Les extrêmes se touchent. — French proverb
I have been hard at work during the last horrible week, watching and trying to understand what is going on in the world. Encountering Jordan Greenhall’s Situational Assessment 2017 was a revelation, not just in what it said, but in how he thinks about social problems. I feel like he “woke me from my dogmatic slumber.”
Looking at things with fresh eyes I want to extend my critical engagement with that piece and offer several new observations, and some recommendations.
THIS IS MY DEATH STAR PLANS. The Republican behemoth is neither as monolithic nor as invulnerable as it appears at a glance — it is a fragile coalition of extremely heterogeneous elements that are in extreme tension. I’m going to tell you where the major fault line lies, you bring the proton torpedoes.
1. The Alt-Right is a Dionysian Frenzy of Ecstatic Rupture
Just before the election I read this characterization of Trump’s base by the philosopher Judith Butler — I think it conveys something urgently important about the character of the Trump Insurgency:
I think they have an enormous rage. Not just against women, not only against racial minorities or against migrants — they are thrilled that that their rage is being liberated by his public and uncensored speech. We on the left, we are apparently the superego. What Trump has managed to do, rhetorically, is to identify not just the left, but liberalism — basic American liberalism and the left — as just a bunch of censors. We are the instruments of repression and he is the vehicle for emancipation. It is a nightmare.
Butler is quite right in characterizing the tone of the Trump revolution as one of liberation from a repressive force, but she is mistaken in her contention that Trump has “managed to do” this “rhetorically”. He has tapped into a reservoir of resentment that was already widespread.
I have previously called out the importance of the Reddit poster notjaffo’s characterization of the pluralistic left and the Trump Insurgency, but it is critical and warrants repeating:
Blue Team Progressivism is a church, offering you moral superiority and a path to spiritual enlightenment. As a church it’s got a lot going for it. It runs religious programming on television, all day every day. Every modern primetime program is like a left-wing Andy Griffith show, reinforcing lessons of inclusion, tolerance, feminism, and anti-racism.
Watching a 90-pound Sci-Fi heroine beat up a room full of giant evil men is as satisfying to the left as John Wayne westerns were for the right.
The Blue Church controls the HR department, so even if you don’t go to church, you have to act like a loyal churchgoer in every way that matters while you’re on the clock. And off the clock, on any kind of public social media platform.
Jon Stewart and John Oliver are basically TV preachers. Watching them gives the same sense of quiet superiority your grandma gets from watching The 700 Club. The messages are constantly reinforced, providing that lovely dopamine hit, like an angel’s voice whispering, “You’re right, you’re better, you’re winning.”
A crucial point to note is that Trump and the alt-right do not represent a return to the old Christian conservative stance of the Culture Wars, it represents a new political morality that is primarily focused on rejecting what it regards as the oppressive character of the Blue Church:
The Blue Church is panicking because they’ve just witnessed the birth of a new Red Religion. Not the tired old Christian cliches they defeated back in the ’60s, but a new faith based on cultural identity and outright rejection of the Blue Faith.
For the first time in decades, voters explicitly rejected the Blue Church, defying hours of daily cultural programming, years of indoctrination from the schools, and dozens of explicit warnings from HR.
We’ve been trained since childhood to obey the pretty people on TV, but for the first time in decades, that didn’t work.
Donald Trump won because flyover America wants their culture back, and Blue Team has not been rejected like that before.
The younger ones have grown up in an environment where Blue Faith assumptions cannot even be questioned, except anonymously by the bad kids on Twitter.
But now the bad kids are getting bolder, posting funny memes that make you laugh even though John Oliver would not approve, like passing crude dirty pictures under the table in Sunday School.
Meryl Streep is panicking because for the first time voters have rejected HER, and everything her faith has taught her to believe.
As I noted before, this is not the same as classical conservatism — it is not socially-conservative Christian values, it is an altogether new social expression that takes the rejection of pluralism as emancipatory-as-such.
It self-consciously positions itself outside of the conventional norms of mainstream discourse, and that act itself is celebrated as a jubilant expression of boundary-breaking.
Before you avert your eyes, I want to point out something important, which I don’t think has been widely appreciated before.
The way this movement operates was anticipated by counter-culture movements in the 90s, exemplified by people like John Perry Barlow and Hakim Bey, who predicted that a new form of social space would be created by the Internet, with a completely novel set of underlying dynamics, which the traditional establishment would be completely unable to understand or control. Sound familiar?
From Bey’s influential “The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism“:
Everything in nature is perfectly real including consciousness, there’s absolutely nothing to worry about. Not only have the chains of the Law been broken, they never existed; demons never guarded the stars, the Empire never got started, Eros never grew a beard.
No, listen, what happened was this: they lied to you, sold you ideas of good & evil, gave you distrust of your body & shame for your prophethood of chaos, invented words of disgust for your molecular love, mesmerized you with inattention, bored you with civilization & all its usurious emotions.
Or take John Perry Barlow’s much-loved A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace:
Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours. We did not invite you. You do not know us, nor do you know our world. Cyberspace does not lie within your borders. Do not think that you can build it, as though it were a public construction project. You cannot. It is an act of nature and it grows itself through our collective actions.
You have not engaged in our great and gathering conversation, nor did you create the wealth of our marketplaces. You do not know our culture, our ethics, or the unwritten codes that already provide our society more order than could be obtained by any of your impositions.
