Saturday, May 6, 2017

Second Time as Farce: Trump and Roosevelt

by Frank Brenner 

A wealthy New Yorker moves into the White House, promising radical change. A keynote of his campaign rhetoric is about the country's “forgotten men”, who he promises will be forgotten no longer. Intellectually he's a lightweight and it's obvious that he has no clear idea of what he wants to do once in power. He treats complicated subjects with remarkable glibness. He gathers around him a “brain trust” of powerful, ambitious men. He is a master of using new media to maintain a direct connection with millions of his followers. Early on he assumes what is in all but name dictatorial powers. His government will eventually round up and imprison thousands of 'enemy aliens'. And he will lead the country into war.

No, this isn't Donald Trump – it's Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Since the election, comparisons between Trump and Adolf Hitler have become routine. Novels that anticipated the rise of an American fascism – including Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here and Philip Roth's The Plot Against America – are doing a brisk business. The comparison is understandable and justified given the sinister nature of the Trump campaign – its racist scapegoating and misogyny, instigation of violence and embrace of fascist forces of the alt-right. (1)

But the deeper you go in making that comparison, the more limited it seems. The differences between Trump and the fascist leaders of the Thirties are, if anything, more striking than the similarities. Trump has no worked-out ideology, no Brown or Blackshirts terrorizing the streets, and while he is an A-list celebrity, the widespread scorn and derision he garners shows how far he still is from the fanatical adulation of a fuhrer-cult. Labelling Trump a fascist doesn't explain much. The label long ago lost any precise meaning tied to social class and political program. It now typically functions as a vague synonym for authoritarianism or more commonly a free-floating term of abuse. (2)

The vagueness of the fascist label bespeaks a deeper problem – the disorientation of the left. There is widespread shock and anger over Trump's election but precious little insight or useful analysis. 'Whitelash' was popular as an explanation among liberals and even some radicals immediately after the election, but it simply ignored the millions of workers in rustbelt states who had voted twice for Obama and this time voted for Trump. Or rather it didn't just ignore them, it excoriated them, as in this bit of rhetorical vitriol from the NY Times liberal columnist Paul Krugman on election night: Trump voters “don't share at all our idea of what America is about. For them, it is about blood and soil, about traditional patriarchy and racial hierarchy.” (3)

Sexism also became a favoured explanation: Hillary Clinton lost because she was a woman. Protesting sexism was the main theme of Women's Marches that took place the day after Trump's inauguration. These marches were vivid displays of a left lost in a fog. The turnout was impressive, in the millions, and yet these millions were clueless about what to make of Trump. Slogans like “The Future is Female” or “I'm With Her” were embarrassingly banal. In the march I attended the only whiff of something other than feel-good feminism had to do with the campaign for a $15 an hour minimum wage, but this was very much a sidebar issue.

The notion that it should be a women's march that kicks off the resistance to Trump is already a measure of how far off the mark this resistance is, how clueless it is about why he won. He didn't win because of some conspiracy of the patriarchy, he won because of class issues. And by not addressing those issues, these marches were ignoring millions of women, the ones who voted for Trump – 53 percent of white women overall and 61 percent of white women without a college education, working class women in other words. No doubt many of these women would kick Trump in the groin if he assaulted them in the way he famously bragged about, but they voted for him anyway because other things mattered more to them, above all else economic insecurity. When it comes to these women, it would seem the message from progressives is “I'm NOT With Her”. (4)

*   *   *   *   *

A few words are in order about a layer of left-wing activists and intellectuals for whom this election has been a watershed moment. I'm thinking of the generation that came of age in  the 80s and 90s, shaped by the trifecta of the fall of the Berlin Wall, post-modernism and identity politics. The radicalism of this generation (as compared to traditional Marxism or Sixties radicalism) supplanted grand narratives with petty ones. It wasn't that racism, sexism or homophobia are petty, it's rather that the politics of dealing with those issues became that way. Grand narratives (and obviously I'm thinking of Marxism in particular here) are about freedom, petty narratives are about fairness – within an unfree system. You could make a similar criticism of the politics behind phrases like 'social justice', 'human rights' or 'sustainability'. The vagueness common to all these phrases (weasel words, as they're known in the advertising trade) is a necessary expression of a bad bargain with capitalism.

