The COVID-19 pandemic has now killed more than one hundred thousand Americans and constitutes a clear break in what had been our economic and social reality. Liberal critics are right to say that Donald Trump is dangerous and that he has now presided over an entirely preventable catastrophe. But a true reckoning with Trump’s threat to American norms and institutions must recognize that he is the product of both. It must also account for why a historic uprising against police violence in a Democrat-ruled city has abruptly upended the quarantine.
Liberals who had been claiming to lead the #resistance to Trump now find themselves cast as one of many targets for a mass rebellion. Obama’s national security adviser Susan Rice declared that the uprisings were “right out of the Russian playbook,” her delusion perfectly encapsulating liberal incomprehension.
In the meantime, economic conditions for everyday people remain catastrophic. Anger and necessity drove people together and brought an end to social distancing: both in the streets to protest and in workplaces, as “reopening” pushes people off the unemployment rolls. The coronavirus continues to surge. Not among masked outdoor demonstrators, but across the Sun Belt — including Tulsa, where Trump is going ahead with his plan for a large indoor rally the day after Juneteenth.
On March 12, Trump warned that this ongoing emergency might provide him with the excuse for sweeping powers: “I have the right to do a lot of things that people don’t even know about,” he mused. A few weeks ago, he threatened to deploy US troops to put down demonstrations.
Ahead of November’s election, Trump will campaign not only against familiar bogeymen like China and immigrants, but against the specter of “antifa” and “thugs,” too. Trump is a world-historic ugly figure. But his language resonates because Americans had long since become fluent in the rhetoric of xenophobia, law and order, and tub-thumping nationalism. A powerful minority remains ready to cede yet more power to our rulers in the name of security.
Trump’s authoritarian style has prioritized personal loyalty, television ratings, and his own reelection prospects over public health and science, while people are dying and the economy takes a disastrous hit. He steps into the void of establishment politics, declaring himself and the official violence that he commands to be the thin blue line separating society from its enemies. The president’s saving grace may be that his pathological narcissism results in the most incredible incompetence, making it unlikely that he will summon the strategic brilliance needed to transform liberal democracy into the authoritarian form that his detractors fear most.
However, the worst-case scenario was always that this aspiring strongman would preside over a major crisis. In January, it seemed as if that crisis might be a war on Iran. Instead, we became enmeshed in a global pandemic that has equipped Trump with terrifying authority over everyone’s life and death. Then came the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, its drawn-out sadism captured on viral video. With the curtain pulled back, the monster was revealed to be something much more ordinary and familiar than a solitary dotard in the White House.
Protests erupted throughout the country, with police vehicles and even a whole precinct set ablaze, widespread looting, and hundreds of thousands of people in the streets, masked but socially proximate in a way we had not been for months. People had given everything to beat COVID-19. They stayed home, watching and educating their kids while working remotely. They put themselves at risk to do essential work. They suffered layoffs and waited for unemployment benefits — or never received them at all. The quarantine was supposed to buy time for the US government to flatten the curve and deploy testing and contact tracing on the necessary scale.
Instead, we face a collapsed economy, with inadequate aid to staunch the pain already running out, and little confidence that we will fare much better against a second wave. Everyone sacrificed to save one another. It is now clear that the government squandered our sacrifice and, with the development of a vaccine an open question, may be stumbling into a de facto “herd immunity” strategy.
People suffered and died, not because of a novel coronavirus, but because of the long-standing social crises that predated it. The contradictions of American capitalism have been the principal “super-spreader event” all along.
The politics of the pandemic proper now seem as distant as the time before we knew what COVID-19 was. Conflicts played out remotely on-screen. Governor Andrew Cuomo exuded the appearance of competency, even as the pandemic spun out of control across New York City. Joe Biden broadcasted live from his basement, awkwardly shadowboxing with his own confused words. In Washington, Dr Anthony Fauci strained to stay in Trump’s good graces, while the president himself floated the injection of disinfectants as a possible treatment, and declared that he had begun taking hydroxychloroquine. The federal, state, and local governments stockpiled tens of millions of doses for the unproven treatment, before the FDA revoked authorization this week.
