The Dialogue of Divisiveness

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

“If we tell that story [that the president committed an impeachable offense] with simplicity and repetition, the American people will understand why the president must be held accountable.”

– Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, quoted in The New York Times, Oct. 22, 2019

“The only real connective tissue I see is the almost preternatural isolationist impulse that he [President Trump] invariably seems to revert to when left to his own devices internationally.”

– John P. Hannah, quoted in The New York Times, Oct. 22, 2019

There is, of course, no fruitful dialogue in extreme cases of social and political divisiveness. Mikhail Bakhtin writes of “basic conditions governing the operation of meaning in any utterance” and as these conditions change, meaning changes. Meanings interact, each conditioning each. Right now, we have no commonly accepted basic conditions and so the meaning of any utterance, say, a transcript of a phone conversation, or a White House chief of staff’s utterance at a press conference, is subject to divided explications. And because we are so deeply divided, we don’t interact, our meanings stay polarized, each in their own silos. Dialogue, then, is preempted, prevented.

Bakhtin offered us the idea of “dialogic” wherein instead of working our own side of a dialogue, we worked into opposing voices and carried on our side with that knowledge. Instead of proceeding oppositionally, as in a debate, we absorbed the fire of other voices into our own and they did likewise, proceeding then to a kind of melting point where each had taken on the identity of the other, those identities different than at the beginning.

It seemed stupid to assert a position without having already vetted that position by the opposition and without also confronting what a position ignored. And so, you considered how your utterances would come to meaning within the conditions governing meaning held by another, a political opponent.

For instance, the Democrats want to slow down their inquiry until they can take “the American people” along with them in their understanding of the need to impeach President Trump. “Just the facts, baby,” Representative Jeffries exclaims. This is a debate position, one that ignores the fact that no fact now stands in the same old respected factual way. Nor does it recognize that the transparency of President Trump’s phone conversation with President Zelenskyy of Ukraine remains opaque to Trump’s c.40% base:

 I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it. . . . There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great.  I would also like to thank you for your great support in the area of defense. We are ready to continue to cooperate for the next steps specifically we are almost. ready to buy more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes.

Explicating or defining what these words mean is simple, provided you are literate and not encrusted with a blind faith that cannot be penetrated, and if that is not the case, then in our conventional sense of dialogue we can’t see how the words can be brought to a greater simplicity. Supplementation with other words leaves us in the same quandary we are in with the original words. However, if we consider that other conditions are at work here determining meaning – social, political, historical, economic and so on – then what is transparent inheres not in the words themselves but is subject to surrounding conditions.

This seems abstruse but the implications are instructive, bogged down as we are in a seemingly unbridgeable divide that seems likely to take to the streets.

Continuing to hold that transparency of meaning is external to our divide over what anything means, somehow outside the conditions in which that divide has placed us within drastically different conditions is a well-worn path to continued divisiveness.

We have seen little movement away from the defense of the President by Republicans and no movement by a base of about 40% of “the American people,” a tag that leads us to think “The People” are now one, united because they exist within identical conditions, conditions without a common base and therefore not basic.

Slowing the movement toward writing Articles of Impeachment to allow those who do not at this point recognize the transparency of the President’s abuse of power, obstruction of justice, profiteering by illegal emoluments and conspiracy to violate campaign finance laws thus makes no sense. Unless worlds are changed which give any words or actions transparency, it doesn’t matter how slow or how fast either side repeats its bullet points.

Neither does it make sense to keep impeachment simple so that “the American people” can focus on the one issue of abuse of power in Ukraine. Simplicity of indictment doesn’t affect in any way the complexities of reception in a society grounded within different worldly positions. We don’t amend this situation by simplifying its dark consequences. We cannot do so because we wish to regain the basic conditions of a constitutional democracy as a common grounding, but we need to do so despite the plutocratic turn from such that has gone on since Reagan.

We are then not submitting to our divided state but attempting to hold onto commonly accept basic conditions by which we bring our society to a constitutional democratic and not autocratic meaning.

We are not involved with a prosecution of Al Capone wherein we’re willing to jail him for tax evasion when his crimes were greater and many. What is at stake here is expressed clearly by Charles M. Blow: “Trump is a stress test on our system and constitutional government and we dare not fail. Trump must be held accountable not only because his corruption dictates it, but also because we must demonstrate that accountability is possible.” (The New York Times, October 21, 2019)

More expansive is Elizabeth Drew on what is at stake here if we preemptively constrict our Articles of Impeachment:

To limit the impeachment process to the most blatant presidential misdeed yet discovered would leave in the dust — unresolved for history, setting dangerous precedents — the possibility of holding accountable a president who routinely enriches himself at the expense of the taxpayers and flouts the Constitution’s emoluments clause, lies so persistently that we’re far from the democratic concept of transparent government, usurps the role of Congress by unilaterally holding up funds or using them for other purposes than it has approved, bullies private businesses by threatening a tax increase or a significant raise in postal rates (as Mr. Trump did to Amazon, whose owner also owns The Washington Post), tells intelligence alumni who openly criticize him that he’ll suspend their security clearances and fights the law that allows Congress to obtain his tax returns. The New York Times, Sept. 30, 2019)

If the impeachment position is one that already assumes the Senate will not vote to convict, there is no reason to limit the Articles of Impeachment, but rather there is a real need to establish for the historical record, a complete and honest array of charges. Such would place Senate members in the position of denying the transparence of not one but all violations of our constitutional government.