A bargain, one might add, that few adherents of these ideas are even conscious of having made. The liberal academic Mark Lilla writes about how in recent decades, ideologies (especially of the left) have been “replaced by a soft dogma for which we have no adequate name. This dogma begins with basic liberal principles like the sanctity of the individual, the priority of freedom, and distrust of public authority, and advances no further ... Since it presumes that individuals are all that count, it has next to nothing to say about collectivities and their enterprises, and the duties that come with them. It has a vocabulary for discussing rights and identities and feelings, but not class or other social realities.” As an example of this “soft dogma”, Lilla notes how “race is now largely conceived of as a problem of individual identity, not one of collective destiny requiring individual sacrifice to reach a common goal, as it was by the American civil rights movement.” Feminism has travelled a similar path.

A Marxist would understand the “soft dogma” Lilla is describing as an expression of an atomized political consciousness, and chalk that up to the hollowing out of working class collectivities like unions and the sinking of mainstream left parties into the swamp of neoliberal austerity. It's an atomized consciousness that, as Lilla goes on to say, is “at once anti-political and anti-intellectual. It cultivates no taste for reality, no curiosity about how we got here or where we are going.” Hence a slogan like “The Future is Female”, which advertises a consciousness that has no idea about (or interest in) what the future should be. You could say that Lilla's “soft dogma” is what happens to liberalism in the absence of any pressure on it from a revolutionary left. (5)

This goes some way to explaining Obama's enduring popularity among left-liberals, and their nostalgia for him now that he's gone from the White House. That many of Obama's policies paved the way for Trump doesn't seem to matter. Critical thinking is largely reduced to a 'He may not have been perfect, but' attitude. And soon after the but, some form of the word 'decent' will crop up – a suitably earnest and usefully vague term, ideal for a soft dogma. By these lights even a Wall Street shill like Clinton can begin to look like 'progress'. (6)

This also sheds light on the biggest anomaly of the current political situation: that the return of ideological politics – and specifically the return of class politics – has come not from the left but from the populist right. True, the Bernie Sanders campaign showed that there was a widespread yearning for a more ideological politics on the left, but it's a yearning that got sandbagged by the Democratic Party establishment. By contrast, Sanders's counterpart on the right, Trump, was able to defy his party's establishment and still win the nomination. Underscoring this contrast, Trump was ready to run as an independent if he didn't get the nomination, whereas Sanders fell in line behind Clinton at the convention despite clear evidence that the nomination process had been rigged. The Democratic Party is toxic to the left, but it's a toxic relationship the left seems unable to break free from, like a battered spouse in an abusive marriage. There are many reasons for that, but a major factor is the continuing hold over the left of a consciousness that has “next to nothing to say about collectivities” and “about how we got here and where we are going.”

*     *     *     *     *

In the women's march there was a slogan I saw on some signs, which went something like this: I Can't Believe I Still Have to Deal With This Shit. Of course the sentiment this expressed was aimed at Trump's misogyny and vulgarity, but you could give the slogan a different twist by defining shit in economic terms. For a lot of workers who voted for Trump, their version might read, I Can't Believe I'm Back in the 1930s.

Which brings me back to my comparison of Trump and Franklin Roosevelt.

Let's begin with the word 'deal'. It's a word that crops up a lot in American politics. Before FDR there was the Square Deal (Teddy Roosevelt) and after him the Fair Deal (Harry Truman). Trump has added an aesthetic touch with his book, The Art of the Deal. Not that this is a political program like the other 'deals', it's rather a hodge-podge of how-to-get-rich-quick blather and shameless self-promotion. But since a large part of Trump's electoral appeal was based on his supposed prowess as a deal-maker, we can enlist him in this American political tradition.

Deal is an odd word for politics. You don't hear it anywhere else in the world. Behind it is the notion that politics is like business: voters are 'in the market' for a government, and they 'buy in' to the politician who will give them the best deal. But to state the obvious – or rather what should be obvious in any country where market ideology hasn't become a state religion – this is a debased notion of democracy, and like much else in capitalism, it is a shiny appearance masking an ugly reality. The art of the deal is to make it appear that both sides are winners but this is more the exception than the rule in business or politics. Capitalism is a class society because in the great majority of cases, deals produce winners and losers – and that economic divide has now reached neo-feudal proportions, with society dominated by a super-rich one percent that is an economic aristocracy in all but name.

