days of hope and change, others watched and wondered if there would be a backlash, and what form it might take.

The backlash arrived along two tracks.

First, the enormously popular right-wing subculture of talk radio, bolstered by the internet and Fox News, began to coalesce around a conspiratorial and racist narrative about Obama. The impression of Americans caught in this echo chamber was that President Obama was a foreign, dangerous, radical figure. "Let's face it, Obama's black," Rush Limbaugh memorably commiserated with his audience. Because of his Blackness, Obama had "a chip on his shoulder" and was intent on destroying the foundations of the country. Dinesh D'Souza's popular documentary, 2016: Obama's America, aptly expressed this sensibility. The film's tone of evidence-free accusation captured in stark form the growing force of a racist subculture so given to conspiracy that it was unable to reason about the world that actually existed. Though Obama was a technocratic liberal positioned comfortably in the American political tradition, in the right-wing echo chamber he had become known as the destroyer of White, Christian America.
Tea Party protest often mixed economic concerns with racial panic.
The birther movement distilled and supercharged all this paranoia. Conspiracies about Obama's background took in a range of people--from partisans who didn't really believe it, to ordinary people who simply didn't know any better. But at its core, the movement was driven forward by the racist notion that the nation's first Black president was fundamentally un-American. It's difficult to remember now, but the movement was embraced by a majority of Republicans, and few Republican politicians were willing to condemn it. Faced with an upsurge of racism from their base, the most powerful Republican politicians categorically refused to tell their voters the truth about the nation's first Black president.

At the center of the birther movement stood its most famous provocateur: Donald Trump. When President Obama finally released his long-form birth certificate in the summer of 2011, it was in direct response to the continued provocations and accusations of Donald Trump. After Obama released the birth certificate, Trump held a press conference to claim victory. "I feel I've accomplished something very very important," he declared. Through the birther movement, Trump transitioned from a cultural celebrity to a political figure. As a result of Trump's newfound stature, Mitt Romney sought and received his endorsement in 2012.

When Donald Trump leveraged his birther-infused political stature into a run for the Republican nomination last year, most observers thought it was a joke. But they had failed to grapple with the extent to which racism had consumed whole swaths of the right-wing. And political scientists didn't realize how hollowed-out the party power structure was. Racists like Rush Limbaugh had been praised by party leaders for decades. Leading Republicans greeted the absurd birther movement with the equivalent of an indulging pat on the head rather than the swift and sure condemnation it deserved. And so Trump took over a party that had unwittingly prepared itself for him.
By 2015, fantastical beliefs and racial resentment were routine among Republicans.

At the same time, the backlash to the nation's first Black president had proceeded along a less visible but perhaps more consequential line. The elections of 2008 and 2012 were historic not only because of who they elected, but because of who had voted. For the first time, Black voter participation matched, and then exceeded, White voter participation. As a result, a Republican discourse about voter fraud that had been growing since the close 2000 election suddenly exploded in a new onslaught of anti-democratic (small d) sentiment. Faced with unprecedented participation from Democratic constituencies, leading Republican intellectuals and politicians invented new concerns about voter fraud and spread lies about its existence. Republican-led state governments all over the country began to pass new laws designed to make it harder for Democrats to vote.

In 2013 this racist backlash reached the Supreme Court, where the conservative majority struck down a major part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the crowning legislative achievement of the civil rights movement. In the years after that decision, states passed even more restrictive laws. It could not be emphasized enough that the new discourse about voter fraud was an invention designed to put a thin veneer of justification on the GOP's partisan vote-suppression. During these years, a sprinkling of Republican politicians kept going off message and admitting publicly the purpose of the new laws. But the vast majority of the party's leaders continued to lie with a straight face in support of their turn to institutional racism. The most overlooked story of the Obama years was the Republican Party's attempt to make the nation's electoral system a little more like Jim Crow and a little less like democracy.

By the spring of 2016, the Republican Party's nomination of an explicitly racist man had stirred much controversy, but the Party's quieter turn to institutional racism met with almost no internal resistance. Eight years after the election of the nation's first Black president, one of the nation's great political parties had been captured by the very worst parts of the American political tradition. In just eight years, a great American Party with a long and proud tradition of accomplishment had come to the doorstep of self-destruction.

*There will continue to be much debate about the nature of Trump's appeal to his voters. The more comprehensive perspective that the passage of time allows will solve much of this, but for now I'll just point out that the evidence is strong that racism is at the core of Trump's appeal. He is running as a White nationalist. His explicitly racist statements, refusal to disavow the Klan, and his retweeting of White supremacists have not been sidebars to his campaign. On the contrary, this racism has functioned as a decisive signal of group affinity. In a way no other political action could, Trump's racist rhetoric and actions established a cement-like bond to his voters, assuring them that he is on their side. This is not conjecture. The data are pretty clear. And lest we think this is all about economics in the end, it turns out that Trump's core voters are wealthier than most Americans.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Coming Rehabilitation of Donald Trump

Donald Trump is the Republican nominee for President.

Cue the even-handed media coverage, the trappings of party power, and the coalescing of most of the Republican Party around its nominee. Cue the rehabilitation of Donald Trump. 
The major responsibility of decent people now is to not become accustomed to this. It is shocking. It is disgraceful. It will still be shocking and disgraceful after most of the Republican Party endorses him and votes for him in November. When a Republican figure you respect endorses Trump, it doesn't mean Trump is more respectable than you thought. It means that ordinary Republican leaders are not the decent people you thought they were.

Trump is not going to win the presidency, because the same qualities that made him so appealing to some Republicans will cause most Americans to reject him.

Trump is a misogynistic brute.

Trump is a racist.

Trump is a religious bigot.

Trump is a liar.

Trump is a fool.

He won because of these qualities. The GOP couldn't stop Trump because the other candidates wanted to reach the same bigoted and ignorant voters Trump is reaching. The Party has gotten the nominee it deserves.

The Democrats are a flawed but functioning party. And because they're a party that has room for women, for Muslims, for black and brown people, the Democrats will save the country. It is disgraceful and shocking and demeaning to all of us that this contest even has to take place.

This is not just an interesting campaign season. This is a "Grandpa did you speak out when--" moment. So, here I am, for the record.