You claim there are problems among us that you need to solve. You use this claim as an excuse to invade our precincts. Many of these problems don’t exist. Where there are real conflicts, where there are wrongs, we will identify them and address them by our means. We are forming our own Social Contract. This governance will arise according to the conditions of our world, not yours. Our world is different.
Notice the tone and the style. Then compare it with notjaffo’s statement above.
From the DeploraBall FAQ:
Q: Are you an alt-right group?
A: I don’t think we qualify as a group. We are a ragtag band of tech savvy creatives and INDIVIDUALS who work on projects together… me the person typing can’t answer for anyone else I work with, but I don’t think any of them have formed into a group. Plus groups have membership requirements, I’ll defer to Groucho: “ I DON’T WANT TO BELONG TO ANY CLUB THAT WILL ACCEPT PEOPLE LIKE ME AS A MEMBER.”
The digital revolution has come at last, but it does not bring with it the values we’d hoped for. Where we had hoped for play and connection, they delivered authoritarianism and xenophobia.
Their dynamics are fluid and improvisational, and they laugh at contradiction and constraint. If you fact-check them, they will only laugh harder, because you don’t get the joke.
2. We are not post-phase-transition, we are far-from-equilibrium
This is the alt-right, the Trump Insurgency, and they have only a superficial similarity to the mainstream GOP, with whom they are often at war.
The Trump Insurgency represents a new challenge to prevailing institutions of state, finance, and media, and is, by and large, opposed to status quo structures as such. As Greenhall puts it:
In ordinary politics, an elected candidate is expected to integrate with and make relatively small fine-tuning changes to the existing state apparatus and the mass of career bureaucrats that make up most of the actual machinery of government (AKA the “deep state”). Thus, while the Obama Administration might differ quite significantly from the Bush Administration in political theory and intent, the actual impact of theses differences on the real trajectory of the “ship of state” is relatively small.
My assessment is that the Trump Insurgency has identified the Deep State itself as its central antagonist and is engaged in a direct existential conflict with it.
Insofar as the mainstream GOP also desires to torch federal regulatory agencies and the social contract, they make common cause, but that’s it. Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and the other of the barking dogs of the GOP are not anti-globalization, they’re pro-globalization, with the understanding that America should be hegemonically pre-eminent, per their embrace of American Exceptionalism. When Trump tries to burn down the framework of internationalism, he’s trying to burn down the house that they live in.
Their fundamental differences of ideology and purpose place them at odds far more than their shared interest in deregulation and regressive taxation hold them together. More importantly, Ryan and McConnell will never understand the point I have made above. They will never understand the nature of the Trump Insurgency, or its novel dynamics.
This weak coalition is currently held together only by a fragile compromise, but the things the Trump Insurgency adores, the mainstream GOP hates — the bald lies, the madness, the extremes, the drama, the leap from position to contradictory position.
It is a weak coalition of locked-together elements that are in extreme tension, because they are moving in opposite directions. And the tenor of recent events is a direct reflection of this.
The body politic is in an extreme state of turbulence, it is far-from-equilibrium, and systems under that condition are multi-stable until they settle into a new stable homeostasis. That is, they leap from center to center, suddenly, all at once, until the whole thing collapses and takes new shape.
That collapse and re-ordering is the phase transition that Greenhall is looking for, but I think we are not there yet — I think we’re in the turbulent times that precede it.
3. THE ENEMY IS VULNERABLE
The GOP has swept the federal government, and two dozen states. They appear to be unstoppable. They are not, because they are or soon will be at war with themselves.
They will attempt to hold the whole thing together to ram as much of their regressive billionaire ideology through as they can before the whole thing goes to hell, but they cannot, because the contradictions of their coalition are extreme. This madness we’re seeing is not just caused by Trump’s ineptitude and apparent derangement, although that plays a key part — it is also the unraveling of the newly-installed ruling coalition.
The mainstream GOP will never understand the alt-right, and the alt-right views the mainstream GOP itself as the problem.
Trump’s inauguration address:
For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished — but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered — but the jobs left, and the factories closed.
The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs; and while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.
He is not just talking about Obama, he is talking about the Republican-controlled Congress as well, and they know it.
The fault lines are there, and the tension is explosive. They are far, far from a stable state.
It is not that the right is strong, it is that the left is weak. Corbyn, Hollande, Clinton, Merkel — weak. Trump? Le Pen? Boris Johnson and Farage? These are silly people. Absurd. The right is weak, and it is vulnerable.
Their coalition is founded on contradictions. Anti-establishment versus establishment. Libertarian versus social conservativism. Neoconservative versus unilateralist nationalism. The GOP wants to expand US supremacy in global trade and security, the Trump Insurgency wants to end it. Steven Bannon and Paul Ryan have nothing in common.
HAMMER AT IT, force them to confront the paradox of their own position. Trump is trying to burn down the house that most of the GOP lives in, do not let them forget it. Bring it to the fore. Force the issue. Push for trade policy to come to the front of the agenda. Confront the mainstream party with the absurdity of the alt-right at every opportunity. Push them on Trump’s weird man-crush on Putin and moves toward lifting sanctions. Don’t let them forget he compared the CIA to Nazis.
Demand that the Republican congress respond to and answer for Trump’s statements.
DO NOT waste time confronting the alt-right with facts, moral judgement, or refutations — IT IS WHAT DRIVES THEM.