The paradigm for all deals within capitalism is the deal between worker and boss, with the worker supposedly being paid for his/her labor which the boss uses to make a profit. Of course many workers are paid badly – never more so than now – but the ideal 'deal' for workers within capitalism is 'a fair day's wage for a fair day's work'. Again fairness – not freedom. The ideology of trade unionism can be summed up by this ideal.

And yet it is a swindle that Marx unmasked long ago. Workers aren't paid for their labor but their ability to do work, which is to say whatever it costs to keep body and soul together so as to come back the next day to do more work. If workers were paid for their labor there would be no profits, so profits are unpaid labor – which is why the socialist movements of yesteryear called such work wage slavery. The term now seems a quaint relic of a bygone era – except if you visit an electronics factory in China or a garment factory in Bangla Desh or a meat processing plant in Texas or a WalMart or Apple store in your local shopping mall.

But class consciousness was always a hard sell in a country steeped in individualism. Workers in America were never just workers, they were wannabe millionaires waiting for their lucky break. The way out of economic misery wasn't resistance to capitalism but becoming a capitalist yourself (or, until 2008 anyway, owning real estate). Nowhere else has success been so slavishly worshipped, and ruthless exploiters (from the robber barons of old to their modern descendants like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos) turned into secular saints. Trump has taken this process to a new level, turning worship into political power, and the irony is that even his business success is largely a fraud, just like the miracles of conventional religions. But the myth of America as the land of opportunity explains much about why deal-making remains a powerful political metaphor. It is a myth that is not dead yet, even though social mobility largely is. That myth will only die when workers stop being prisoners of the American dream.

The New Deal was not exactly a swindle. Reforms like Social Security improved millions of people's lives. But there was always a big gap between the reality of the New Deal and its public image, especially the halo it got adorned with in Hollywood movies and popular culture. To this day Roosevelt's name evokes a fuzzy, heart-warming vision of a democratic utopia where decent people (think Jimmy Stewart or Gary Cooper) triumph over the forces of greed and corruption.

The truth was much less inspiring – a pragmatic patchwork of make-work programs and Keynesian economics to save capitalism from itself and quell social unrest. Saving capitalism was decisive, and that's what accounts for the narrow limits and tentative nature of the New Deal reforms: many were rescinded after a few years, and huge problems (Jim Crow, national health insurance) were never tackled – absences that haunted American politics ever since. America's was the first welfare state but it was also among the most meager. In that sense the New Deal was a triumph of style over substance. Big Money was left firmly in control of the economy but the American Dream was put on life support after almost being given up for dead during the Great Depression.

To bring this off required a leader who was himself a triumph of style over substance, more Wizard of Oz than Abraham Lincoln. The patrician Roosevelt was a masterful politician in the sense of being able to read the public mood and knowing how to respond to it. He honed his common touch and used new media like radio (the Twitter of his day) to make the men and women 'forgotten' during the Great Depression feel like they had a friend in the White House. In marked contrast to the Calvinist rectitude of predecessors like Coolidge and Hoover, Roosevelt projected an avuncular image: he had a wry sense of humor and you might even imagine having a drink with him, and that he would listen to your troubles with sympathy. (That Prohibition was ended in his first year in office no doubt helped burnish this image.) Occasionally Roosevelt's rhetoric took on a social democratic tinge – his denunciation of “economic royalists” and his “four freedoms” speech – but these were shout-outs to the left liberals and union activists in his electoral base, and never became serious policy. Roosevelt was into 'hopey-changey' politics long before Obama.

The historian Richard Hofstadter had a useful insight when he wrote that at the core of the New Deal there wasn't a philosophy or ideology but “an attitude”. A big part of it was pragmatic and technocratic – get something done, no matter what, and not worry about larger moral issues, as the earlier Progressives had. Another part was “a kind of pervasive tenderness for the underdog, the Okies, the sharecroppers, the characters in John Steinbeck's novels, the subjects who posed for the FSA photographers” such as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. A tenderness, in short, for “the little people” – until (as Hofstadter noted ruefully) “a certain revulsion set in” at the obvious condescension.

