Waking Up in Trump’s America, Part 2
The second in a series of reactions from TNI friends, contributors, and editors on what happens after 11/9.
Liberalism is dead. It inspires nothing and no one, and it hasn’t for a decade. Obama’s charisma and the total lack of viable Republican leaders obscured this for a little while on the presidential level. But it can be seen in the story of voter turnout–the same numbers of Republicans came out as previous elections, but Democrats just didn’t show up. Some of that, no doubt, was voter suppression and the repeal of the Voting Rights Act. If liberalism had anything left in the tank, however, Hillary would’ve animated her supporters and riled up the media to defend voter rights. It would have been a perfect liberal campaign, but liberals don’t believe in campaigning any more. There are no liberal grass roots.
Many smug liberals and radicals spent the election talking about how this was it for the Republican party, how it was finished, broken in two by Trump. The Republicans now run every branch of government and most of the states to boot. It is the Democrats who are dead, and we should be dancing on their fucking grave. It was Dems, after all, who pushed for Trump to win the Republican nomination. Any “radical” who suggests we should be trying to pull the Democrats to the left is really talking about revitalizing the Democratic party. We must oppose this utterly. If the Democrats are dead in the water, if liberals are nowhere in the power structure, it will take much longer for our movements to be backstabbed, co-opted, or bought off with small reforms.
Most of us trusted the polling, the conventional wisdom, the liberal discourse that Hillary was a shoo-in. There was little radical analysis of the election’s outcome: trust in the technocratic narratives of polling and population blocs and the belief that disgust with Trump would somehow be sufficient kept us projecting Hillary with the rest. We trusted liberalism to protect us from this particularly nasty brand of white supremacy. People like Ayesha Siddiqi were, from the beginning, calling it for Trump on the basis of America’s libidinal commitment to white supremacy, but we didn’t want to listen. If you were, like me, rather confident that Hillary would win, it’s time to finally kill the liberal in our heads and start thinking in a more clear-eyed manner about the way the world works. Let this be the last time liberalism blinds us to the true nature of the political situation.
The rise of far-right nativist populism is a disastrous tragedy: We need bail funds, legal teams, prisoner support networks, and secure communications–and we need them yesterday. But one of our main historical enemies, the American moderate, is gravely wounded: the field is open for tactics, organizations, and actions aimed at abolition and revolution. Many of us have been building just these organizations, actions, and tactics over the last five years: now it is going to be our time or it is going to be Trump’s. But the liberals’ time is up.
For the last few weeks, something Nikhil Singh wrote has stuck in my mind: “Racism has historically been a scourge of class politics and managerial elites have increasingly weaponized privilege discourse against any radical politics. We should all be working as hard as we can to break this impasse from whatever starting point we choose.” I never expected the election to have this result, but I think the point is as important as ever, and is in fact more urgent insofar as there will be a temptation to use the Trump victory as a cudgel in the debate. There is nothing more important for the Left right now than overcoming the mutual suspicion between “class” and “identity” radicals. This means recognizing that both class and identity politics can have radical or accommodative, particularist or universalist, forms. It means getting comfortable with “racial capitalism” and “social reproduction” as fundamental units of analysis, as well as facing squarely the central role that we should expect certain memes of identity politics to play in future articulations of elite liberalism and centrism. There is a lot of analytic and practical work to do and I hope that we will direct our energy at the real enemies.
I can’t stop thinking about this narrative of the forgotten, rural, white voters, and how dangerous it is. I don’t want to diminish the suffering and disillusionment these election results are turning us towards, because the realities of ongoing economic crisis and income inequality are unquestionable. However, to argue that this election is what happens when we stop listening to “real America,” where we assume real America to be rural and white, is to reinforce one of the most entrenched and exploitative narratives of US democracy.
Named after the slave owner and serial rapist Thomas Jefferson, Jeffersonian democracy is a vision of America that idealizes the self-sufficient farmer and constructs a narrow, exclusionary “plain folks” identity. In recent years, the promises of Jeffersonian democracy have failed those who identify with this rural and white ideal. This is the very real dispossession white people are feeling right now.
But we must acknowledge that this is a dispossession of something they only had at the expense of so many others, so many of us. This vision and its expansion requires the continuous and ongoing genocide of indigenous peoples, the consolidation of property and political rights around whiteness, the exploitation of enslaved and immigrant labor, and the reinforcement of the heteronormative family as the sole site of property transfer.
The solution is not to turn around and reinforce Jeffersonian democracy, because that vision of the United States is not only flawed, it is also fundamentally violent. To refuse to acknowledge this is to create its own insularity. It is to shield people from the truths of history.
Rather than relying on narratives that merely rewrite the Jeffersonian ideal, let’s proliferate new narratives that challenge ourselves to take responsibility for the past we have inherited. I don’t know what that looks like yet, but I realize it is something I have been working on for a long time.
In the back of my mind, I keep thinking about the things I’ve personally committed my life to, the choice I’ve made to pursue research, scholarship, and teaching on and about the history of race, gender, and sexuality in the United States. In so many recent debates even before the election, those of us who have committed to ethnic studies, to gender studies, to sexuality studies have been tasked with justifying the importance of our scholarship in the face of accusations of its marginality and frivolousness. But we ignore understanding race, gender, and sexuality in the United States–and in the world–at our peril.
On 9/11, William Gibson had written 100 pages of his novel-to-be, Pattern Recognition, when he had to stop and fundamentally re-think the entire story. I believe other authors endured similar creative ruptures. As an author who matured in the wake of 2001, Gibson’s science-fictional, post-9/11 present is the only milieu I can write in, because it is the only one I know. I’m not creative enough to imagine beyond, or to forget, our present-day sociopolitical reality.
I’m currently deep in the novel process (an expansion of my debut, Technologies of the Self), and over the last few days, I’ve pondered an unsettling question akin to Gibson’s. Buffalo Almanack was cool enough to call my work “beach reading for the justifiably paranoid. These are stories about colonialism, neoliberalism, conspiracy bullshit, and a Trumped-out America at the gates of hell.” But I wrote Technologies before Trump won the primaries, let alone the Electoral College. Now, I find myself asking, more seriously, “How do I work Trump into my story?” The underlying assumption being, like Gibson’s, that it is impossible to write a story without taking this catastrophe into account. But I’m finding it difficult to imagine Trump’s America as a reality outside the one I wrote in. I’m not sure adding Trump would substantively change the weird, screwy, contradictory, fucked-up rules (or lack thereof) of Technologies‘ world, where the occupation, surveillance, rampant capitalism, environmental destruction, and (self-)hatred of a quasi-ubiquitous, time-and-space-travelling, hive-mind demon from the colonizing project of the Spanish Inquisition looms over the protagonists’ paranoid, anxious lives. Its world is no different from this one. It is a place as fantastical as, and yet no less hard reality than, Trump’s America.