The Rage of Caliban: Identity Politics, the Travel Ban, and the Shifting Ideological Framework of the Resistance
The travel ban was a test, and not only with regard to the mechanisms of America’s judicial politics and constitutional law. It was a test of the basic ideological preparedness of a nation that has spent most of its time trying not to imagine a Trump presidency, and must now shape that sentiment, as quickly as possible, into the groundwork of a credible resistance. While our justice system appears to have passed the test, at least for the time being, our first attempts at resistance reveal a nation struggling in thought and action to frame the larger case against Trump. Obviously, such a case does exist, and there should be no question at this point that our feelings of imminent danger are justified. It’s just that the narrative we’ve been telling each other to explain and act on those feelings — the Love vs. Hate narrative passed down to us by Democratic leadership — is so grossly simplistic, so troublingly inconsistent, and so profoundly at odds with the reality of this danger, that we become ally to the very forces we are fighting against each time we tell it.
That we ever conceded to tell this kind of narrative in the first place is testament to the considerable investment we made this year trying to insert ourselves into the spectacle of the election. NPR’s Sam Sanders, writing on the intersection of pop culture and politics, gives some telling examples of the way campaign strategies in 2016 were tailored to the social media experience, to a degree surpassing any previous election cycle. For anybody with a Facebook account, this will not come as a surprise — nor is it all bad news. There is no doubt that social media allowed Americans to engage with the news like never before, bringing the election to each other’s attention at all times of day and night, so that we could react immediately to each new development as it unfolded. It’s just that it wasn’t always the news we were reacting to, as conversations devolved into more and more heated exchanges directed at one another’s credibility, privilege, and right to speak.
While the American public sphere was originally built, for better or worse, on mechanisms of representation that were meant to continuously renew the link between manifestations of public power and those of public interest, the new hypermedia political experience invites us instead to align our self-interest — and, at a deeper level, our very sense of self — with this or that candidate, this or that hermetic and complete image of The Good. In effect, the public sphere has ceased operating according to the designs of representative democracy. Instead — and this is no accident — it runs on powerful mechanisms of identification borrowed directly from commercial culture (lifestyle advertising, mainstream cinema and television, etc.) that respond to our search for a more complete life by drawing us into more and more complete (because more imaginary) structures of self-and-world.
A blessing and a curse, to be sure, especially when it all blew up in our faces. Now that the election is over, the Love vs. Hate narrative has devolved the American left into a singular moral crisis of its own, a crisis of our own making, and one that jeopardizes all efforts to organize our collective agency into something more effective than an irreproachable self-image at the center of a simplified moral universe, where power circulates always beyond the horizon of our faculties of observation and analysis. We must respond to this new crisis head on, by creating a new and more credible account of the events as we know them, a narrative that will come to terms not only with the danger presented by Trump, but with the forces that vaulted him into power, as well as the blinding force of our own shock and dismay. Because they are the same forces.
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Even the discontents went to sleep on November 8th under the impression that they were putting a bizarre and exhausting election season behind them, that, in spite of a few eleventh-hour hiccups, we would all wake up in the morning, look into the mirror, and find the triumphant image of Hillary Clinton smiling back at us. In the cosmic scheme of things, and according to a moral system that has been effectively holding the liberal worldview together since at least the 90s, this was the only acceptable outcome of the 2016 election. Electing our first woman president was more than just a milestone in progressive politics. It was the causa finalis of an American century. It was the finish line.
The fact that the candidate was also a committed political realist and Third Way centrist with broad support among educated conservatives, not to mention endorsements from outspoken neocons like Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan — who co-authored a set of policy recommendations with Michèle Flournoy well in advance of Clinton’s presumed victory — just served to make the prize appear more tantalizingly within reach. Would Texas also go blue? Why not? History was on our side. Many mainstream journalists joined the rank-and-file in putting all question of a Clinton win behind them in order to focus on the moral imperative of a landslide victory, as if such an outcome might be the only way to cleanse the American public sphere of dark and noxious forces — forces so dark and so noxious that we would be foolish to call them by any other name but “Hate.”
What we awoke to on November 9th was barely comprehensible at first: a face, and at the same time, by virtue of its bright orange impossibility, the complete absence of a face. A gaping hole in the whole logic of the mirror. The shock has been so great that many Democrats are still standing in front of the mirror to this day, raising their fists and vowing with all the rage of Caliban to defy that image forever.
