Archive for Thomas Jefferson

The Wolf’s Ears

Posted in Dispatches with tags , , , , , on October 3, 2020 by Magadh

Communique #2 from the Kommando Rudi Dutschke:

 

The Wolf’s Ears

Thomas Jefferson once famously wrote of slavery, “But, as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” Jefferson’s relationship to slavery had numerous problematic elements, from his nonconsensual sexual relationship with Sally Hemmings, to his predication of freedom for the slaves on their expatriation, to his view that the Missouri Compromise would make slaves happier because they would be more spread out. Still, it expresses something important about at least one species of southern thought about the question.

We mention this neither to in any way lessen the guilt attaching to Jefferson for his engagement in the slave system, nor to make any apology whatever for the failure of southerners (or Americans generally) to concede to enslaved people their fundamental and inalienable rights to freedom and dignity. Rather, we think that, mutatis mutandis, it goes some way toward answering the question of why it is that so many otherwise self-regarding figures in the Republican Party seem so willing to join Mr. Trump in spiraling the bowl.

Mr. Trump is a symptom of what the Republicans have become in the years since the Eisenhower administration. Chased into the wastelands of opposition by Lyndon Johnson, the Republican right turned toward the fanatical conservatism of Barry Goldwater, as the party was colonized by cadres from John Birch Society and the Heritage Foundation. The goal was to combat the combination of increased willingness among northeastern “elites” to collaborate with the moderate liberalism of Johnson and other conservative Democrats, along with the association of liberalism with improved economic conditions during the long postwar boom.

The central thrust of this strategy was to get Americans in the middle and lower segments of the income distribution to vote against their economic interests by convincing them of increasing dangers posed by brown people and communism. Their efforts found fertile soil in American culture, in which systematic racism and fanatic anti-communism were already widespread, even among those who did not regard them as primary bases for electoral choice. By bringing these considerations to the fore, the right-wing of the Republican party created a pullulating mass of xenophobic angst and anger, ready to respond to the dangers posed by Willie Horton and cultural Marxism.

More moderate segments of the party viewed the activists of the rightward fringe as allies, even if they did not follow them down the rabbit hole of paranoid xenophobia. Although fanatical and paranoid anti-communism was well-establish in both parties from the 1920s, there was a point at which it was still possible to distinguish a moderate “mainstream” Republican doctrine that was wrong-headed without being simply insane. Much as it is difficult to believe now, there was a time when most Republicans would have been unwilling to don tinfoil hats and publicly espouse the view that fully a fifth of babies born in the U.S. were kidnapped, used for sex slavery and/or eaten (by liberals).

The ideological project created during and after the failure of Goldwater’s presidential candidacy metastasized during the era of social media. While the devotees of the most lunatic portions of QAnon and its adjacent ideologies (birtherism, Oh God they’re coming for your guns, etc.) still represent a minority even among conservatives, they still constitute a large enough segment of the politically active part of the party to have decisive effects in primary elections for anyone who doesn’t toe the line. Thus, the madness of the party has become self-selecting. Mr. Trump, as has so often been the case in the course of his life, was born on third base and thought he hit a triple. He clearly believes that he has called a political movement into being, when in fact he is simply the avatar of a political pathogen that has been brewing in the pores of the Republican Party for decades.

Mr. Trump’s support base within the party comprises four distinct but overlapping parts: lower and lower middle-class whites won over by a combination of xenophobia and Horatio Alger fairy stories, white evangelicals convinced that the Democratic Party is the embodiment of antichrist, white suburbanites who fear that they will be forced to leave near nonwhites (threatening home values and the sexual sanctity of their wives and daughters), and the hyperwealthy who will simply vote for whoever promises the set capital gains taxes at the lowest level.

Thomas Friedman, the leading running dog of the New York Times opinion page had one of his rare lucid moments the other day when he asserted that many of Trump’s supporters a drawn not so much to the things that he says but to the manner of his rejection of liberal elites and others that they regard as too clever. He then receded into his extreme centrist fantasy world in which the main problem of politics in the United States is the haughty attitude of the smart toward the stupid. But there is a salient point to be gleaned there.

The problem of Trumpism is twofold. First, there is a hard core of partisans whose symbolic order has been colonized by (or intertwined with) Trump as master signifier. Then there is the bulk of the Republican Party, many of whom view Mr. Trump as the bumbling clown that he is, but who have lost whatever connection they may have had to the metanorm of liberal democracy that sees maintenance of the overarching institutional structure as a good in itself. These two nodes are then surrounded by human shoals whose subjectivities have been rewritten to a greater or lesser degree by the obligate feeder algorithm of which Mr. Trump is the primary avatar.

Thus, the core of the modern Republican Party comprises (almost exclusively) zealots and cynics. Many of the latter would probably like to get rid of Mr. Trump, but all are aware that deviance on the question of what the emperor is wearing is likely to result in unfortunate political consequences for both person and party. And so, Mr. Trump has metastasized from parvenu éhonté to a political virus likely to cause liberal democracy to mutate into a variant of Putinism with Upper West Side pretensions.

This is perhaps not a desirable outcome for at least some among the Republican faithful. But it is one that they can certainly live with. It presents the prospect of accumulation of capital untrammeled by the importunate graspings of the lower order conducted under the cover of an aggressive, preening white nationalism employed as a tool to keep the lower orders onside, whether via cooptation or repression. The momentary eddies and disruptions in the stream by the like of the Lincoln Project and others among the rare breed of “never Trump” Republicans are the political equivalent of a serial killer sending the cops a note reading, “Please stop me before I kill again.”

All this might have been different if the left had not been prevented by petit-bourgeois squeamishness and a fondness for soft targets (primarily each other) from undertaking their own project of colonization. It is one of the true ironies of modern American politics that Antifa groups, mostly comprising people in black hoodies and vegan shoes sitting around smoking dope and watching South Park reruns, have been elevated to the status of ruthless and powerful conspirators. No more compelling metonym for the utter capitulation of the left could possibly be conceived.

Like Max Weber, writing a century ago, we do not who what sort of human type will be produced by the “case, hard as steel” that society will be transformed into by Trumpism triumphant. Perhaps, as Weber speculated, “at the end of this tremendous development entirely new prophets will arise, or there will be a great rebirth of old ideas and ideals, or, if neither, mechanized petrifaction, embellished with a sort of convulsive self-importance.” In the future, we may find ourselves longing for something so harmless as Weber’s “specialists without spirit” and “sensualists without heart.” What is certain is that it will be a nullity that believes it has achieved humanity’s crowning glory.