Along with this tenderness came “a kind of folkish nationalism, quickened no doubt by federal patronage of letters and the arts, but inspired at bottom by a real rediscovery of hope in America and its people and institutions. For after the concentrations camps, the Nuremberg Laws, Guernica and... the Moscow Trials, everything in America seemed fresh and hopeful, Main Street seemed innocent beyond expectation, and in time Babbitt became almost lovable.” It's worth pausing over that last image, and the shadow it casts over the feel-good glow of the New Deal.

To make Babbitt “almost lovable” was to make Gatsby almost forgettable. It was to dispel the ominous (and subversive) sense “of the ugliness under the successful surface of American life”. Instead a new optimism came to prevail: “the New Deal flourished on a sense of the human warmth and the technological potentialities that could be found under the surface of America's inequities and its post-depression poverty.” Surface and underside got flipped, and the prevailing mood shifted to “Happy Days Are Here Again.” The Babbitts, thus reinvigorated, would eventually find an outlet for all that “human warmth” in McCarthyism. This was the inevitable price of saving capitalism. (7)

The New Deal was the great triumph of American liberalism, but precisely because it was so amorphous, an attitude more than an ideology, and also because it was so bound up with the personality of a president, the liberal credentials of the New Deal seemed more self-evident than they really were. That Hitler and Mussolini expressed enthusiasm for the New Deal in its early days might just seem an aberration, but maybe it also underscores another side of the New Deal that the liberal narrative would rather ignore. Roosevelt was an icon of democratic values but he ran an administration with a big streak of authoritarianism in it. He began his tenure by assuming sweeping powers over the economy and ended it by running the biggest war machine in history. To be sure, he assumed those powers out of necessity rather than ideology, but he clearly came to see himself as the indispensable president – running in and winning an unprecedented four elections – a record and mindset more dynastic than democratic.

The New Deal was not the comforting reaffirmation of democratic values and institutions it is so often portrayed as. Rather it was a manifestation of a much more troubling truth – that liberal democracy breaks down whenever there is a major crisis, and seems to cry out for rescue by a strong leader. If you dim down its liberal halo, New Dealism looks like a benign authoritarianism that a relatively wealthy country could still afford in the Thirties, whereas bankrupt Europe's authoritarianism had to be much more brutal. That the New Deal ultimately failed to bring about a sustained economic recovery – which only happened when the massive outlays to fund a world war kicked in – just underscores its problematic legacy.

*     *     *     *     *

Obama was supposed to be the new FDR, but the comparison turned out to be a damning one. Tens of millions of “little people” lost their homes while Obama protected the bankers from “the pitchforks” and made sure nobody on Wall Street went to jail for the 2008 financial crash. On the surveillance state, on Mideast wars, on deporting immigrants, on neoliberal trade policies, on mass incarcerations, even on the closing of Guantanamo – there was more continuity than discontinuity between Obama and the previous Bush administration. Obama's one New Deal-like achievement, Obamacare, is a jerry-built program that does a better job of generating profits for private insurers and big pharma than providing adequate coverage for poor patients, and even that looks like it won't long outlast Obama's tenure. This was reformism so tepid that it brings to mind the quip: if you walked any slower, you'd be moving backwards.

Trump is all for moving backwards at breakneck speed. On the face of it, it seems as if history has done a u-turn, with Obama as a failed Roosevelt being succeeded by Trump as a gung-ho reactionary far to the right even of Hoover. Yet  there are some notable resemblances between him and Roosevelt. His championing of the “forgotten men and women” of the working class was a direct echo of FDR, as were his promises to rebuild American infrastructure and revive the smokestack industries decimated by globalization. And he made a point of meeting with the leaders of the building trades unions in the oval office soon after the inauguration to talk up his infrastructure plans, the sort of political gesture you'd associate with a traditional liberal Democrat. Trump railed against liberal elites, Roosevelt against moneyed ones, but both pitched their appeals to working class resentment. When on his final campaign rally, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Trump declared, “Today the American working class is going to strike back,” you'd almost think for an instant that you were listening to Eugene Debs and not a billionaire purveyor of snake oil. (It's impossible not to be struck by the terrible irony of this situation and what it says about the near-total disengagement of contemporary progressives from the life and struggles of the working class.)