Trump’s cruel narcissism expressed itself through a lethal contempt for expertise. And boredom. He busied himself with settling old scores, firing intelligence community inspector general Michael K. Atkinson because he forwarded the whistleblower complaint that had prompted impeachment proceedings to Congress. Meanwhile, acting Navy secretary Thomas B. Modly — who has since resigned — anticipated Trump’s displeasure by relieving Captain Brett Crozier of his command. Crozier’s sin was to write a letter pleading for action to control an outbreak on his aircraft carrier.
Trump’s freakish mismanagement was, as his liberal critics note, long in the making. Back in February, Trump’s attorney general Bill Barr intervened in the case against dirty trickster Roger Stone, walking back the lengthy prison sentence recommended by career prosecutors after Trump tweeted against this alleged “miscarriage of justice!” Republican senators secured Trump’s own acquittal in his impeachment trial, rebuffing the voluminous evidence that the president had withheld military aid to Ukraine in order to coerce an investigation of Joe Biden’s son. (Hunter Biden’s breathtakingly corrupt acts are, it seems, entirely legal.) Instead of being a reckoning, impeachment proved to be a revelation of the obvious: with Republicans in control of the Senate, Trump can very nearly do whatever he wants.
Last month, Bill Barr sought to have the charges against right-wing cause célèbre Michael T. Flynn, who had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, dropped. A triumphant Trump posted a tweet that condemned “Dirty Cops and Crooked Politicians” for going after his onetime, short-lived national security adviser. Obama, who Trump claims orchestrated a vast conspiracy to destroy him, warned that “our basic understanding of rule of law is at risk.”
But that news item receded rapidly into the haze, supplanted by the pandemic’s ceaseless horror. Then people took to the streets, fighting cops and looting capitalists. Trump’s warning that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” was an unadorned threat. But that chilling phrase was also descriptively accurate: the rule of law is the use of force to protect class power. Looting simultaneously breaks the law and violates the sanctity of private property. In the deed, it reveals the criminal justice system’s true purpose.
Liberal critics see Trump as an aberration installed by a foreign enemy, because it would be too disturbing to reckon with his mundane origins in domestic politics. Instead, they learned to love the FBI and hate Russia. Meanwhile, conservatives transfixed by Fox News discovered that their traditional love of cops did not extend to a nefarious “deep state.”
What neither side can understand is that Trump’s criminality stems from the very institutions he is set on destroying. It can’t be grasped properly because American politics is usually interpreted through a partisan lens, Republican or Democratic.
Trump has been able to violate norms and erode institutions because both were always hollow pretexts. Law enforcement coexisted with the most flagrant official crimes long before Trump was meant to have disgraced the Oval Office. Liberals and conservatives alike embraced the decade-spanning “wars” on crime, immigrants, and, after 9/11, terror. Both parties nurtured a culture of lawlessness in defense of “law and order.”
As economic precarity deepened, a bipartisan political consensus tided people over with a security agenda, combined with the stigmatization of economic needs as coming from the same unworthy, racialized parasites who were presented as security threats. The selective staging of social conflict in the form of culture wars distracted from the agreement of the warring sides when it came to economic questions.
In the 1970s, as the global economy entered a permanent slowdown, the neoliberal counterrevolution took flight: unions were crushed and wages flatlined as capitalists scoured the globe for new profit opportunities. New Democrats defeated the party’s more social-democratic wing, turning on their historic base in organized labor to appeal to suburban professionals. This pivot to affluent voters also meant that Democrats embraced a competition with their Republican rivals over security politics: on the streets, at the border, and abroad.
To appeal to professional suburbanites who were barracked within segregated neighborhoods and municipalities, New Democrats joined Republicans in backing welfare reform, which promised to safeguard the taxes of “hardworking Americans” from redistribution to undeserving poor people of color. They supported mass incarceration, because life — whether it ends in prosperity or prison — was all about choices and just deserts. They went hard on border security, because only vigilance and strength could protect our blessed national status from a deservedly chosen people’s jealous enemies.
Of course, it wasn’t just affluent professionals who supported these policies: with economic transformation or even mere amelioration excised from public debate and street violence skyrocketing, repression was now the only form of security on offer from the state.