To be sure, from a certain point of view, the outcome of the 2016 election makes absolutely no sense. The Rust Belt swinging red? The party of Roosevelt at odds with the working class? A majority of white women voting for Trump? While we are all familiar by now with the story told by exit polls — it’s the working class, stupid! — this story continues to elude many party elites and rank-and-file Democrats. It simply has no place in a teleological worldview that already sees itself standing just one step away from the end of history. That the discontents of neoliberalism should express themselves in a gesture of such suicidal resolve — the election of a candidate who is arguably the most dangerous conman in American history — makes the new political landscape all the more difficult to navigate. And yet it remains obstinately and darkly in place, asserting itself by means of a hundred Facebook posts per day, right smack in the middle of our understanding of the world. In this sense, the ascent of Trump is something much worse than an incomprehensible state of affairs. For many, it is a gaping hole in reality that threatens to bring down all meaning-bearing structures around it. It is the very definition of trauma.
What to do now? How to fight this most honest and unflattering portrait of America? Smash the mirror? Blame ze Russians? And then what? More protests? More resistance? More art? Our first reactions to Trump’s surprise victory have amounted to a form of resistance aimed not at Trump himself, nor anything he represents, but at the precipitous loss of an idealized self-image built on the promise of a Clinton victory. Now, as we come at last to exhaust the resources of our denial and open our eyes to the real stakes of the election, it is evident that the most urgent questions have yet to be asked, perhaps because they are both deceptively simple and brazenly inopportune: What exactly are we fighting against? Who are we fighting for? What is it that we want?
By way of example, we can start with the recent protests at airports nationwide in support of foreign nationals from seven countries banned entry to the United States on the dubious premise that it will make our country more secure against terrorism. In this case we are fighting not only against Trump, not only against an executive order that unconstitutionally targets certain groups on the basis of their nationality. More importantly, we are fighting against Islamophobia and racism in the broader sense, which is to say, against the normalization of all those dark and noxious forces that emerged in 2016 as byproduct of Trump’s inflammatory campaign rhetoric.
But Islamophobia is not the same thing as racism, just as fascism is not the same thing as Hate. Any effective resistance to Trump’s agenda will have to go much further than the official opposition rhetoric that invites us to conflate these things. We will have to expand our anger to neocons like Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan, for example, who are largely to blame for creating Islamophobia in the first place as byproduct of their ongoing War on Terror — a grotesque and never-ending PR extravaganza that aims only to dress up America’s strategic interests in the Middle East as an asymmetrical freedom-struggle against a culturally backwards enemy.
And it doesn’t stop there. In his 2014 book on the causes of Islamophobia, Arun Kundnani argues that “Neoconservatism invented the terror war, but Obama liberalism normalised it, at which point, mainstream journalists stopped asking questions.” To the extent that we are protesting on behalf of refugees from Syria, Libya, and Iraq — to the extent that our outrage over the detainment of Muslims at the US border must logically extend to the 4 million civilian casualties of the wars they are fleeing — our actions against the travel ban will necessarily take us beyond Trump, beyond even the neocon think tank that created this mess. #TheResistance will take us right back where we started, to the doorstep of a hawkish Third Way politics that, while we were busy not asking questions, were doing everything in their power not to stop the expansion of the War on Terror.
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There is something uniquely “post” about the rage of Caliban, the refusal to see one’s own unflattering image in the mirror. No sooner have we raised our fists at Trump than we find them shaking in our own faces. And this means that Trump, swooping in like some sleazy carpetbagger with a bill of goods, can derive political advantage from our very opposition to him. He doesn’t have to raise a finger. We saw this during the primaries, we saw it during the general election, and we will see it again and again, from the travel ban to the border wall, and from pay-to-play Wall Street cronyism to the Dakota Access Pipeline to James Clapper’s perennial lapses of intelligence, until we don’t have the strength to face the punches any more.
The solution to this diabolical predicament is not to lower our fists, but to know a little more exactly where we are trying to land our punches — to name a little more honestly, beyond the provincial opportunism of a carpetbagger like Trump, the juggernaut of neoliberal forces we are actually fighting against. Above all, as The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald recently suggested, we should avoid falling prey to the illusion that Trump’s right-wing movement enjoys broad support among the American electorate. He is no more and no less than the face of our own cynicism, the truth of our own political realism, struggling to make its way up from dark primordial depths (where we have condemned it) into the blinking neon light of the American consciousness. He is the sum of all the energy we expended this election season trying to protect ourselves from the evidence that Third Way politics has also got it terribly wrong — and not just with regard to so-called “liberal interventionsim.”
