one step forward, two steps back

November 15, 2020

Democrats have won a presidency. But as vociferous as Democrats have been in their condemnation of the Republican party of the past four years with Trump’s demagoguery on proud display, blue shirt Americans should not be cheering. If the Republicans of the last four years were everything Democrats have repeatedly said, why is there still so much public support for him? Even if votes cast for Trump and his other Republican sycophants were only votes against Biden and the Democratic party, anything short of total landslide victory across all offices indicates there are still major flaws in Democratic platform.

(Notice what I’m not saying: “this indicates there are still major flaws in the voting public.”)

If the Trump presidency was a result of a wave of populist sentiment in the last election then the Biden presidency is a return to the pre-populist set of conditions. This is not a triumph of progress. It is a momentary bulwark against the inevitability of new political will.

We have taken one step forward, and two steps back.

The Trumpian fracas must be addressed with a level head and an open mind. The right wing is right about one thing: the neoliberal standard for globalism has major flaws. It has now run its course as the chief model for universalism. Yet we return to it in an abused, co-dependent relationship. It is all we know.

Yet it lacks the nuance to account for the variety of political will and the peculiarities of self-determination facing the unique, particular community. It walks hand in hand with the problems late capitalism, dismantling communities under the weight of wealth and power amassing in favored sectors of the economy. It is paternalistic with a failing father figure. Trump and the contemporary right have gained steam because they point out—albeit, through grotesque ridicule—the insufficiency of center-right American Democratic neoliberalism. 

The contemporary right is not without chronic flaws. However, it still begs for gradations of critique more nuanced than mother’s dinner table censure for swear word use.

The contemporary right under Trump reverted to regressive and destructive political modes. This project succeeded by mobilizing a base within the gravitation vacuum of virtual reality politics. The internet, while virtual, has now materialized into a real force with the potential to mobilize entire swaths of public sentiment. This virtual sentiment, this thunderhead of public affect, does not require real life referents, concrete policy objectives or accomplishments. It thrives purely on the appearance of political successes—virtual reality politics—as a result (and exploitation) of the fact that the vast majority of goals at the national and international level cannot and will not be experientially verified first hand by the constituency, although our sense of connection to the global makes us feel as though we do and should.

So through political sleight of hand, the seeming nullities of neo-fascism were championed through real world political satire as a supposedly benign euphemism mobilizing blind affect. It is politics by euphemism. It is virtual reality fascism. Since it has no stable real-world political referents (that is, until the made-up proudly finds its way back into the real), it merrily gaslights along deferring blame by claiming it was a lively jest. This cult of personality lacked the political will or courage to present a clear and cogent political program because it didn’t need to. 

Look as hard as you want. You will find no positive political program because there wasn’t one. It didn’t need one. Now unfortunately, neither does the Democratic party. What was it Michelle Obama said—”when they hit low we hit lower?” 

All sincere ideological content is now deferred through euphemism. The new right is new only with regard to its successful exploitation of virtual infrastructures on an unprecedented scale, mobilizing real political will through cynical, backhanded political theater. But make no mistake, its vocabulary is unmistakably fascistic. It used all the same tropes of xenophobia, state capitalism and anti-internationalism the Führer used. Read just about any speech from the early 1930s. 

But to be clear: Trump is not a fascist because Trump is not a statesman. He only plays one on TV. That doesn’t mean this style of politics is not dangerous.

“Life imitates art, far more often art imitates life.”

Now this has a much more sinister hue than Wilde intended.

Trump’s Twitter feed and Bannon’s Breitbart are simply a right-wing riposte to the elitist Hollywood late night monologue. The genre of the monologue cloaks itself in satire as an affective backchannel which mobilizes a real subsurface political current of neoliberal elitism and intolerance. The genre of alt-right news media, written or televised, cloaks itself in euphemistic cynicism to accumulate and harness an unbound sphere of destructive affect as a demolition tool, a political wrecking ball. The political euphemism of the late-night monologue uses humor to subliminally endorse supercilious, cultural neoliberalism with seemingly harmless jest. The political euphemism of the right-wing conspiracy uses outrage to subliminally endorse xenophobia and generalized distrust in democratic institutions with seemingly harmless zealotry.

These are opposing forces in the same genre of politics. 

If I were a pro-Trump Republican strategist I would be licking my chops. Suddenly, the eight-year Trumpian dynasty of re-making American greatness has thematically evolved from a boilerplate, two season teleplay to a potentially twelve year, six seasons and a movie anti-authoritarian political awakening complete with Woodstock-level revivals. 

An election in favor of return to the status quo, whether it is a landslide or not, will not be a satisfactory and complete excoriation of the contemporary right’s vulgar critique of neoliberalism. And it should not be, because the neoliberal status quo is insufficient—just ask anyone on the thoroughly despised “radical left.” We need a more sophisticated political imagination, and a more determined political will to elevate the public beyond the role of studio audience.

I am not a partisan. I bear no allegiance to either party. I feel no belonging in either party. This is my alien perspective, as always.

We have gone two steps backwards to the state of affairs that gave birth to the contemporary right. For the sober Democrat this is not a political victory, but a second chance to avert failure.

There are only two paths forward: work through the trauma, or repeat it.