No Vision for the Future
Democratic officials, pundits, and many voters are now all clamoring for a return to normal, having opted for Joe Biden’s restorationist promise over the left-populist horizon of Bernie Sanders. But Biden’s anemic campaign offers at most a faint echo of a once-robust establishment that has no vision for the future, precisely because it cannot come to terms with its past. Liberals have embraced a simulacrum of something that no longer exists.
We don’t need to seek safety in nostalgia to fight against Trump’s brazen authoritarianism: in fact, doing so is positively harmful. Liberals are right to insist that the president poses a dangerous threat to this country and the wider world. For its part, the Left has largely ignored the endless saga of his transgressions, correctly surmising that impeachment was a dead end, and noting that the country’s previously “normal” order was so gruesome and full of contradictions that it made Trump president.
Any critical analysis must be grounded in history. On January 19, 2017, the day before Trump took office, the United States was a country with a fossil-fueled economy charging headlong into climate chaos, a gargantuan archipelago of mass imprisonment, a militarized southern border, First World riches alongside Third World poverty, legalized corruption dictating the path of lawmaking, and permanent global war unhinged from domestic or international law.
Trump is a creature of the social order that preceded his government, not an extraterrestrial. American exceptionalism has prevented his liberal critics from recognizing Trump’s natural habitat. He is, of course, from New York City, where outer-borough reactionary populism married Manhattan high finance and real estate to create the modern New York City Police Department (NYPD).
Those who implemented the policy of mass incarceration did so partly by the book: zealous prosecutors took up mandatory minimum laws passed by legislators from both parties for a wide range of crimes, sending the incarcerated population soaring above two million. The entire carceral system, with its harsh punishments and assembly-line prosecutions, received near-totalitarian powers over those who were marked out as criminals and thus unworthy of the law’s protection. Well before Trump, the “rule of law” was in practice the law’s draconian rule over those poor and disproportionately black people who had been expelled from neoliberalism’s labor market.
This legalized repression always had a sharp extralegal edge, too. Prosecutors routinely disregarded their obligation to provide evidence that might be exculpatory to defense attorneys, and the Supreme Court rubber-stamped these violations. They also ignored pervasive police perjury, making an officer’s word — however implausible — incontrovertible evidence of guilt.
Police were able to physically abuse suspects with impunity, and even murder them. Justice required neither truth nor proportionality in punishment. There was no partisan divide when it came to police departments and district attorneys using junk forensic science to lock people up. What mattered was convicting and incarcerating those already presumed guilty of being society’s enemies.
Law and order has never been merely a staid affair of somber courtrooms. It has also been transgressive and vulgar. On September 16, 1992, Rudy Giuliani, formerly US attorney for the Southern District of New York, helped the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA) lead a riot of thousands of off-duty NYPD officers against Mayor David Dinkins, the first black person to hold the post, and his proposal for an all-civilian oversight board. Cops in a drunken mob jumped on cars, stormed through barricades up the steps of City Hall, and shut down traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge, chanting “Dinkins must go,” “The mayor’s on crack,” and “No justice, no police.”
The uniformed on-duty police who were standing by did nothing to stop them: the “war on crime” always presumed the lawlessness of law enforcement to be essential. Trump, surfing the heights of New York high society, got on board, taking out full-page newspaper ads in May 1989 urging that the wrongfully accused Central Park Five be put to death: “CIVIL LIBERTIES END WHEN AN ATTACK ON OUR SAFETY BEGINS!” Policing loomed ever larger in New York because local and national elites had used a debt crisis in the 1970s to force the city to trade its budding social democracy for real estate and finance-led development. Coercion was cheaper to purchase than consent.
The year after the riot, Giuliani beat Dinkins and went on to oversee the very same police department that under his watch was infamous for its racism and brutality. Facing complaints from black New Yorkers, Giuliani responded as follows:
I want to reach out to all of the communities in the city. It has to be a two-way street. And they’re going to have to learn how to discipline themselves in the way in which they speak also.
Today, Trump’s detractors ask, “What happened to Rudy?” A better question to ask: Why did so many people not understand who Giuliani — christened “America’s Mayor” after 9/11 — already was?