Also like Roosevelt, Trump is all about attitude rather than ideology. For generations mainstream politics has preached the virtues of pragmatism as essential to moderation and realism, and the antithesis of extremism. Trump ran the ultimate pragmatic campaign. Oblivious to any kind of consistency or principle or facts, he said whatever would get him attention and support. And mainstream assumptions to the contrary, he demonstrated that pragmatism could take you to extreme places, to the politics of scapegoating the likes of which we haven't seen since the heyday of European fascism. (Which, by the way, was something well understood by Mussolini, himself an admirer of pragmatism.)

The comparison only goes so far. Marx's famous riff on Hegel goes: History repeats itself, but first time as tragedy, second time as farce. Trump's 'deal' will not be a revival of Roosevelt's but a gross caricature of it. There won't be much tenderness for underdogs, especially of the Mexican or Muslim variety. Saving capitalism will be, in large measure, focused on enriching the fortunes of Trump, his family and his cronies. And instead of the fuzzy glow of the New Deal's “folkish nationalism”, Trump's nationalism is much more in your face, directly evoking the 'America First' rhetoric of Roosevelt-era Nazi sympathizers like Charles Lindbergh.

Nor is Trump ever going to be mistaken for an icon of democracy. His contempt for democratic norms was evident in the campaign, in his cabinet choices of billionaires and generals and the raft of executive orders from his first days in office. (Although even with that, Trump's racist order to impose a Muslim travel ban does have a precedent in the liberal Roosevelt's mass incarceration of Japanese-Americans.) One way to think of the relationship between Roosevelt and Trump is this: we have gone from the New Deal's Norman Rockwell-ish Americanism that made even Babbitts “almost lovable” to a billionaire Babbitt occupying the White House. (8)

In a widely read article in The Atlantic, neo-conservative David Frum laid out a plausible scenario of what authoritarian rule would look like under Trump, and the model he sees Trump emulating is not Thirties totalitarianism but the “illiberal democracy” touted by Hungarian leader Viktor Orban: “Opponents of the regime are not murdered or imprisoned, although many are harassed with building inspections and tax audits. If they work for the government, or for a company susceptible to government pressure, they risk their jobs by speaking out ... Day in and day out, the regime works more through inducements than through intimidation. The courts are packed, and forgiving of the regime’s allies. Friends of the government win state contracts at high prices and borrow on easy terms from the central bank. Those on the inside grow rich by favoritism; those on the outside suffer from the general deterioration of the economy.”

Hungary is still a democracy in the technical sense that there are elections, but the deck is stacked in favor of incumbents, and government media generate “an endless sequence of controversies that leave culturally conservative Hungarians feeling misunderstood and victimized by liberals, foreigners, and Jews,” which sounds much like what Fox News does in America. Frum cites one Hungarian political observer who makes the astute point: “The benefit of controlling a modern state is less the power to persecute the innocent, more the power to protect the guilty.”

This is a crucial distinction between the 'soft' authoritarianism of Orban (and potentially Trump) and the Gestapo/concentration camp totalitarianism of the last century. Because of that history, Frum rightly argues that we have “an outdated image of what 21st-century authoritarianism might look like. Whatever else happens, Americans are not going to assemble in parade-ground formations, any more than they will crank a gramophone or dance the turkey trot.” Which isn't to say that the new versions of authoritarianism have no violent edge to them, it's just that we need to look for it in different places: “In a society where few people walk to work, why mobilize young men in matching shirts to command the streets? If you’re seeking to domineer and bully, you want your storm troopers to go online, where the more important traffic is. Demagogues need no longer stand erect for hours orating into a radio microphone. Tweet lies from a smartphone instead.” (9)

