Trump and the Terror of History
In the days since I first published this on my personal blog, I’ve seen my worst fears about the nascent Trump Presidency come to pass. He has, to the surprise of exactly no one, appointed his fellow oligarchs to numerous powerful positions in his Cabinet. And I have seen the racist bigots masquerading as the genteel “alt-right” pop out of the woodwork, and I have watched in desperation and rage as the mainstream media has normalized them to an astonishing degree. When did it become acceptable and, more importantly, ethical to allow people like these the ability to hide behind innocuous-sounding appellations like “alt-right,” as if they’re just some combination of keys on a keyboard.
It’s hard to shake the feeling that we’re living in the 1930s, when most of Europe bent over backward to placate the clearly-rising tide of fascism. As long as it remained possible to simply turn a blind eye to the worst of the atrocities and the disappearances, as long as no one came for their families, many were all-too-willing to be complacent. Already I’ve seen a similar phenomenon steal over the America I thought I knew. While I’m sure that many of those who voted for Trump find his most racist supporters as disgusting and abhorrent as I do, I can’t help thinking that all too many of them are willing to remain complicit or, worse, find themselves in genuine (if unspoken) sympathy with the racist trolls of the alt-right.
As the weeks have unfolded, I have been unable to shake the feeling that I’m caught in a maelstrom of historical forces that I can neither control nor effect. I know that a lot of people have felt this for quite some time, but I don’t think it ever hit home until now. When I read stories like this one at Mother Jones, I can’t help but feel a wave of despair crash over me. To paraphrase one of my favorite queries from The Lord of the Rings: “What can men do against such reckless hate?”
The most frightening thing to me is that I honestly don’t know how to even begin to answer that question in a satisfactory way anymore.
In my work on the post-war historico-biblical epic, I talk a lot about the “terror of history.” It’s a term with a lot of baggage and ideological weight, first mentioned by the philosopher of religion Mircea Eliade is his book Myth of the Eternal Return and taken up by the historian Theofilo F. Ruiz in his book The Terror of history: On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization. It’s a provocative term precisely because it encapsulates so much of what we know, subconsciously at least, to be true about the processes of history.
They are, in a word, terrifying.
By terrifying I mean many things, but the thing I want to focus on here is the sense that the movement of history forward seems to always be beyond the ability of the individual human being to either comprehend in its totality or to effect in any meaningful way. An unfortunate side-effect of this is also the sense that those left in the path of history are often the most victimized and marginalized. The march of history, and also its cycles, often brutalize human life in ways and at a scale that are truly horrifying to contemplate. One cannot help but think of the philosopher Hegel’s infamous suggestion that history is the slaughter bench of humanity, the altar upon which collective humanity sacrifices those whom it wants to be rid of. While the 20th Century is often shown to be a truly horrific period in that regard, boy is the 21st giving it a run for its money.
Of course, we on the Left like to believe that history, with all of its horrors and all of its perpetual uncertainty, is a steady and relentless move forward toward a more just and peaceful world. We like to believe, to paraphrase Dr. King, that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice. We like to believe, sometimes we have to believe, that somehow everything will turn out okay in the end, that the better angels of our nature will take over and we will somehow learn to show compassion to our fellow humans. That somehow the compassion that seems to be hardwired into the mammal brain will overcome the brutal reptilian id that always seems to lurk at the corners of our collective consciousness, ready to strike out with fangs and claws and rend the fabric of civilization, reducing it to primal shreds.
However, as scholars like Tobias Stone have shown, there is a certain terrifying circularity to the workings of human events. We as a species seem determined to enter into periods of enormous and catastrophic destruction of our own kind. We just can’t seem to help ourselves. We just keep wanting to repeat the same mistakes over and over and over again, grinding ourselves up in the relentless wheel of time’s turning. Whereas Eliade argued that the terror of history came from the abandonment of the circular notions of time prevalent in many archaic societies (his problematic term) in favour of the relentless forward momentum of modernity, to my eye it is the circularity that is the truly terrifying understanding of time. How can we go on, when we know that any progress we made is destined to meet the same resistance as it always has, forcing us to take a giant three steps back for every step forward?
The terrifying nature of Trumpian history is more than just the candidate himself. It is also the tide of red–of white conservatism, of bloodthirsty savagery–that threatens to inundate us. Part of it can be quantified, of course. One need look no further than the hundreds of stories of racial and gendered assault that flooded social media and various nonprofits in the days since the election. Words that were formerly and rightly decried as hate speech have now been given new license to exist out in the open, validated by a presidential candidate who used “political correctness” as a clarion call for all the white nationalists, xenophobes, anti-semites, misogynists, and homophobes to come out of the woodwork and loudly and proudly declare themselves liberated from the chains of civilized discourse. This is a red tide that threatens to drown all those who would see the world a better, more just world.
And though many have focused (with good reason) on the fear of minorities in this new era of Trump, the consequences of Trump’s victory for the war against climate change are even more terrifying to contemplate. We know we are living in the anthropocene, and now that powerful force has a name and a face, and it is Donald J. Trump. The United States of America, supposedly the telos of history’s forward progress toward a cleaner, more sustainable planet, has now turned its back on that progress. We have, through our election of this man and his party, abrogated our responsibility as a global power and unleashed a new and even more terrifying period of history.
So what do we do with ourselves now that we live in this era in which the terror of history has once again threatened to grind us up and leave behind a trail of bodies (both literal and metaphorical?) Do we simply abandon ourselves to the seeming inevitability of decline and destruction that seems to loom on the horizon, blazing and frothing at every opportunity.
The short answer is: of course not. If there is a silver lining to this entire horror, it is that perhaps Trump will indeed galvanize the Left. If Hillary Clinton’s impending victory in the popular vote — which looks to be quite substantial, by the way, well over 2 million votes — is any indication, there are a lot more on our side than there are supporting the terrifying creature now poised to occupy the White House. However, it does not have to stay that way. We really do have an unparalleled opportunity to show ourselves and the world that we are a country of thinking, critical citizens and that, when we band together, we truly are stronger together.
Since I first wrote this post, I’ve become a little more bleak in my outlook. To be honest, I’m not sure that we on the Left have the power anymore. The Right in all of its noxious force has bulldozed over us. Yeah, we may have demographics on our side (according to some, anyway), but that’s cold comfort when we’re staring a terror such as this straight in its ugly orange face.
And, just as importantly, what happens when the dystopian future represented by today’s GOP becomes not just a specter but our everyday lived reality? It almost feels as if we are slipping into the darkest periods of American history, when men like Jeff Sessions (a notoriously racist and homophobic senator) and white nationalists like Steve Bannon stand ever closer to power, when racists once again feel allowed to vent their fury at minorities in public. It’s a frightening time to be alive, of that there can be no doubt.
All of this doesn’t mean that I’m going to quit fighting, though. I’m going to continue tweeting, and writing, and teaching. Those are the things that I think I do best, and they are crucial, I think, to holding this horrid Administration accountable and for continuing the political project of speaking truth to power.
To paraphrase another portion of LotR, there may come a day when our strength fails, but it is not this day.
This day, and all the days to follow, we fight.
Originally published at tjwest3.com on November 15, 2016.