Politics divides the world into us and them, a people and its enemies. “The forces of evil are all around,” PBA president Philip Caruso warned during the anti-Dinkins cop revolt. “They are trying to surround us. They are trying to defeat us.” Normal rules, of course, do not apply in a war against evil: those entrusted with protecting the rule-bound order must, in exceptional circumstances, be exempted from those very same rules. In a state of crisis, the exception becomes the rule — and we have long been living in a permanent state of crisis, a bizarre existence normalized by its incredible longevity.
We should be very wary of the fact that Trump and Biden have both likened this public health crisis to a “war.” Trump is now the commander in chief and can operate with minimal restraint, thanks to his predecessors and their enablers in the system of government.
In February, Trump launched a cascade of pardons and commutations for powerful, well-connected white-collar criminals, including convicted junk-bond king Michael Milken, the man whose avarice made him the face of 1980s Wall Street greed. It was the apotheosis of decades of criminal justice history, the unmasked expression of the role played by mass incarceration in the American class war.
California’s Proposition 187 began with these words:
The People of California find and declare as follows: That they have suffered and are suffering economic hardship caused by the presence of illegal aliens in this state. That they have suffered and are suffering personal injury and damage caused by the criminal conduct of illegal aliens in this state. That they have a right to the protection of their government from any person or persons entering this country unlawfully.
The 1994 ballot measure launched the contemporary war on “illegal immigrants” into the heart of national politics.
Since the 1990s, immigrants have seen their most rudimentary protections against deportation shredded, while the authorities erected hundreds of miles of border fencing and the size of the Border Patrol nearly quintupled. The boundary lines demarcating “the American people” from outsiders were enforced all the more zealously as the value of American citizenship itself seemed to plunge. Legal permanent residents who had spent most of their lives in this country found themselves permanently banished for trivial drug crimes. The executive branch exercised vast powers to target undocumented people for deportation, and millions fell victim to this draconian policy — first in the name of the war on crime and then, also, of the war on terror.
In an unapologetic act of ethnonational and religious profiling after 9/11, the Bush administration used a dragnet to round up Muslim immigrants, many of whom suffered physical abuse before they were deported. Much of Trump’s war on immigrants, including the racist travel bans covering vast swaths of the Muslim-majority world and Africa, has passed judicial scrutiny.
The war abroad was the border at home. As with the war on crime, even brazen official crimes have mostly gone unchecked. The war on immigrants that Trump has inherited, like the war on crime, isn’t illegal: it is the law.
Trump’s wall project didn’t start the construction of hundreds of miles of fencing: that was already in place, thanks to the Secure Fence Act of 2006, signed into law by George W. Bush and supported in the Senate by Obama, Biden, and Hillary Clinton. Trump’s “wall” is the border war prosecuted by his predecessors taken to its latest extreme. His evisceration of Central American asylum rights, exemplified by family separation, was a cruel intensification of Obama’s attempt to detain Central American families together.
What might seem unusual are Trump’s deep cuts to refugee resettlement programs, and his call for the four congresswomen of color known as “the Squad” to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” But a serious historical account must make sense of what in pre-2016 American politics made this kind of behavior possible: the long-standing demonization of immigrants as a domestic threat of foreign origin, and of nonwhite people who dissent as always somehow foreign.
The function of this anti-immigrant security bluster, ramped up with every Border Patrol hiring surge, new piece of fencing, or deployment of the National Guard, was to redirect American anxiety over economic globalization and the waning benefits of imperial citizenship into scaremongering about migrants and illegal drugs. In a 1996 memo to President Clinton, his senior adviser Rahm Emanuel — nearly two decades before Emanuel would preside over an attempted cover-up of Laquan McDonald’s police murder as Chicago mayor — wrote the following in private: “If we want continued public support for trade and friendly relations with Mexico, we must be vigilant in our effort to curb illegal trade (e.g. narcotics and immigrants).” It was considered uncouth to speak with such candor in public before Trump.
