The Death Rattle of Liberal Civility
The below text is adapted from an article originally printed in The Advocate.
The July 11th issue of The New Yorker was dominated by a lengthy George Saunders
piece on the Trump campaign. Saunders follows Trump from Fountain Hills to Tucson to Eau Claire
and beyond, rendering the hostility that permeates every rally in characteristically matter-of-fact
prose. At each stop on this journey, he stands in awe of the mutual aggression between Trump
supporters and anti-Trump protesters. Awe is the appropriate word here, for after
a particularly alarming clash between protesters and supporters at a Trump rally in San Jose,
Saunders summarizes the scene in a glib allusion to Yeats: "The center failed the hold." In
this theatrical narrative, Saunders imagines himself as a witness something apocalyptic. He
witnesses the undoing of order in American politics. "This, Mr. Trump," he declares, "is why
we practice civility."
I am fascinated with Saunders's insistence on "civility." He believes firmly, and perhaps
correctly, that it is not the content of Trump's proposals that enraptures or enrages
people, but the presentation. Conversely, the real problem with Trump is not his racism, xenophobia,
chauvinism, or his delight in the prospect of uprooting, brutalizing, or killing millions of people.
No, the real problem with Trump is that he relinquishes the stoic dignity of "Goldwater and Reagan"
in favor of the empty sensationalism of "Fox News and reality TV." Saunders is more concerned,
for instance, about the spectacle surrounding the Wall (capital W) than the actual proposal
of the wall (small w) and its probable effects. To emphasize civility, often to the exclusion
of all else, is de rigueur in liberal election commentary. Again and again, the substance
of Trump's platform is granted far less weight than the presentation of it. Pundits and talk
show hosts lambast Trump for his "divisive rhetoric." A Clinton campaign ad plays an extended
montage of Donald Trump saying inflammatory things before asking the viewers what kind of president
they want their kids to see. Op-ed after op-ed bemoans the Republican Party's downward trajectory
from the Great Communicator to a sideshow caller with a bad toupee. Although some commentators
pay lip service to the dangers facing Muslims and the undocumented, it is not primarily the
lives of marginalized people that are at stake; it is the sense of dignity in the electoral arena.
This sense of dignity is important to liberals because it offers plausible deniability when
Democratic politicians do exactly what we're supposed to be afraid of Republicans doing. It
is easier to give a president the benefit of the doubt who maintains decorum, who has the decency
to be surreptitious about their less defensible actions. This has informed the mantra of the
Obama presidency. Of course Obama couldn't change everything overnight, no matter how much he
might have wanted to. He's practical. He takes this stuff seriously. He means business. Did
he want to close Guantanamo? Did he want to pull us out of Iraq and Afghanistan earlier? Did
he want single-payer healthcare? Of course he did, but his hands were tied! On the other hand,
did he want to bomb twice as many countries as Bush did? Did he want to deport over two million
undocumented immigrants? Did he want to continue bank bailouts, keep Bernanke as Fed chair,
appoint Geithner as Treasury Secretary, and so forth? Of course not, but his hands were tied!
More important to the center-left than material change is the fantasy of change.
In the 2008 campaign, we saw an unprecedented effort to raise hopes for a sweeping overhaul
of the political system, and in subsequent years we saw the stoic abandonment of every hope
raised. The conventional wisdom on Obama went from "He'll change everything!" to "He'll change
everything, but he'll wait until his second term!" to, finally, "What, were you really so naive
as to believe that Obama would change everything?" The same field of liberal commentators who
deliberately stoked anticipation of systemic change overnight steadily came to treat any note
of disappointment or any residual hope as a sign of immaturity. Come now, think pragmatically!
Now, with Hillary Clinton, a presidential candidate around whom there is little to no excitement,
cynical pragmatism is our necessary starting position. After the disappointment of Obama, the
best president we can hope for is an experienced, dignified moderate — if that. At the
Democratic National Convention, a stadium of liberals cheered wildly as Michael Bloomberg (a
man whose entire career centered on making New York City unlivable for the working class) bellowed,
"Donald Trump, you are no Ronald Reagan!" The notion that the Democratic nominee would be a better
facsimile for Reagan than the Republican nominee should be a damning condemnation of the party's
shift to the right. Instead, to an audience of ostensible progressives, it was a ringing endorsement.
