It is nearly impossible to determine the level and scope at which to engage with the news generated by Donald Trump. One does not want to submit to his schedule, and to maintain the frenetic, call-and-response rhythm of daily tweets and the increasingly ritualized outrage they provoke. One also doesn’t want to move so slowly as to miss truly important developments. So we shift around, and look for the middle ground, between the pace of the Internet that cast Trump forward and stuck us with him, and the glacial detachment that is to some extent necessary to arrive at any sort of enduring understanding of what the hell is going on.
There is not only a problem of pace, but also of register: just as we don’t really know how fast or how slow, so too do we vacillate between the somber and the slapstick. A recent article by Rudolph Herzog in Foreign Policy, entitled “Laughing All the Way to Autocracy” describes the problem well. There is a fine line, often difficult to discern, between subversive and palliative humour, and one comedian or show can cross from one side to the other as a result of a simple change of political circumstances. Stephen Colbert’s roast of George W. Bush was brave and destabilising, but for the most part the liberal political-humor media complex has been a useless opiate. The worst of it, in my view, was John Oliver’s embarrassing, time-wasting preoccupation with Trump’s ancestral family name. We called him Drumpf, and now he’s president. At present, these awful videos that are circulating, in which dinky countries make the case for being second to America’s firstness, seem to me not only unfunny, but also effective tools of normalisation. SNL’s skits seem powerful right now, because they’re bringing into clearer focus, each time Trump throws a Twitter fit in response, what an infantile shit he is. But this could change, and probably will, if it goes on for too long. I think the present moment calls for more straight-faced Sophie Scholl types than Tran-and-Helle jesters.
Meanwhile hard evidence is accumulating of Russian intervention in the French elections, in favor of Marine Le Pen. One wonders: will Americans continue to insist that any talk of Russian intervention in the US elections is just ‘playing the blame game’ even after Russia has openly and successfully installed its preferred candidate in France as well? At present Le Pen, leading a party that emerges directly out of Vichy Nazi collaborationism, is saying that under her leadership Israelis and Americans will be excluded from holding double French citizenship, while Russians will be granted an exception, since Russia belongs to the ‘Europe of nations’. So much for my own personal plans. But more importantly, please let us understand the global shock waves of Trump’s election, rather than acting as if the full extent of the terror were to be found in his already considerable domestic ravages. Putin wanted Trump to get elected in part because he knew that Trump would hand Europe over to him with few hitches. A Le Pen victory in France would be the first major step towards this realignment, which is basically a combination of the worst holdovers of the Russian Imperial era with the dregs of Western European Nazism. The Trump regime is fully complicit in it, either out of cretinous stupidity (as in Trump’s own case), or out of ideological commitment (Bannon’s).
I sincerely believe it is important, when speaking to our Republican friends and family, to ‘play the patriotism card’, to help them understand how they’ve been led to support something that is anything but conservative, anything but American, and that they never would have recognised as a reflection of their own views even as recently as a few years ago. I admire what Eliot Cohen and David Frum have been writing recently, and tend to agree with the latter that the Trump regime will be more destabilised by the sight of sincere, patriotic, flag-waving Americans calling for his ouster than by the usual suspects and the easily stereotyped ‘other side’. Frum is right, from a strategic point of view: the more conservative, the more radical. Even if you yourself find patriotism at odds with your internationalism or you identify more with class or generation or city than with patria, remember that in the last great war communist members of the French resistance fought under the leadership of De Gaulle, and with the help of Stalin’s Red Army and American GI’s they drove the Nazis out. That is a motley and enormously broad coalition, with each group involved understanding the reasons for their actions, the ultimate political goal of what they were doing, very differently. And similarly today: everyone who wants Trump to fall is on the same side, and it would be helpful to learn one another’s idioms.
In other news, there is a campaign afoot for an academic boycott of the United States, or at least a ‘pledge’ to stay away until the ‘travel ban’ is definitively reversed, and perhaps until Trump is removed. The idea seems to divide people very sharply. Opposition and support seem equally strong.
I for my part am surprised that this is the sort of issue one might be categorical about, rather than contextual. Of course, of course, sometimes it is the supreme expression of freedom to talk about Goethe or whatever, when those in power do not want you to talk about Goethe because they don’t understand what he said and therefore are afraid of people who are able to talk about him. Sometimes this free talk is best conducted in public institutions, sometimes in private, or even in hiding. This freedom is perhaps at its most powerful when it is the only freedom one has left (other than, as Epictetus said, the freedom to cut our own veins).
At other times, it can be an expression of freedom to get up and walk out of a lecture on Goethe in order to go out in the streets and protest, while we are still able to do so without being gunned down or caused to disappear, in order to shut down the university so that nothing can go on as before. When we take the latter approach it is not because we think ‘this is no time to be talking about Goethe’, but because we think the moment is right to do something other than talking about Goethe that will, in the long run, help to bring about a situation in which we don’t have to live under a tyrant who doesn’t understand Goethe and is therefore afraid of people who are able to talk about him (and who would surely pronounce his name as if it rhymed with ‘both’).
It is difficult to know, at any moment, which is the best approach. I would personally like to see everything in the US come to a screeching halt: I would like to see classes cancelled, the Oscars cancelled, taxi service cancelled, I would like to see a general strike take shape, and I’d like to see it sustained until the ogre is removed from power. I don’t want people to stop talking about Leibniz; I want people to stop unloading trucks. If my own withdrawal from academic events is not in the slightest contributory to that end, and if it would only hurt the people I claim to be in solidarity with while allowing the Trump juggernaut to roll on unaffected, then I suppose it would be better not to withdraw. I sincerely don’t know. But I do know that categorical convictions on this topic are extremely simplistic.
I mentioned earlier that there are a thousand subtle contextual differences that make Jesse Owens’s appearance at the 1936 Olympics a victory over Hitler, while 3 Doors Down’s appearance at the 2017 inauguration was a capitulation to Trump. I think many of us are too ready to imagine ourselves in the role of the great athlete, while in truth our contributions are probably more like those of the terrible, derivative, so-called ‘alternative’ rock band that, like so much else these days, commits treason against that scare-quoted adjective by helping to normalise, to make non-alternative, a tyrannical regime. Most of us are not Jesse Owens, but if we are going to keep going about our daily lives and making public interventions in the country run by that tyrannical regime, then we should ask ourselves whether in so doing we are at least approximating his gesture to some small degree, or whether we are not rather further derivatives of that derivative rock band, imagining our gestures as alternative but in fact expressing, through them, our acquiescence to the new political reality.
—Justin E. H. Smith