It's a chilling picture because it's so plausible. Still, because of his politics, Frum makes some dubious assumptions, particularly his confidence that a Trump economic policy of big tax cuts and big spending on infrastructure will lead to economic prosperity and lots of jobs that will make for a relatively quiescent working class. In fact, there isn't any sign in his first budget proposal that Trump is following through on his promise for infrastructure spending (though this was also true of Roosevelt in his first year). But the larger problem with this assumption is that it leaves out the possibility of another major economic crash and the political turmoil that would let loose in Trump's working-class base, the more so because of the expectations he created to get elected. Also it was hard to anticipate the full extent of Trump's ineptitude and the chaos of his first months in office. Being a strong-man leader means being effective in the real world, whereas Trump still looks like he's operating in a reality tv show.
Those objections aside, however, the dangers of the authoritarian scenario that Frum describes are still very real. It could well be that Trump's ineptitude, and even more so his nepotism and corruption, will impel him to grab more executive powers to protect himself and his cronies. And it's an open secret that a major terrorist incident or a military confrontation, possibly in Asia or the Middle East, will be the 'crisis' that will give him the opportunity for assuming those powers.

But there is a deeper problem with this authoritarian scenario. Not that it's wrong in its description of how a Trump presidency might unfold, quite the contrary. Rather what's wrong is the assumption behind it that such a presidency would be a radical break from the past. It's the same assumption behind the comparisons of Trump to Hitler, and it's one shared by most everyone in the Trump resistance. But in an accompanying article to Frum's in The Atlantic, the writer Jonathan Rauch does a nice job of showing how wrong-headed that assumption is.

Rauch did a little thought experiment: “For this article, I set out to develop a list of telltales that the president is endangering the Constitution and threatening democracy,” in other words, a checklist to know exactly when Trump crosses the line into authoritarianism. But Rauch soon found out he couldn't do it: “I failed. In fact, I concluded that there can be no such list, because many of the worrisome things that an antidemocratic president might do look just like things that other presidents have done.” Rauch follows that eye-opening statement with a riff on presidential history:

“Use presidential power to bully corporations? Truman and Kennedy did that. Distort or exaggerate facts to initiate or escalate a war? Johnson and George W. Bush did that. Lie point-blank to the public? Eisenhower did that. Defy orders from the Supreme Court? Lincoln did that. Suspend habeas corpus? Lincoln did that, too. Spy on American activists? Kennedy and Johnson did that. Start wars at will, without congressional approval? Truman did that. Censor 'disloyal' speech and fire 'disloyal' civil servants? Wilson did that. Incarcerate U.S. citizens of foreign extraction? Franklin D. Roosevelt did that. Use shady schemes to circumvent congressional strictures? Reagan did that. Preempt Justice Department prosecutors? Obama did that. Assert sweeping powers to lock people up without trial or judicial review? George W. Bush did that. Declare an open-ended national emergency? Bush did that, and Obama continued it. Use regulatory authority aggressively and, according to the courts, sometimes illegally? Obama did that. Kill a U.S. citizen abroad? Obama did that, too. Grant favors to political friends, and make mischief for political enemies? All presidents do that.” (10)

Rauch immediately qualifies these remarks: a lot of these actions can be thought of as “ordinary presidential assertiveness” rather than “dangerously illiberal”, all these presidents were “small-d democrats” and there was usually pushback from other government institutions whenever presidents went too far. This is meant to be reassuring but it minimizes the obvious – which is that the list is so long and has so many names.

One name it doesn't have is Nixon because Rauch thinks of him as a special case: an outright criminal and underminer of democracy. But it is possible to look at all this presidential history, Nixon included, and come to a different conclusion: that there has always been a dark side lurking within liberal democracy, and that this dark side makes itself felt time and again, in virtually every presidency. This has long been the view of Marxists, anarchists and other radicals: that liberal democracy is window-dressing for rule by a corporate elite. In this light “ordinary presidential assertiveness” is indeed ordinary but also “illiberal” because it is less a function of personality than of ruling class hegemony. And Nixon was exceptional only in pushing this assertiveness beyond what was acceptable to the ruling class. So, in making sense of Trump, what matters most may well be his continuity with the past “because many of the worrisome things that an antidemocratic president might do look just like things that other presidents have done.”

*     *     *     *     *

To read Trump in terms of his continuity with the past isn't to underestimate the danger his presidency poses. But it is to see that danger not as a one-off but as the outcome of a political system and its economic underpinnings.