Trump has gone beyond the practices of his predecessors by exploiting the coronavirus crisis to almost entirely suspend legal immigration — with a predictable exception for the guest workers that business demands, even as agents turn back unaccompanied minors seeking asylum at the Mexican border. But Trump’s presidency was only possible because his declaration that Mexican migrants were “rapists” and “bringing crime,” and that Muslims posed a terrorist threat, resonated with far too many people. Trump’s xenophobia spoke the language of a bipartisan war on crime that was always a war against immigrants, too.
Bringing the War Home
Trump’s call to “dominate” protesters and his threat to deploy overwhelming military force prompted establishment critics to complain of a transgression, because the raw, unrestrained violence of the active-duty military is only meant for use against foreigners. “Pentagon officials note that the military is trained in using lethal power against foreign adversaries, not in law enforcement, and what is appropriate in Falluja is not in Farragut Square,” the New York Times reported as self-evidently true. George Floyd’s globally broadcast execution, however, had already reminded us that imperial violence was never constrained by the border.
Military deployment would represent a dangerous escalation rather than a fundamental rupture. Police officers under the control of Democratic mayors have shown that domestic security agents are capable of spectacular violence: attacks with vehicles, wanton beatings, rubber bullets to the eye, kettling marchers on the Manhattan Bridge, bombarding cornered protesters with tear gas.
It was Democratic mayors who imposed curfews from Providence and Seattle to New York and Los Angeles, readily suspending the basic civil right to exist outside of one’s home. Democratic governors joined their Republican counterparts in deploying National Guard troops, whose camouflage uniforms, assault weapons, and armored vehicles cannot easily be distinguished from those of the standing military under Trump’s command.
Official brutality at home and abroad have long reinforced one another. The Bush administration declared foreign non-state combatants to be unlawful, and thus without protections under international or domestic law. They also tried to do the same thing to Jose Padilla, a US citizen. They authorized torture, duly laundered by legal memoranda, leading to detainees being “beaten, thrown into walls, forced into small boxes, and waterboarded — subjected to mock executions in which they endured the sensation of drowning.” Bush and his officials called it “enhanced interrogation techniques,” while the New York Times, avoiding the T-word until 2014, dubbed the techniques “brutal.”
Dick Cheney suggested that it was effectively impossible for Americans to torture by virtue of their country’s exceptional status:
To call this a program of torture is to libel the dedicated professionals who have saved American lives and to cast terrorists and murderers as innocent victims. . . . in the fight against terrorism, there is no middle ground, and half-measures keep you half-exposed.
What “we” do must be something else, something noble, by virtue of who we are. Defenders of cops, of course, say the same thing.
The CIA and its allies in both parties spent years falsely claiming that torture was necessary to stop terrorism and find Osama bin Laden; then, under Obama stalwart John Brennan, CIA officers spied on their Senate overseers at the very moment that an investigation threatened to expose them. Brennan (alongside fellow national security alumni) took up work as a TV commentator, earning a living by making the implausible case that Trump’s behavior is unprecedented.
Like the wars on crime and immigration, the war on terror exceeded the already capacious limits of legality. Indeed, the new enemy provided fresh license for official impunity. In 2005, the New York Times published revelations that the Bush administration had authorized the NSA to intercept international phone calls of US citizens without a warrant.
The Times, however, had already possessed the story in 2004, ahead of George W. Bush’s reelection. They decided not to publish it under government pressure. Editors only agreed to put it in the paper more than a year later because James Risen, one of the two Times reporters who had written the story, was about to publish the revelations in a book.
“Three years after 9/11, we, as a country, were still under the influence of that trauma, and we, as a newspaper, were not immune,” Bill Keller, the paper’s executive editor, later reflected. “It was not a kind of patriotic rapture. It was an acute sense that the world was a dangerous place.” But Keller’s unquestioning fealty to the national security state is precisely what the long hangover from post-9/11 patriotic rapture looks like.
The response to this devastating revelation from Congress, where Democrats had won back control, was just as obsequious: it passed the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, which expanded surveillance powers and provided retroactive legal immunity to the phone companies that had cooperated in illegal wiretapping. Senator Barack Obama voted “yes” and, once in office, did nothing to investigate or prosecute the crimes of the war on terror. Indeed, that war continued under Obama, who carried out more drone strikes in his first year than Bush had during his entire eight.
