Forum — From the February 2017 issue

Trump: A Resister’s Guide

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The Dream of the Enemy

By Corey Robin

While I was fearing it, it came,
     But came with less of fear,
Because that fearing it so long
     Had almost made it dear.
                — Emily Dickinson

Gazing back on the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s wife is turned into a pillar of salt. Why? Other characters in the Bible disobey God without meeting the same fate. Perhaps it is her irrepressible interest in the destruction she has been spared — her sense that the evil she has left behind is more real than the possibilities that beckon — that dooms her. Instructed to choose life over death, Lot’s wife opts to find life in death. The known past is more compelling than the promised future. Hence the salt — a substance that suspends time, that preserves things by drying them out.

Illustrations by Taylor Callery

Illustrations by Taylor Callery

As liberals and leftists confront the reality of a Trump Administration, they will face a similar question of orientation. Will they oppose Trump in the name of a transformative vision that lies beyond him — a multiracial social democracy that emancipates all men and women from the fetters of caste and class? Or will they look on Trump’s America with an apprehension, born of fear and fascination, that its ravages are realer, more in sync with the deep and ugly truths of the world, than whatever story of progress they can muster in reply? Will they welcome every act of Trump’s brutality as a revelation of our national whole? Will they make of themselves a pillar of salt?

Twenty years ago, the Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit argued that liberals couldn’t — and shouldn’t try to — erect a “decent society” on the foundation of positive ideals like justice and rights and equality. Instead, they should raise their edifices of decency on the cold, hard ground of humiliation. Negative experiences provide sturdier foundations for liberalism, he wrote, because it is “easier to identify humiliating than respectful behavior, just as it is easier to identify illness than health.” Terrible as they are, unhappy experiences — other liberal philosophers of the era would throw cruelty, suffering, and fear into the mix — are more intelligible and thus more credible than the traditional ideals of the left. It is easier to huddle around the campfire of our dread than to mass and march toward a distant light. We can believe in political atrocities in a way that we cannot believe in universal brotherhood and sisterhood. Indeed, the beauty of atrocities is that we need not believe in them at all. They’re just there, the world’s fundament, waiting for us to build on them.

So we have. In the 1990s and the 2000s, we assembled elaborate complexes of liberal theory on the killing fields of Rwanda and the Balkans and on the Eurasian plains. More than a decade later, we’ve forgotten how much the liberal imagination was seized by ethnic cleansing and genocide and Salafist and Saddamist terror. It was Michael Ignatieff, liberalism’s action intellectual, who declared,

The idea of human universality rests less on hope than on fear, less on optimism about the human capacity for good than on dread of human capacity for evil, less on a vision of man as maker of his history than of man the wolf toward his own kind.

Liberalism has needed evil for some time, at least since the end of the Cold War. While the Obama years saw the occasional reprieve from these demands — the 2008 election, the Occupy movement, and the Bernie Sanders campaign were all marked by a sense that politics might be a forward march rather than a rearguard view — the politics of fear has now come home in the form of Donald Trump. He is our native 9/11.

A liberalism that needs monsters to destroy can never politically engage with its enemies. It can never understand those enemies as political actors, making calculations, taking advantage of opportunities, and responding to constraints. It can never see in those enemies anything other than a black hole of motivation, a cesspool where reason goes to die. Hence the refusal of empathy for Trump’s supporters. Insofar as it marks a demand that we not abandon antiracist principle and practice for the sake of winning over a mythicized white working class, the refusal is unimpeachable. But like the know-nothing disavowal of knowledge after 9/11, when explanations of terrorism were construed as exonerations of terrorism, the refusal of empathy since 11/9 is a will to ignorance. Far simpler to imagine Trump voters as possessed by a kind of demonic intelligence, or anti-intelligence, transcending all the rules of the established order. Rather than treat Trump as the outgrowth of normal politics and traditional institutions — it is the Electoral College, after all, not some beating heart of darkness, that sent Trump to the White House — there is a disabling insistence that he and his forces are like no political formation we’ve seen. By encouraging us to see only novelty in his monstrosity, analyses of this kind may prove as crippling as the neocons’ assessment of Saddam’s regime. That, too, was held to be like no tyranny we’d seen, a despotism where the ordinary rules of politics didn’t apply and knowledge of the subject was therefore useless.

Such a liberalism becomes dependent on the very thing it opposes, with a tepid mix of neoliberal markets and multicultural morals getting much-needed spice from a terrifying right. Hillary Clinton ran hard on the threat of Trump, as if his presence were enough to authorize her presidency. Where Sanders promised to change the conversation, to make the battlefield a contest between a multicultural neoliberalism and a multiracial social democracy, Clinton sought to keep the battlefield as it has been for the past quarter-century. In this single respect, she can claim a substantial victory. It’s no accident that one of the most spectacular confrontations since the election pitted the actors of Hamilton against the tweets of Trump. These fixed, frozen positions — high on rhetoric, low on action — offer an almost perfect tableau of our ongoing gridlock of recrimination.

Clinton waged this campaign on the belief that her neoliberalism of fear could defeat the ethnonationalism of the right. Let us not make the same mistake twice. Let us not be addicted to “the drug of danger,” as Athena says in the Oresteia, to “the dream of the enemy that has to be crushed, like a herb, before [we] can smell freedom.”

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December 2018


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