The problem is that we wanted so badly to be right. We wanted to be right and we wanted the outcome of the 2016 election to prove it for once and for all. Not right with a question mark, not right with a shrug, but self-evidently right, right before there can be any complicated discussion of the things we are right about, right beyond all justifiable cause to challenge our rightness. Right like we used to be right. We have grown so accustomed to being right all the time, so attached to an impossibly ideal liberal self-image beyond all reproach, that we will now sacrifice everything to keep this image intact, starting with our own moral consistency and proceeding all the way down, one sacrifice after the other, to the very lives of the people we claim to be fighting for.
It was this overweening desire to be right that made us so vulnerable to the treacly slogans and cynical gamesmanship of the Democratic Party establishment, who believed in the end that it would be easier — because more consistent with the moneyed interests and global forces that underwrite their power — to trick us into voting for them, rather than acting as responsible stewards of our political process or faithful representatives of our will.
And this brings us back to the most diabolical predicament of all. For the purpose of winning our votes while advancing a neoliberal agenda opposed to our interests, Third Way Democrats have appropriated and transformed identity politics, emptying it of all substantive content and building it back up again as a flashy celebrity-driven PR tool that bears little resemblance to the radical Civil Rights era discourse on which it was founded. Obviously, there is no reason to attack the new discourse at face value. It was designed expressly as a rhetorical system that cannot (and should not) be attacked. Like so many other aspects of the postmodern public sphere, the problem lies elsewhere: in the form and not in the content.
What the new identity politics gives us — or, more aptly, the new way of doing identity politics — is a medium in which to organize all our political will around the more and more complete expression of our rightness. While this may seem to alleviate the symptoms of post-election trauma — while the cathartic outpouring of liberal rage may serve momentarily to obliterate the thousand faces of Trump that stare back at us from our Facebook feed — it does absolutely nothing to change our situation, except perhaps to strengthen Trump’s position against us. It is a trap, tailor-made for a public sphere dominated everywhere by commercial culture, and conditioned by social media to engage with the world in a way that makes no distinction between the self and external objects. Third Way Democrats, like Trump, discovered this weakness during the 2016 election and built an entire campaign around exploiting it, with the result that we must now build an entire movement from scratch, in a public sphere where the mechanisms of political power have never been farther afield of the public interest that is supposed to underwrite them.
But the argument over whether or not it is time for Democrats to abandon identity politics seems rather beside the point. Insofar as we are talking here about identity politics as just another strategy for winning elections, it most certainly should be abandoned, along with every other cheap trick the political establishment may still believe, in their infinite cynicism, can possibly save them from doing their job in good faith. Perhaps a better solution, and one that is imminently within our grasp, is to bring an end to all our discussions regarding what the establishment should or should not do; to act and think only in ways that presume from the beginning that the state and its authority are no more than the formal extension of our own power into the public sphere. In this case, the place for issues faced by the marginalized and dispossessed is absolutely central — they are our guiding light. Or, to put it more strongly, in a political landscape where politicians routinely exploit issues of social identity to turn the dispossessed against each other, the only way out — the only way that does not lead us further down the dark road of fascism — is the return to a Civil Rights era version of social and economic justice that aims at the systematic radicalization of the dispossessed across the entire American electorate against a neoliberal political establishment that has united against us.
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Watching a similar situation unfold in 1930s Germany, cultural theorist Walter Benjamin was struck by the idea that the most visible characteristics of fascism — race-thinking, personality-worship, anti-intellectualism, nationalism, etc. — are all just surface phenomena of the final and total transformation of all human life into an instrument for the production of capital. “Fascism sees its salvation in giving the masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves,” he writes. “The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property.”
This sleight of hand is now the defining characteristic of both major parties. What else is the Southern Strategy, in its classic formulation, but the cynical use of conservative social politics to trick the white working class into voting for their own exploitation? Is it really so surprising that the political system that brought us endless war across the Middle East is now seeking political profit in the consequences of those wars?
But that’s all water under the bridge. If Trump turns out to be the most honest portrait of American cynicism, it will not be because 2016 was the year the Southern Strategy spun out of control, but because Democrats, instead of addressing the problem of exploitation, decided smugly that it would be a good idea to come up with a Strategy of their own. The most effective resistance to Trump’s America — the only credible resistance — will be the one that tells this story.
Peter Gaffney is a freelance writer with bylines in Salon, Alternet and Counterpunch. He has taught courses on the theory and history of visual culture and the public sphere at University of Pennsylvania, Haverford College and The Curtis Institute of Music. He tweets @PeterDGaffney.
Originally published at www.counterpunch.org on February 16, 2017.