I hope readers will excuse the desultory nature of these reflections inspired by the recent election and its immediate aftermath.
1. Faith in democracy
Although it is not immune to the lessons of future events, I retain a faith in democracy that the recent rise of the victimary has shaken but not destroyed. Thus I am happy to learn in all humility from “human events,” as we have always learned, that being after all what “the human” and its freedom is all about. I can’t say that I predicted the election result from the beginning, or even that I fully understood Trump’s appeal, but it is clear that on the key issue, I, or I should say, GA, grasped that the victimary (“PC”) was the central focus of Trump’s campaign and that he alone (along with Carson) recognized its real danger to the equilibrium between reciprocity and firstness that defines human society. I (whether or not along with Barack Obama—see Chronicle 503) continue to share Francis Fukuyama’s view that this equilibrium finds its most effective implementation in the left-right dialogue of liberal democracy. Given the unsurpassable strength of this social model, a little prodding out of occasional complacency should allow it readily to overcome challenges from more authoritarian systems.
Thus I see Trump’s victory as an occasion neither for tit-for-tat revenge nor for history-ending utopian accord, but simply for a return to a more traditional level of tension between the two parties. I tend to be impatient with political analyses that focus on breaking down the categories of conservative and liberal voters, even when they go beyond the racialist excesses of “identity politics.” For the real tension remains that between right and left, and although certainly conservative publications as well as liberal ones perform a valuable service in dissecting the factional divisions within the parties, whether or not this is helpful in winning elections—the results having shown Trump’s unprofessorial analysis of the electorate to have been surprisingly correct—these analyses tend to obscure the central, binary issue in a two-party system.
The fact that the word resentment is commonly used to refer (correctly) to the phenomenon on the “right” that on the left evokes terms such as injustice and racism is not simply the effect of journalistic prejudice, although the media’s blindness to this double standard is no secret. To those who fear the almost entirely mythical violence of Trumpian brownshirts, the simple answer is that one must defuse situations of majoritarian resentment before they provoke anything in the least comparable. The difference between our era and the thirties in Germany is that between the frustrations within a still successful society brought on by a decade of increasing victimary arrogance and the social panic of a failed economy in a new, weak, and unstable democracy where any order would come to appear preferable to anarchy. Unlike the unfortunate Germans, today’s Americans still have a functional model to fall back on, a Burkean normality not yet forgotten and whose return even on a modest level will bring general reassurance rather than a descent into hysterical violence. Moreover, it seems clear that, no doubt with the exception of illegal immigrants whose status is likely to remain unclear for some time, this reassurance will touch minority communities as well, whose votes will have to be earned with effective programs, perhaps most urgently for freedom of school choice.
Thus I do not believe the hysterical reactions Trump’s victory has provoked should be taken too seriously. Some friends have called it the equivalent of Kristallnacht and lamented that Jews can no longer feel safe; another described it as an “extremist alt-right coup.” But the turn from Obama’s hypervictimary administration can only bring about some degree of renewal of political dialogue, not between “whites” and “minorities” but between left and right of a kind that is bound to be more productive than it has been for the past eight, or indeed, sixteen years.
2. A point about antisemitism
As a partisan of binary explanations, I find hairsplitting over whether anti-Zionism is “really” antisemitism naïve and profoundly unproductive. The general point that tends to be forgotten is that words are not founded on Platonic archetypes to which all semantic discussions can be referred. But more importantly, the specific forgotten point that is never recalled, even by scholars who know it better than I, is that antisemitism, as opposed to the attitude it expresses, was originally a positive term. One was proud, as indeed were the Nazis, to be antisemitic; this was no mere “prejudice against Jews” but a “scientifically” based concern with maintaining the best strains of the what we would call today the human genome, whence the fear of its corruption by inferior ones. Like many ideas in these debates, one doesn’t need a 175 IQ to understand this, yet I can’t recall the last time I saw it pointed out.
Hitler was proud to be an antisemite; but we all know who won the war. So afterward, antisemitic was not something one wanted to be. Antisemites like to insist that the Jews “always” accuse their enemies of being antisemitic as a way of preventing others from looking into their conspiratorial activities. I doubt that a German Jew in 1935, let alone in 1942, would have thought of “accusing” the NSDAP of being antisemitic. So today’s antisemites have to use other terms. This is not simply hypocritical; it is a fact of language. Just as in more extreme cases, the very words by which one refers to oneself can change. I don’t think young people today realize that when I was young, the common, universal, polite term for black Americans was “negro.” It was only at the transition between the civil rights and the victimary era that this term came to be rejected as servile by groups like the Black Panthers, and the term black came into common use. Earlier, believe it or not, to call someone “black” was considered a racial slur, foregrounding skin color in a way that “negro” or “colored” did not; the inversion of this was indeed the central factor (“black pride”) in its adoption.