A complete indictment would be a stress test of every Senate member’s attachment to a president who is “mad, bad and dangerous to know” in a way that far exceeds Lady Caroline Lamb’s description of Lord Byron.

We also cannot assume a position opposing those who oppose conviction without ingesting in our position our opponent’s reasons and/or incitements.

Fear and hate seem to be the leading incitements. Republicans fear the army of loyalists devoted to President Trump. Those loyalists share Trump’s vendetta against The Deep State, which I presume to say they describe as a governmental order that has sapped middle class prosperity and passed it on to illegal immigrants, welfare frauds, and the un-American.

What the President’s vendetta is I presume to say has more to do with personal challenge and obstruction of his own will, which the record now shows is arbitrary and capricious but dangerous, as he holds the highest office in the land.

Neither the President nor his followers have a clear declaration of vendetta, the President’s being riddled with a personal psychopathology and his followers being riddled with monumental confusion and contradiction.

For example, while it’s clear that a wealth divide greater than what France experienced before their revolution has cornered political power at the highest income level and that revolution and vendetta have their causes, it is not clear why a rich man who reneged on paying his workers, who provides tax relief for his wealth class, who deregulates industries with resulting harm to those financially unable to get out of harm’s way, and who mocks everyone but those who win by having a lot of money would be the revolutionary leader, the Zapata to overturn a class and a regime of which he is a fixed part.

Hatred, in all its forms, is blind for the simple reason that it is selective in a thoughtless way or in an obsessed way emerging from some dark packaging of the hater. In a culture that has long replaced thought with spin, spectacle, and opinionated passion and which has the technology to megaphone all of that all the time, it’s easier for a political campaign to be built on hatred and fear than on any reasoned approach.

The first part of this has been endemic in politics. The second part, the cyberspace broadcasting, is not only new but powerful enough to move our politics more totally into the “crooked timber of humanity,” out of which, Kant, tells us, no straight thing was ever made.

Thus, if Donald J. Trump is a more crooked manifestation of the presidency than ever before, it has much to do with a whole culture having devolved more deeply into what is worse in each one of us. Trump’s presence in this light, or darkness, is explicable.

How are the Democratic candidates for the presidency adapting to, or assimilating these conditions of both their rivals and the culture itself? Are they recognizing the briefs against their own and proceeding with those responses packaged in their own briefs?

I see little sign of that.

“We’re going to impeach the mof***ker” is a shout out against Trump and, implicitly, against those who are solidly behind him.

Perhaps it’s not supposed to be an assault on Trump’s supporters because it’s recognized that 16 years of Democratic presidencies saw the rise of those economic conditions and a resulting growing wealth gap that those presidents did nothing to correct. There’s little sign of that recognition.

Republicans have checked off all that devolution of some 80% of the population as “creative destruction.” They are ideologically bound to such; the Democrats are ideologically bound to being, as Elizabeth Warren puts it, “capitalists to the bone.” Because it is precisely that runaway form of capitalism, taking its axiomatic course to rewarding some and disregarding many, that is the foundational problem we face, we must conclude that both parties have been incapable of staunching the blood flow created by Market Rule.

President Trump is indeed a problem, perhaps the most severe problem ever housed in the White House, but the root causes of his presence there lie in the 64 or so million American who voted for him. There’s a problem feeding the life of a problem. But those 64 million are the products, unfortunate creations of an economics that has displaced democratic power. In their anger, their feelings of being cheated, their sense of being discarded while they’re still alive, their frustration over not reaching into a dark, bureaucratic system and striking back, their situation is Kafkaesque. They can’t accept the obvious condemning indictments against them but neither can they know what they are and who is making them.

Trump has appeared as a force who has gained entrance to a regime of forces set against them. He champions them in an arena that no election except this election has given them, through him, entrance to.

In short, he is grasped the conditions within which everything comes to meaning. No small accomplishment.

They are not willing or able to see him kicked out of that position, regardless of what an order of things that has never worked before on their behalf presents as reasons for impeachment. And the presidential election of 2020 is not one he can lose in any way if the same rebellious feelings of some 64 million Americans vote for him.

If all the factors which brought them to where they are now and then brought them to Trump remain undigested by the Democrat challengers, then Trump will hang on or another Trump will emerge.

Thus, the way to end his presidency is not to campaign as if he were a sui generis problem nor to campaign against those sticking to him as a last stand rebel leader but to address the reasons that bring so many to see this willful charlatan as a last stand rebel leader.

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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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