Here the word progressive gets in the way. It is another of the weasel words that proliferate in a 'soft dogma' left. Progressive is to be for progress – but progress towards what? Everybody this side of the Republican Party is a progressive, including the grandees of the Democratic Party, most of Silicon Valley and even a chunk of Wall Street. That isn't a big tent so much as a big swamp in which any vestige of utopia has sunk into oblivion. And without utopia, progress has no meaning. Or rather its meaning becomes identical to the status quo – “the present with more options,” as one writer put it. (11) Which is why progress decays into a weasel word, since it suggests motion but is really about stasis.

History may no longer be dead, but utopia continues to be. Utopian thought was criticized (often legitimately) for projecting far-fetched fantasies on to the future, but now the future itself has been foreclosed. In the 19th century, when progress was in its heyday, the favored metaphor for it was a steam engine barrelling along towards a radiant future. In our time, according to one philosopher, the metaphor for progress should be “a magnificent, spacious railway station, into which we are settled and from which we shall not depart.” (12) The image this conjures up is surreal, like something out of a Bunuel movie – a world of passengers waiting to go nowhere. The only exception is technological: predictions abound of brave new worlds of artificial intelligence and digital marvels. But these brave new worlds are for machines, not humans, or possibly some 'interface' between the two, as in the new (and creepy) catchphrase, post-human. Which is to say (as Kafka might have put it): utopia is possible but not for us.

It could be argued that we at least know what progress has been, if not what it will be. “In Trump,” writes one socialist journal, “Americans confront an unprecedented challenge to decades of progress we have made as a nation.” (13) This is true, of course, but it is only a part of the truth. Back in the Sixties leftist thinkers like Herbert Marcuse insisted that progress, so long as its context remains capitalism, also means progress in domination. Along with the expansion of individual rights has gone the expansion of the surveillance state, pluralism and multiculturalism coincide with neo-feudal social inequality, human rights become the pretext for new imperialist wars, and you could extend this list indefinitely. If we choose to 'accentuate the positive' (as in “decades of progress we have made as a nation”) then it becomes all but impossible to understand where Trump comes from. He appears as a horrible accident instead of an American-as-apple-pie political demagogue and thug, different from other occupants of the White House perhaps only more in degree than in kind.

The 'progressive' narrative also makes it hard to understand what the resistance to Trump needs to do. Since progress is seen as being derailed by a bad president, inevitably the struggle is cast as one to get the country 'back on track', much like Obama was supposed to do after the disastrous years under Bush. Indeed you could say that American liberalism has been trying to get the country 'back on track' since the end of the Roosevelt era.

Now Bernie Sanders has launched into a similar venture with his formation “Our Revolution”, an effort to create a left counterpart to the Tea Party among Democrats. Its mission statement says the group wants to “reclaim democracy” and wields the word progressive a lot, as in “progressive leaders” and “progressive change.” The goal is to “transform American politics to make our political and economic systems once again responsive to the needs of working families.” (14) This is boilerplate, obviously intended not to offend or frighten anyone. One might wonder how an economic system like capitalism can ever be “responsive” to anything except profit. But it's the words “once again” that are telling. This is a “revolution” that takes us 'back to the future'. Or to put this another way: like Trump, Sanders wants to make America great again.

But that's the problem with progressive politics, even when espoused by a modern-day knock-off of FDR: we're “once again” on the same track, the one that keeps taking us into ever darker places with names like Reagan, Bush and now Trump. And even in what were supposed to be relative bright spots on this track – Clinton, Obama – most of the lights have gone out.

Walter Benjamin rethought the progress metaphor in a radical way. “Marx says that revolutions are the locomotive of world history. But perhaps it is quite otherwise. Perhaps revolutions are an attempt by the passengers on this train – namely, the human race – to activate the emergency brake.” (15) It's not just that the train is out of our control, it's also that the track leads to an abyss. This idea jars with linear notions of progress but it makes excellent sense: revolution invariably begins by bringing the existing state of affairs to a screeching halt. And it does that by tearing down bastions of power – palaces, prisons, banks, armouries, manor houses, churches etc. Which is to say that after you pull the emergency brake, you start tearing up the tracks. And when that's finally done, you build new tracks to take you in a different direction. One where greatness is found not in a national identity but in human solidarity.


