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A Defensive Wall Against an Illiberal Regime

“I propose the following definition of the nation: it is an imagined political community-and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign. It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion….”

— Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, 1983

 Here is some of what President-elect Donald Trump has already told us:

The nonpartisan, independent Office of Congressional Ethics and the nonpartisan, independent Office of Government Ethics are unethical; the intelligence community is untrustworthy and not to be believed; the Fourth Estate and all journalists are the “lying press”; Muslims can be unconstitutionally banned from entrance to the U.S.; Constitution’s guarantee of equality and due process doesn’t apply to deporting people en masse.

His appointees show us clearly what to expect:

The Labor secretary discredits and dismisses wage earners;

The Education Secretary seeks to end public education;

The Health and Human Services Secretary seeks to returns health care to free market solutions which when in effect before the ACA left 46 million uninsured, and left the US Health system ranked last on measures of access, equity, quality, efficiency, and healthy lives;

The Transportation Secretary promises to make infrastructure building a new marketing frontier for investors, eliminating governmental funding and regulation;

The Secretary for Housing and Urban Development believes “poverty is a personal choice”;

The Interior Secretary will scuttle Obama’s attempts to mitigate the effects of climate change;

The Head of the EPA has made a career of suing the EPA:

The Energy Secretary seeks to abolish the Energy Department, if he can remember its name;

The Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Treasury, the Head of the Council of Economic Advisors, the Head of the SEC, and the Commerce Secretary come from the Wall Street crowd that led us into the 2007 Great Recession.

The chief strategist and Senior Counselor was the executive chair of Breitbart News, the platform of the Internet-based alt-right, a group far to the right of the conservatives that froze Obama in place.

If we take an optimistic view here, on what are we betting?

We are betting that President Trump will be too “inattentive, unpredictable and basically uninterested in anything but his own status” to do much harm.

We are betting that the political and civil institutions, practices and discourse already in place will act as a wall defending liberal democracy from a descent into any form of populist or authoritarian illiberalism.

We are betting that Trump’s appointees will put aside the belief that the best way to serve the country is make themselves and their fellow investors rich. We’re also betting that they know how to do something other than maximizing profits to investors, which is not the goal of any governmental department or agency.

The global winds, however, are heading against this optimism.

“All over the world, people in democratic societies have grown disgusted with politics as usual. The rise of Donald Trump, who has focused the anger of Americans at the elites in both major political parties, is mirrored by similar populist leaders elsewhere: Viktor Orban in Hungary, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland, Marine Le Pen in France, Nigel Farage in the UK, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Narendra Modi in India.” (John Feffer, “Trump and the Transformation of Politics,” Foreign Policy in Focus, 2016)

Social orders arise out of the affinities of cultural imaginaries. The discourse, practices and institutions of a liberal democratic social order stand like a powerful regime to keep us protected from disruption and dissolution. The infrastructure of civilized life, or, more particularly the phrasing we now use when we argue that a Donald Trump presidency can do little harm, refers to the structures of a constitutionally grounded liberal democracy long in place supplemented by civil society, civic culture, and social capital that support this democracy.

In other words, there are rules of the game, Constitutionally established, as well as an already woven social fabric individuals and institutions are enveloped which determine boundaries that cannot be violated without censure, indictment or impeachment.

We are, however, not as safe as we think we are if both our Constitutional legacy and our civil societal fabric are themselves shaped by what Benedict Anderson describes and that I argue we have clearly lost:

“The nation is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately, it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willing to die for such limited imaginings.” (Imagined Communities, 1983).

I would argue that we do not have “a deep, horizontal comradeship” in the US and therefore we really do not have the resistance that many believe exist to offset the damage the Trump disorder is sure to do.

We can’t pretend that a unity exists in this country on a telling profound subliminal level nor can we pretend that Trump’s idiocies, nothing less, mostly dispatched in tweets, will upon inauguration be transformed into sense. We are having a difficult time issuing sense over nonsense because of an epidemic of suspicion and distrust of every reporting authority, especially governmental and journalistic. That suspicion has been on the boil since Reagan asserted government was the problem, not the solution, thus deflecting attention from the problems that would emerge as he moved wealth to the top. Trump has expanded that suspicion to the Fourth Estate, a bedrock force in any democracy, and to any authority that counters his own understanding.

The number of matters to which we now express a disbelieving scorn, from climate change and Darwinism to the role of public education in a democracy and the destructive effects of a severe wealth gap, are corrosive to the life of an imagined community.

Suspicion and distrust can be shaped, nevertheless, by real, causative conditions. The dysfunction and plight of a whole class positioned by Reaganomics to be denied any of the benefits of an increasing globalized techno-capitalism has inevitably led to a call for upheaval. But what the election of Donald Trump tells us is that we are far from redirecting anger and skepticism to real instigators, far from tracing symptoms to causes. Trump is an effect, a product of a serious misinterpretation of what has been going on since Reagan’s administration but he now looms as a potential destructive cause in the eyes of some and as both an avenger and champion in the eyes of others.