But I digress. My point is that although Hitler claimed to be an antisemite, virtually no one, even a neo-Nazi, does so today. What we are really concerned with is an anomalous hostility to Jews. One-sided fixation on the sufferings of the Palestinians along with a propensity to excuse the most vicious violence and condemn any Israeli response to it is obviously a new form of Jew-hatred. And just as the old antisemites were proud of being so, and alleged “good reasons” for this, so anti-Zionists do so today. This isn’t “hypocrisy,” but another form, under another name, for what is fundamentally the same (res)sentiment. And although my tolerance for such people is quite a bit lower than that of Adam Katz (let me put in a pitch for our book, The First Shall Be the Last: Rethinking Antisemitism [Brill 2015], although it’s still a hardback no one can afford), I will say that if you must react, it’s better to argue with them than play the victim and simply dismiss them as, to use a recent term, deplorables. Maybe the Jews really are dangerous. Maybe Israel really is the chief source of evil in the world. Let them defend this view, as a position and not a prejudice. Calling them antisemites is an attempt to reduce debate to name-calling.
But if you agree with me that such discussions aren’t likely to be productive, then we should stop worrying about labels and just remember the eternally problematic nature of Jewish firstness. If people want to hate you, there’s not much point in arguing with them. You simply need to prevent them from monopolizing the discussion—another troubling trend of the victimary era to which the new administration should restore some balance.
Meanwhile, those who hear in their dreams the sound of the brown-shirted alt-right smashing windows and heads might remember that Trump’s beloved daughter Ivanka, in many ways the most impressive member of his family clan, is an Orthodox Jew.
3. Reality check
The term “reality” in “reality show” is more than a bit ironic, as the mere fact of knowingly being part of a “show” is precisely the opposite of what 19th-century novelists meant, or thought they meant, by “realism”—a term Flaubert always disliked. When Balzac called his novels la comédie humaine to contrast his imaginary world to Dante’s, he meant that it was the novelist and his privileged reader who should see the world as a spectacle, not that we lived in what would later be called la société du spectacle. But this is what Hegelians and Marxists used to call “dialectic”: the novelist’s ambition of making the world into a spectacle “for the reader” reflects a mimetic awareness that eventually makes it impossible for any of the inhabitants of the world to escape becoming themselves self-spectators. The “realist” novel was one of the early reflections, or symptoms, of this; I needn’t mention its more recent, more obnoxious indices, except of course for “reality TV” itself.
With Trump this dialectic has reached a new level. My first Chronicle (493) on Trump, which dates from way back in August 2015, as well as a more recent one (512), referred to the concept of “reality TV” as a locus of resistance against the victimary and, using the example of Caitlin Jenner-Kardashian, for creating a new reality for/of/in oneself. But the joke is on all those of us, even including me, who exploited this facile irony. No, he wasn’t a TV boss saying, “You’re fired!”; the man won the election because he understood “reality” in the “real” sense better than everyone else. As they say in France, chapeau!
But this should also be understood in more sober terms. For precisely, and this is a sign of the merit of Trump’s candidacy as a test of democracy, in contrast to that of Obama whose very victory was already a triumph—one unfortunately caricatured by the Peace Prize which, to be fair, the new president would have found it awkward to refuse—unlike his predecessor, Trump must produce results. Being the first billionaire president, at least by some calculations, is not like being the first black one; Trump has not to be but to do. Which is after all how politicians are “really” supposed to be judged.
Amity Shlaes’ informative 11/18 WSJ review of two books on Herbert Hoover pointed out how drastically Hoover’s progressive-technocratic Great Engineer persona was wrecked by the failure of his early efforts to stem the depression. Not that Roosevelt really did much better, but he at least understood the problem, if not how to remedy it. Hoover had three years to deal with it, and his failure made everyone forget the early triumphs of this Stanford-educated social and political engineer in directing mines, digging harbors, shepherding the new radio industry, running worldwide relief operations, and generally embodying the greatest hopes of the technocracy. Hoover’s later image, as I recall from my childhood, became one of rather pathetic superannuated failure. This, not unleashing some new Fascism, is the real danger we face under the incoming administration.
In order to justify his election, Trump must make the economy healthier and improve our international standing, open up our educational system and restore our military, remove the ideologically motivated restrictions of the victimary-environmental era while keeping the lid on pollution, fix the VA, clean up the IRS and the Justice Department, and on and on. And in four years, and already in two, the public will have the opportunity to evaluate his efforts and judge his successes and failures. As the electorate indeed judged the Obama administration’s failures in the Congressional elections already in 2010 and even more drastically in 2014, but as it could not do in the 2012 presidential election for reasons that in Trump’s case will clearly not apply.
I hope that meditating on the evident truth of this last observation will inspire the remaining never-Trumpers on both sides to put off filing their Canadian immigrant applications. You don’t have to love the guy, but he has certainly earned a fair chance at showing us what he can do.