Instead of scrutinizing the national security state for having created this mess, liberals now lionize it for supposedly leading the resistance to Trump. Indeed, in 2018, Nancy Pelosi and the impeachment hero Adam Schiff joined Republican leaders to keep the PRISM and Upstream mass surveillance programs exposed by Edward Snowden. Ever since 9/11, under presidencies of both parties, the Democratic leadership has sought alignment with the security state. Out of power under Trump, it prays that our nation’s spymasters will deliver us from his presidency. Meanwhile, Trump and his base hope that cops will be their salvation. Who is looking to the people?
Trump continues the permanent global war thanks to a 2001 congressional authorization for the use of military force, ostensibly limited to “those nations, organizations, or persons [the president] determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11.” In January, Trump ordered the assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, and decided to justify the killing by pointing to the 2002 authorization of military force against Iraq — a war launched by President Bush and bipartisan supporters in Congress (including Joe Biden) with terrible lies and in disregard for international law.
That authorization remains alive today even though it specifically authorized attacking the government of Saddam Hussein, who was overthrown in 2003 and executed in 2006. Trump’s purported “isolationism” is in fact mere militarism, the apotheosis of an American prerogative long embedded at the heart of US foreign policy. Trump’s allergy isn’t to attacking foreign lands, but to US troops dying there: the same premise that has inspired the emphasis on airpower and drones in Afghanistan that has led to many, many fewer US casualties than any major conflict in the last century of US history, save for the First Gulf War.
Trump has turned this generalized impunity into the most apoplectic celebration of American exceptionalism, a defiant pledge to defend the people against their enemies, foreign and domestic. Ironically, the liberal enthusiasm for the wars on terror, immigrants, and crime didn’t convince voters that they were as tough as Republicans. Instead, it legitimized the framing of a radicalized right, helping Republicans to paint liberal politicians and journalists as weak and even treasonous. With fundamental economic questions removed from political contention, conflicts over security were channeled into disagreements over narrowly circumscribed “social issues,” on terms that ensured only the Right could win: faith, family, nation (with the subtext of all three being race).
On the campaign trail, Trump pledged to bring back torture to “beat the savages,” because those who violate the rules are not worthy of their protection. “We have to play the game the way they’re playing the game,” Trump said. Once in office, he claimed that ISIS had been defeated because, under his leadership, the military was “fighting to win” and no longer “fighting to be politically correct.” More recently, he intervened to protect Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher, credibly accused of monstrous violence in Iraq, pledging to “stick up for the warriors.”
Trump also scorned the rules on the home front, suggesting that Black Lives Matter caused more crime: “Radical activists freely trafficked in vile and anti-police hostility, and criminals grew only more emboldened as a result.” He offered Long Island police cadets advice on caring for detained suspects: “Please don’t be too nice.” Police, of course, had received those marching orders many times before.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, just before he was pushed out for defending his own vision of the “rule of law,” sharply limited the ability of federal prosecutors to take action against abusive police departments. It was a massive blow to federal oversight of dangerous cops — a real if modest accomplishment of the Civil Rights Division in Obama’s Justice Department.
Sessions depicted the application of the law to police themselves as something that was inherently illegitimate. “Some started to treat criminals like victims. And you like criminals,” Sessions had complained, speaking to a law enforcement gathering:
But not this Department of Justice. We know whose side we’re on. We’re on the side of the good people, public safety, law, faith, and community. We defend our people and our values against outlaws.
This was the principle upon which Giuliani oversaw the NYPD and with which Cheney orchestrated the war on terror: any action to protect our exceptional nation is inherently justified.
Trump has seized the long-running expansion of executive power as a shield protecting his own personal impunity, an untouchability reinforced by his ability to hand out pardons and ventilators alike as patronage. Trump and his allies have justified this impunity as a crusade against abuse by federal law enforcement and the national security state.
