“Do you denounce Trump?,” in some form or another, has been a common cry for over five years now. To my dismay this has been true in the spaces usually associated with the radical left as well as more explicitly Democratic environments. I have myself denounced Trump, in writing, a dozen times, and I held my nose and voted for the guy the liberals wanted. It’s never enough. Not because of a difference of policy, or even of politics, but of affect. I and others are constantly asserted to be Trump-adjacent because we have not gone through the performance of panic and devastation that liberals have demanded for half a decade.
The essential point I want to make here is this: elite liberals, as a class used to comfortable and orderly lives, were massively freaked out by the election of Donald Trump, and what they have demanded in turn is not a new and better political movement but for everyone else to be freaked out too. The cries of “this is not normal!” were always quite vulgar as well as wrong - reactionary demagogues have always been a major force in American politics, thank you - and revealed a caste of people for whom political discourse had become indistinguishable from group therapy. And if you declined to participate in the yelling, even if you openly rejected Trump and his party, you were held up as a agent of Trumpism. Feel the way that we feel or you will be exiled.
Conversations about how left critics of Democrats underestimate the danger Trump represents are never really about what we might ordinarily recognize as substantive political disagreements. They are about the fact that many of those left critics refused to devolve into the primal-scream-therapy histrionics that liberal Dems themselves did. Elite liberals are not used to their worlds being shaken by political events, even after Democratic losses, and are deeply habituated to a certain sort of propriety and order in how politics operate. Republicans have always been dangerous monsters, but Trump failed to couch his bigotry in the genteel terms expected in our discourse, and this offended the Ivy League sensibilities of media and political elites. When some people within their orbit were found not to share their same fundamentally psychodramatic relationship to current events, those elites got nasty.
All of this is particularly weird because we have the example of a much worse president in living memory. Either of George W. Bush’s terms were objectively more damaging to the country and its marginalized people than Trump’s. Bush got us into a war in Afghanistan that became a 20+ year long quagmire and did not even achieve its immediate aim of finding and killing Osama bin Laden; the country seems likely to fall back into the hands of the Taliban, rendering the entire post-2001 rationale for our presence a farce. Bush got us into Iraq, which killed at least 500,000 Iraqis and probably many more, pushed out millions of refugees, made Abu Ghraib possible, destabilized the entire region, indirectly escalated the Saudi Arabia and Iran conflict, and directly led to the formation of ISIS. Bush presided over the PATRIOT Act and a massive expansion of warrantless surveillance, much of it illegal. Bush permitted the massive civil rights violation of Gitmo. Bush’s legal team justified torture and laid down the legal rationale that enabled Obama’s cruel drone war. Bush was instrumental in passing the single most disastrous failure in national educational policy in this country’s history. Bush let a major American city drown and watched as Black people died in the streets. Bush sat around and did nothing as the conditions for the financial crisis congealed, leading to a national employment depression and the obliteration of generations worth of wealth. George W. Bush was a worse, more destructive president than Donald Trump. The fact that this is opinion is not only disputed, but provokes endless howls of shock and rage from contemporary Democrats, is truly deranged.
Demanding that emotional histrionics be a core part of political identity was first a Boomer thing, I think, but the problem is broader. A big source of distortion in our political debates is that Millennials are constantly casting themselves in their minds as fighting some sort of incredibly cinematic final battle against the fascist enemy - politics again defined in emotional terms. They’re unwilling to do the work if it means recognizing that none of this will ever be dramatic, and that our enemy these days does not wear a brown uniform but rather the smart suits or business casual of the tech and finance sectors. (And who probably voted for Obama.) Events like January 6th or various shenanigans in Portland etc. are catnip to these people, and they tend to express their politics by pinballing constantly between each new camera-ready political event, no matter how marginal the actual consequences. This is no way to live a political life and seems almost tailor made to result in a slouch into numb apoliticism later in life. You can’t keep waiting for the final political victory because there is no final political victory, only the slog. As I have said many times, you will never hang that flag on the Reichstag.
Part of the problem here is that people think that questioning the ultimate valence of highly emotional political events, like BLM protests, is some sort of endorsement of centrism or respectability politics. That is, people think radicalism depends on a belief that high-profile, highly-charged one-off political events can change the world. This is bizarre, especially coming from those who claim to work in the intellectual tradition of Marx and Engels. Marxism asserts the preeminence of fundamental economic structures in the flow of history, not discrete spasms of minor political violence. There is nothing radical about a refusal to think clearly, and I have never heard a coherent left argument for how burning down a CVS or beating up Andy Ngo makes the slightest bit of difference for the course of history. At every stage we must ask “how do our efforts improve the lives of ordinary people?” You are forgiven for experiencing the last five years as a series of traumatic surprises, but your rational mind has to have the composure to understand that politics remains at heart the flow of capital and the large-scale imperialist projects that are undertaken to ensure it. And capital does not need Donald Trump to do its ugly business.
And now we have the January 6th story, on which liberals have hung all their hopes for the mass freakout they seem to desire. I said what I want to about this event here, but it bears repeating that calling it a “coup” or “insurrection” only renders the Democratic position more ridiculous. There is no such thing as a successful coup that does not provoke the support of the military. The risk of that on January 6th was literally zero. So there was no coup. Sure, the event was disturbing, as is what they actually represent - not a fascist takeover, but the way the avatars of capital stoke “populist” rage in a cynical bid to leverage identity politics for the needs of the moneyed. But that means that the actual way to address what happened is to fight against the stranglehold of the pro-capitalist parties. But that is very conspicuously not the conversation Democrats are having. Their desired commissions and investigations will not determine anything of value, and besides, the Justice Department is demonstrating that they have more than enough evidence for prosecution. The rioters are guilty of crimes; they have been arrested. Move on.
Donald Trump will be dead within five years. He has no political heir, and I would argue can have none. Yes, right-wing populism will remain a threat to a left-wing agenda, but that was true before Trump, and had Democrats not nominated one of the least popular politicians in American history in 2016, Trump would be a footnote. The concept of fascism has been so relentlessly overused and blunted in doing so that I no longer have the slightest idea what people mean when they invoke it. Yes, there is always a chance of actual fascism in any era; none of us will live to see the end of fascism. But the most mundane and thus greatest threat to the left-wing project and the people for whom it speaks remains capital, the corporations and individuals who demand rents, capture surplus value, and rule the world through their money and their influence. To defeat them, you need a plan. To have a plan, you have to look forward instead of back. And right now the Democrats strike me as a party that doesn’t know what to do with the power it temporarily has and doesn’t have a coherent vision for what they want to be moving forward. Meanwhile their proxies in the media fixate on Trump relentlessly in a sad bid to keep the good times rolling in a dying industry. If I must denounce Trump, I demand the right to also point out that the Democrats certainly seem to be failing to do what’s necessary to prevent the next Trump, who will likely have a functioning brain and will thus be far more dangerous. Maybe get on that.
Liberal Democrats want the bad things they say they fear to happen; that much is obvious. They would rather the bad things happen and be proven right about the threat than for the bad things not to happen at all. This is porn. It’s all porn.
Trump is bad. He belongs in the Hague. But he has always been a symptom. I have ideas about how best to oppose the political tendency he represents and am happy to share them. But as to the demand to engage in a performance of horror and grief to demonstrate my fealty to a particular social culture: I decline. Panicking never solved a single problem. Sadly, “you must panic!” is the first and truest expression of what contemporary liberalism is in the 21st century. Well, if you want something to panic about, you can panic about this - but then you might actually have to ask if the problem might be with you.