Trump rises from a one picturing of what the American community is or should be and is bitterly resisted by those who imagine within a wholly different community. Ironically, it is impossible to say what imaginary community Trump himself lives within but it seems a good bet to say a community of one, himself. That does not discount the fact that as a campaigner he has as deftly profiled his constituency as Johnny Cochran profiled the O.J. Simpson jury. How long a confidence man can hold his mark we are destined to see. He may be an outsized example of a self-enclosed reality but he shares this with a population that is increasingly enclosing themselves within enclaves of support, impervious to outside voices. This is not new in human society but opportunities for such self-enclosure have increased with the establishment of our alternate-reality of cyberspace.

The economically “challenged” are not all against Trump nor are the Wall Street winners all for Trump. His is not a class revolution. There is, for instance, a “deep, horizontal comradeship” in the US between those who have money and those who are yearning for it, money being the horizontal link. The fascinating aspect of the American Dream is that it inspires both the winners and losers, neither disturbed by the eventual unfairness of the game generated by a grossly lopsided split of money and opportunity. What has also been a support of this dream is a belief in a kind of public road accessibility, an economic and social mobility that remains sturdy in the imaginary of this dream. However, whatever attachments were made to our American Dream in the past, it is now in a society aggressively damaged by a severe wealth divide not bonding but antagonistic. The antagonism generated, however, remains in search of its antagonists, although Trump tweets a new one every day.

A sense of being captive in ways that show no path to release, a haunted sense that one is scheduled for extinction, fosters antagonism and not the bonds of imagined community. This is by no means anything like a “deep, horizontal comradeship,” which is what we need to defend ourselves against the coming illiberal regime.

The wealth gap, like a disease, has slowly but steadily destroyed any sense of the common Good and the general Welfare. From the very start, being rich and “enlightened self-interest” were only bonding when illusions, delusions, suppressions and repressions did their job. But such goals were also challenged by other values whose authority did not come from market drives but from a Federal government upholding the equal rights clause and restraining the attempt to make return on investment a king in a democratic society.

Such challenge also emerges from a free press which does not serve any corporate state regime but rather holds government accountable to all citizens while providing a pluralist platform for variant expressions which are neither marketing or political campaigns. Neither a Federal government nor a Fourth Estate serving the public good escape mockery at this moment, What we face now at the beginning of a Trump presidency is the absence of respect on the part of far too many for any authority beyond the personal.

The attempt to create an imagined community that was more inclusive than the imagined community of the working and middle classes but resisted, in a passive aggressive way, by those classes, was a tectonic plate clash erupting in Trump’s presidency. Called upon by the politics of equal identity to summon their better angels,  the already displaced wage earner class worked their way through personal, gut feeling to targeting marginal groups as  their antagonists. Nothing now challenges the supremacy of those feelings. The fading American middle class core imaginary was not multi-plexing but was digging in, or, more precisely, grasping a branding of themselves that could no longer be held and at the same time accepting a hit list of those who had brought about their decline.

Rather than being deeply into a common imaginary, too many are in the present in a whirlwind of frustration and anger, blocked from a return to the “glory days” of the past. Such anger is fueled by the bold demands for identity by those who didn’t share in that “glory,” but  such demands nonetheless expose the dire limitations of an imagined community that was never an inclusive “deep, horizontal comradeship.”

Trump’s promise to bring back a former glory is then implicitly a promise to re-create an America in which every issue and every race and gender put in a locked box back then would be put back into the box. The futility and unattainability of this, like closing Pandora’s Box once opened (which is our plight with social media), will very quickly dawn on Trump and his constituency. It is at that moment we can expect the distortions of reality that illiberal regimes enforce to retain the supremacy of power. In Mr. Trump’s case, we have the added scary consequences of what denial and rejection do to a narcissistic ego that feeds on the admiration and subservience of others.

Getting deeper into a corporate model of democratic governance as well as building even greater distrust, anger and hatred against the marginal groups Liberals will undoubtedly continue to fight for seems to be an effective strategy to shatter whatever is left of our American imagined community. Ironically, there is no return to that core image of former middle class rule as long as we remain deep within an economics that moves toward the feudal not the egalitarian. That the economics can be changed and plutocracy upended was Bernie Sanders’ message, resisted by both parties. An egalitarianism beyond the boundaries of a white middle class, that is, an imagined community that does not exclude, and stands on an economics that nurtures the equitable, also awaits its party.

We are imaginatively transitioning toward something but in a fractured, confusing manner, both of which have led to a debilitation of any intelligent, coherent understanding of where we are. We cannot fathom the politics we need to create not a remodeled older imaginary but a new one.

Our confusion itself has led to the Trump presidency. And it is that confusion and our great distance from any deep, horizontal comradeship that makes us vulnerable to the damage a Trump presidency is sure to wreak. A symptom — Trump as president  —  of such a great loss of imaginative identity and thus imaginative community threatens now to become the fatal disease itself.

More articles by:

Joseph Natoli has published books and articles, on and off line, on literature and literary theory, philosophy, postmodernity, politics, education, psychology, cultural studies, popular culture, including film, TV, music, sports, and food and farming. His most recent book is Dark Affinities, Dark Imaginaries: A Mind’s Odyssey .

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