Twitter tongued and alt-right minded
The recent public statements by the president of the United States attributing moral parity to a neo-Nazi, white supremacist rally and counter-protesters in Charlottesville last month have generated well-deserved rejection and condemnation internally and abroad. Most of the criticism — understandably so — has been directed against the twitter tongued and alt-right minded persona of Donald Trump. His critics have pointed out his badly concealed racism and right wing proclivities, as well as his ‘non-presidential’ uncouth style, perceived as a faulty attribute for a leader of the nation. Justified as these critiques are, I would argue that by limiting our criticism to condemning Trump ‘the individual,’ this line of analysis has unintended serious consequences.
The political stance revealed in many of these critiques of Trump’s racist comments perceives the individual as detached from the different forces operating within a given society. If we are—as many of us maintain to be—truly interested in changing society for the better, our analysis must begin with society, not the individual. We must keep in mind that the individual—no matter how eccentric his/her personality may be—is socially constituted.
Consequently, all individuals exist fundamentally as ‘social types,’ for whom modes of behavior and ideological positions are hard to separate from class interests and motivations. This should be particularly clear when discussing individuals in positions of haute-power like the president of the United States. If we operate with a world view and a habit of the mind that separates Trump the person, from the totality of social and power relations currently existing in the nation— which in turn made possible his election—and ignore the specific ways in which president Trump places himself within those relations, we risk missing the central purpose of any serious critique, which is to change society (American society in this case), rather than the behavior of single citizen Donald Trump.
An aberration he is not
Centering politics on Trump the individual is not new. In fact, this perspective permeated the views of the Democratic Party throughout last year’s presidential campaign. From the lower echelons of its membership, to Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and the majority of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), Democrats characterized Trump as an aberration of a yet-to-be-defined ideal American political persona. Trump was portrayed as an incompetent, misogynist buffoon.
This ‘personality centered’ characterization incapacitated the DNC from seeing Trump the candidate as an individual placed in historical specific circumstances that could enable him to agglomerate forms of legitimate popular discontent. This individual-oriented analysis also prevented many from seeing that given the internal crisis of the Republican Party at the time, Trump would become the best fit intermediary for big corporate capital in the White House.
With the exception of Bernie Sanders, no other Democrat understood the aspirations of the American masses during the campaign. The Democrats’ misreading of the social needs and material conditions of the electorate, added to their arrogant (Clintonesque) detachment from the masses, as well as their undeniable ties with corporate America, brought us Trump as president not as a buffoon.
In strictly political terms, this meant that Americans had put in charge of the nation an individual who merited not to be characterized primarily by his physical, verbal and ideological histrionics, but fundamentally as a ‘social type’ individual ready to deepen even further the already existing social inequalities in favor of the ruling classes of America. Historically, this has been the ‘class attribute’ most common among past American presidents. Within this context, Trump constitutes hardly an aberration vís a vís previous American past presidents, but rather the quotidian diet of the unbalanced menu of American Democracy served to the nation and the world since 1776, albeit a diet enhanced by steroids.
American national identity and the incestuous love for the Founding Fathers
For most Americans, determining what constitutes their national identity is a difficult task. Most nations have constructed their identities as a semi-cohesive whole, based in a claimed common history, shared ethnicity, or communal language. But when the same three indicators–history, ethnicity, and the evolution of a hegemonic language (English in our case) — are examined in the context of the historical past of the Unites States, these categories suggest not public symmetry but acute frictions obstructing the construction of a cohesive social whole as national identity.
In fact, the study of history, ethnicity and, the evolution of language(s) in America reveals the existence of drastically opposed socio-historical narratives in which the general interests of a mostly white population have forcefully prevailed over the interests of other human groups of color. The violent displacement of indigenous people and the birthmark of slavery upon which the nation was built, along with its transmutation into present day racism, coupled with vast immigration movements, make sustaining any ethnic-based national common ground difficult.
It’s equally worth noticing that the economic expansionism of ‘white’ capitalism from East to West was accompanied by cultural expansionism of English in the linguistic domain. Nowadays, although English continues to be the ‘language of official business,’ the United States continues to be a linguistically diverse nation. Official US Census Bureau projections (presented at the Federal Forecasters Conference, Washington, DC, April 21, 2011) predicted a growing and significant increase of LOTE (Languages Other than English), particularly Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Chinese, and Vietnamese.
So, if history, language, and ethnicity fail to provide cohesive grounds for the constitution of American identity, where does the source for such construction lie? Historically, the answer has been given by an unquestioned sense among large numbers of Americans, particularly but not exclusively in its dominant classes, of the absolute superiority of American Democracy. Reverence for American Democracy has been elevated to a level of quasi-religious dogma, producing a frame of mind in which abstract belief in the grandeur of American Democracy blinds people from seeing the existing living material conditions of most people in America.
National identity based on the idealized grandness of this political system emerges from its incestuous political proximity to a fetishized, uncritical version of the founding fathers’ role in shaping the legacy and structure of American democracy and its functioning. This form of political cathexis has permeated credulous American minds for over two hundred and forty years. It derails critical analysis — as in the case of many critics of Donald Trump—from historically located socio-economic factors, to real or imaginary personal attributes of individuals. In other words, the historical and material problems with American Democracy are obscured—and the performance of an individual, even a blatantly racist one, gets measured against idealized standards of leadership.
Omme ignotun pro magnifico
It was Tacitus, senator and historian of the Roman Empire, who centuries ago noticed how anything little known is assumed to be wonderful. In his words: Omme ignotum pro magnifico. In this context, so long as American Democracy remains little known, it can continue to be presumed to be wonderful. However, as we examine the lofty image of American Democracy in relation to non-white, non-European cultures and people, internal contradictions become visible. As we systematically contrast the idealized versions of American democracy with the historical reality experienced by racial and ethnic minorities and low-income people under such democracy, perhaps we can alter the unexamined beliefs that inhabit the minds of too many proud but ill-informed citizens about the unquestioned splendor of the republic.
Overall, current American democracy is the result of a political system pigmented by the birthmark of slavery and exploitation. Neither the Civil War of the 1860’s nor the Civil Rights Movement nor the election of a black president have solved the problem of racism and discrimination in America. After all, this is the nation where we still need to be reminded that the lives of black people matter. Racism and discrimination are two forms of ancestral behavior of American democracy; these forms have now morphed into contemporary white-supremacy movements such as the Neo- Nazis, the Alt-Right, and the New KKK, as well as the twitters, phonemes, and utterances of the president. Upon closer examination, the Trump ‘anomaly’ is not such; it can be traced to the longstanding political legacy and structural malfunctions of American Democracy and American capitalism.
Enrique Quintero lives and writes in Washington state.