For like Ronald Reagan, Hillary Clinton is civil, dignified, and practical. As we have been
told countless times, she knows how to get things done, and she knows how to be respectful as
she does them. When one points out that the things Clinton has "gotten done" in her career
include the expansion of the carceral state, the destabilization of dozens of Latin American
and Middle Eastern countries, the evisceration of the welfare system, and even periodic support
for a Trump-style border wall, one gets the stock liberal response. "Sure, Hillary's done some
objectionable things in the past, but any political career as long as hers is bound to have
some blotches! Besides, do you really think Trump won't be worse?"
And of course Trump would be worse than Clinton in a material sense. But I'm tempted at this
conjuncture to side with the George Saunderses among us after all. Maybe the critical difference
between the two candidates does lie more in their presentation than in their platforms.
Maybe the problem is not that Trump intends to deport eleven million people, wall off the nation,
administer religious tests, and the like, but that he announces these intentions, boldly
and without apology. The civility for which the center-left feels such nostalgia is an integral
component of the American project's ideological legitimating mechanism. This mechanism disguises
the everyday violence without which the American project could not be sustained, and condemns
it where it cannot be disguised. As regards the past, this mechanism takes the form of retrospective
self-criticism. In an appropriately Kantian fashion, the United States holds out an ideal of
absolute human freedom, far beyond anything it can concretely achieve. Although it builds itself
up through one brutality after another, it looks back upon each brutality it has completed
with plaintive regret, regarding it as an unfortunate hurdle that had to be cleared on the
path to its ultimate goal. Through this teleological outlook, United States liberalism confesses
to, and in so doing, absolves itself of its own crimes. When similar crimes are committed in
the present, they are stifled, silenced but no less noxious, like flatulence at a funeral.
When Trump is condemned as "un-American" for his racism, xenophobia, or whatever else, the
temptation is to point out that Trump's proposals are hardly without precedent in American politics.
The border wall is not a novel idea, nor is a policy of mass deportation. The proposal of Muslim
exclusion has been likened, not unfairly, to everything from the Chinese Exclusion Act to the
refusal of Iranians during the Carter administration. But perhaps this misses the point. The
remarkable thing about Trump is not the content of his proposals, but his utter lack of shame
in presenting them. During the Obama administration, mass deportations, border fence expansions,
and remote bombings have been carried out in mortified silence. Trump has grabbed hold of the
liberal establishment's guilty secrets and turned them into rallying cries. And he has done
so with astonishing success.
I believe what we see crystallized in the phenomenon of Donald Trump is the implosion of
American liberalism's self-criticizing mechanism. The rejection of decorum is a synecdochic
representation of a more fundamental rejection: that of critical thinking. Trump has no time
to second-guess and no time to apologize. He has no time to interrogate the past or the present.
He's a business man. He wants to make a good deal. He has to act fast. He has to commit. As
an unnamed Trump supporter tells Morning Edition, "He's a negotiator. Of course he takes a
hardline position." The liberal project's internal critical mechanism must go out the window.
The time is to uncritically embrace excess in all its most dreadful forms. This approach has
understandably resonated with a wide swath of frustrated, white, middle-class USians. The new
normal post-recession has compromised their once-guaranteed future of pleasant
domesticity, has introduced doubt where they have only known certainty. When all that is solid
begins to melt into air, who can waste time being polite? Take the hardline position. Get a good deal.
Liberal civility offers no response to Trump because Trump's campaign is premised on a wholesale
rejection of it. It offers instead an open celebration of the systematic expropriation and violence
that forms the material basis of the American project, a refusal to cloak it in euphemistic terms.
Trump's supporters are sick of being civil. They are sick of being "politically correct." They
are sick of exercising restraint when unbridled capitalist excess has screwed them over and,
adding insult to injury, looked so damn fun in the process. The frustrated petty bourgeoisie
is laying claim to the excess that the bourgeoisie has so far kept to itself. And we are nowhere
near prepared for that dreadful moment when they finally seize it.
October 18, 2016