À la recherche du Trump perdu

Political Grief and Looking to the Past

A running theme in reactions to Trump’s election has been looking to past predictors, people who seem to have been so prescient that they “saw Trump coming.” Three paragraphs from Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country (1998) uncannily sketched out the conditions that would lead to the rise of an American strongman type. After going viral on Twitter, they occasioned a New York Times piece explaining the phenomenon.

From Richard Rorty, Achieving Our Country

But Rorty is only one figure who seems to have had intimations of Donald Trump. Alex Ross finds that various Frankfurt School figures predicted Trump, while Pankaj Mishra looks to Rousseau. Several sources have claimed that Elia Kazan and Bud Schulberg’s 1957 film A Face in the Crowd foreshadows Trump’s rise to power. In it, Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith) rises from drifter to radio personality to TV star to fascist-leaning political power player by posing as a folksy populist. Paddy Chayevsky and Sidney Lumet’s Network and Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, two works which are almost always trotted out to explain actual news networks and why it (fascism, of course) can happen here, were served up again. 16 years ago, The Simpsons literally predicted that Donald Trump would be president.

Looking to the past seems like a natural reaction to an event that, as we keep hearing, “no one saw coming.” Indeed, it seems like the only available reaction. Now that our confidence in predictive tools like polling has failed, it’s only natural that we look to the past, to those who were able to see what we were not. Of course, half of American voters (give or take two million) tried to do just that. There were people who had good reason to think Trump would win. They said he would over and over. But for liberals, Never Trumpers, and the like, such an outcome felt impossible and still feels impossible, despite its having happened.

This sense of unreality, the feeling that the impossible had happened, was, in the week or so following election night, explained by way of the Kübler-Ross model, the “Five Stages of Grief.” In pinning their hopes on a recount or a procedural overturning of the result or an act of God, those aghast at a Trump victory were supposedly in the “Denial” stage, and, by this logic, on their way to the final stage, “Acceptance.” What I find flawed in this admittedly attractive model, one meant to explain the felt effects of what may be a political catastrophe, is that it naturalizes the very event whose freakishness it means to emphasize. If “Denial” is the natural result of our grief over political loss, then our “Acceptance” of the coming order, whatever it looks like, will be the sign of our health and maturity, the reconciliation of our internal strife with the texture of “reality.”

The Kübler-Ross model, in other words, seems like a way to make sense of a painful loss, but it sets out a course in which whatever happens will feel inevitable. It is here, where the distressing feeling of unreality soothes itself with models of inevitability, that political grief meets the search for prescience. Both impulses, to formalize internal strife through a theory of political grief and to search the past for cultural figures who foresaw the present, concretize our circumstances and the future that will proceed from them into a wholly determined situation. Taken together, these views suggest our present circumstances are the politically inevitable consequence of liberal democracy itself, and that they are best dealt by “accepting” them, painful as they are, as though they were the only available reality.

This reconciliation to what could be a true emergency, especially for the most vulnerable members of our society, risks confirming our health at the cost of our political imagination. Even those of us most troubled by what is shaping up to be a historically awful presidency may find ourselves privately and subtly “normalizing” aberrant political conditions. This is not to say that we should reject the results of the election and refuse to formally recognize Donald Trump as the next president. Rather we should maintain watch over our own attitudes and attempt to retain the sense of unreality, of nightmarishness, of it-actually-happened-hereness.

Psychic self-maintenance will not, of course, fix whatever political problems may come. But, though we can foresee many possible futures, many possible disasters, we do not know the shape of the future, the shape of the disaster, if there is a disaster (or a future, for that matter). In terms of contesting, resisting, rejecting, and taking concrete steps to undo whatever damage Trump tries to do, that work is still hypothetical. For now, it seems important (not to say comforting) to repeat that the present and the future emerging from it are not as determined as it may seem, that the future’s indeterminacy is the only certainty we have.