They even have some justification for doing so. In December of last year, the Justice Department inspector general found that the FBI had made gross misrepresentations in its applications to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court when it requested permission to spy on former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
It’s long been obvious that the court was a rubber-stamp operation for the national security state, which hardly ever rejected a warrant request. In March, few noticed another report from the Justice Department’s inspector general. It showed that the problems with Carter’s FISA warrant applications were part of a systemic pattern that had been evident throughout the FBI’s post-9/11 history: there were “apparent errors or inadequately supported facts” in every single application that they sampled for review.
It was only when these practices harmed a member of Team Republican that the FBI, the court, and now Congress (where legislation is being considered) moved to impose any reforms. Only then did standard practices come to seem objectionable. What Trump called a “witch hunt” was in fact just business as usual.
Trump’s conflict with the “deep state” derives from his management of global affairs, which has elicited the loudest complaints from bipartisan establishment critics since the beginning of his presidency. In fact, Michael Flynn, formerly one of the military’s top terrorist hunters, makes it abundantly clear that he considers Putin an ally in part because of his resolute action in the fight against “Radical Islam.”
America’s right wing sees the world in terms of a Manichean conflict because that is the brutal logic of wars that America has long been waging at home and abroad. It is precisely the politics of foreign policy, criminal justice, and immigration that set the template for Trump’s rule.
Era of Revolt
Many observers predicted that COVID-19 would inaugurate a new era of anti-politics, neutering the global revolts of recent years, as the masses dissolved into permanent paralysis, with the demands of bare survival reducing them to a state of dependence and isolation. At least in the United States, those dire predictions have been proven wrong. People are furious.
The video of George Floyd’s gruesome murder, with its sadistic expression of indifference to black life, sparked off the current unrest. But masses of people aren’t automatically ready to fight the police and loot iconic chain stores. The government’s spectacular failure to protect human life and well-being through this disastrous quarantine incubated anger and courage alike.
Trump poured kerosene on the fire, and may well suffer for it in November. But liberals committed to the status quo shouldn’t take comfort. Their fairy tales about who Trump is and where he came from are getting lit up in the streets.
It’s no great mystery that a powerful minority of Americans became enamored with an authoritarian figure who thrills at breaking laws, norms, and taboos in the name of protecting the American people against their enemies. Or that they came to think the rule of law does not apply to those charged with enforcing the rules. Who spoke up for norms and institutions when the Justice Department failed to prosecute financiers for their role in the 2008 global economic meltdown?
The notion that leaders can and must break the rules to protect the American people has been a central principle of US governance for decades. When neoliberal authoritarianism with a veneer of democracy didn’t work, many people demanded the real, autocratic thing, instead of reexamining the underlying premises.
What’s notable under Trump’s rule is that this impunity applies not only to the government in general but to him in particular — and that, in contrast with Richard Nixon’s messy fall, almost the entire Republican Party is rooting him on. Many others, disaffected with a system that has failed them under the leadership of both parties, simply do not care.
The US left, although it has experienced a historic reemergence, has so far failed to stitch together an upsurge of worker militancy, black rebellion, and the anger of downwardly mobile youth into a majority coalition that can pull us out of this mess. Trump’s extremism, however, has helped the Left reset the terms of debate by revealing the true and monstrous faces of erstwhile bipartisan norms, from xenophobia to law and order.
This uprising is attacking the neoliberal settlement at its racist and securitized core, winning support for the demand to defund police and reinvest in basic services. The decades-long rollout of the security state displaced class conflict. The current movement reignites it, demanding a state that funds care instead of repression.
Trump is the president that American history gave us to manage an unprecedented, interlocking crisis. Our situation is undeniably horrifying. But liberals will find no salvation in their impulse to return to “normal,” whatever that was. The crisis has resurrected demands that Trump “follow the science,” and he certainly should have. But what counts as “truth” in Washington has long been subordinated to the whims of the powerful, and the exigencies of keeping a crisis-beset system churning forward.
Liberals are right that Trump’s authoritarianism poses a threat to this country and the world. What they can’t grasp is that the rules were a pretext not only for repression but also for distraction. Our norms and institutions can’t save us from Trump because they helped make him president. If we want people to respect norms and institutions, we must build new norms and institutions that are worthy of people’s respect. For now, expect more cynicism. And more revolt.