1. Interestingly, Roth thinks it is misplaced to compare the election of Trump to his fictional retelling of history with Charles Lindbergh defeating Roosevelt in the 1940 election. Because Trump is a con man (unlike Lindbergh, who was a real-life hero), Roth believes that a better literary prototype for Trump is Herman Melville's The Confidence Man. (Roth's comments were reported in The New Yorker, 30 January 2017, p. 18.)

2. Part of the blame for hollowing out the meaning of fascism has to go to Jurgen Habermas, who coined the term Linksfaschismus, i.e. left-wing fascism, back in the Sixties to denounce violent student protesters of the era. (Cf. Slavoj Zizek, Violence, [Picador, 2008], p. 231, n. 9.)  That sent fascism on its way to becoming a banality, a term of abuse for anyone whose politics you didn't like.

3. Quoted in In These Times, Dec. 2016, p. 5.

4. The writer Rebecca Solnit provides a good example of this mindset. Convinced that sexism, including among left-wing men, was the real cause of Clinton's defeat, she is dismissive of what she calls the “We Must Pay More Attention to the White Working Class analysis”. “I've always had the impression,” she states derisively, “... that white men get a lot of attention already.” Ironically this makes the very point she is contesting since the issue isn't about attention to white men but attention to the white working class, which includes tens of millions of women, something that Solnit, for all her ardent feminism, overlooks. (Rebecca Solnit, “From Lying to Leering,” London Review of Books, 19 January 2017:

5. Mark Lilla, Afterword (2016) in The Reckless Mind (NYR Books, 2001), p. 225.

6. One of the more depressing features of Obama's tenure was the many liberal writers and intellectuals who gave up speaking truth to power. Part of this was due to his being the first black president, but a big part of it was also due to his image as an intellectual, 'one of us' as it were, and [as Yale professor David Bromwich pointed out] the persistent efforts he made to distance himself as a person from his actions as a president. He wanted it known that personally he was distressed by drone strikes and kill lists and by the security state's intrusions into personal privacy. In other words, he was a decent human being, even though this decency had almost no bearing on what he did as president. It was a stance designed to be disarming and a lot of prominent writers and artists were happy to be disarmed.

7. Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform, (Random House, 1955), pp. 325-6.

8. A widely-reported aspect of Trump's family history is how his father, Fred, refused to rent to blacks in his housing developments in Queens and Brooklyn, something for which he and Donald would eventually be sued by the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. Much less well known is that this kind of racism in housing was public policy under the New Deal. In a recently published book, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, author Richard Rothstein shows how New Deal programs for public housing were designed to segregate blacks and whites, with Federal Housing Administration manuals openly stating that “incompatible racial groups should not be permitted to live in the same communities.” This FHA policy persisted into the post-war era, when the government subsidized the building of suburban subdivisions (including by developers like Fred Trump) as all-white enclaves. FDR apologists claim his inaction on Jim Crow was due to his need for support from Southern Democrats, but as Rothstein points out, segregated housing in Northern cities like New York and Chicago had nothing to do with placating Dixiecrats. It was motivated by racial prejudice and, probably subconsciously but all the more effectively, by that oldest of ruling class axioms – divide and rule. The bitter irony is that this segregated urban landscape is one of the most enduring legacies of the New Deal, one that continues to blight the lives of millions of African-American families to this day. But the same legacy made a Babbitt like Fred Trump, if not “almost lovable”, then certainly very wealthy and powerful. You could say that without this aspect of the New Deal, Donald Trump would not now be in the White House. (For an interview with Rothstein, see:

9. David Frum, “How to Build an Autocracy”, The Atlantic, March 2017,

10. Jonathan Rauch, “Containing Trump”, The Atlantic, March 2017,

11. Russell Jacoby, The End of Utopia, (Basic Books, 1999), p. 40.

12. The philosopher is Agnes Heller, a former disciple of Georg Lukacs, whose idea is recounted by Michael Lowy in Fire Alarm, (Verso, 2005), p. 113.

13. Editorial: “Resistance In These Times,” In These Times, Dec. 2016, p. 5.

15. Quoted in Fire Alarm, pp. 66-7.

1 comment:

peter said...

A letter to Mr. Brenner:

I have read and enjoyed your essays on this site and elsewhere. If you would be willing, there are several issues I would be interested in discussing with you via correspondence. Please feel free to contact me at