24 January 2018

Existentialist Trumpism

More proof that the Trump movement has driven some people nuts is Greg Grandin's think piece in the January 29 Nation. Grandin, a leftist historian, describes Trumpism as a death cult. Allegedly driven by a fear of death -- we'll get to that in a moment -- the Trump campaign "transmute[d] the fear of death into a drive unto death," willing a mad President to bring civilization crashing down in order to "finish the job of deregulation."  The regulated economic order identified with the Democratic party had grown increasingly unbearable to these cultists, reared on dreams of "freedom  as infinity," as ecological and other limits asserted themselves. "The promise of endless growth can no longer help organize people's aspirations, satisfy their demands, dilute the passions, contain the factions, or repress the extremes at the margins," Grandin writes. The breaking point that unleashed Trumpism was the Obama presidency, attended by increased (yet increasingly unsustainable?) assertiveness by minorities.

"And now, as we are falling back to a wasted earth, the very existence of people of color functions as an unwanted memento mori," Grandin essays, "a reminder of limits, evidence that history imposes burdens and life contracts social obligations." By some perverse math, white reactionaries equate social justice with death because they can only think of it as limitation. This, Grandin argues, is the psychological truth behind the "death panel" libel against Obama care. Trumpism at heart is "an enraged refusal of limits, even as those limits are recognized."

Grandin may be wiser than he knows, or at least more so than he cares to reveal to a progressive readership. The best proof that he may be on to something, if not on exactly what he suspects, is that much of what he says can be applied equally to the anti-Trumpists. Recall his reference to "the extremes at the margins," and note Grandin's claim that the Trump cult "has proved so confounding ... because what came before was also a death cult." He refers to America's disproportionate and irresponsible wasting of the world's resources, our refusal to share them properly with all nations and people's. But he could just as easily be referring to the dreams and fantasies of the left that have also been infuriatingly belied by intractable natural limits. While Trumpism, in Grandin's account, rails against the Other's claim to a just share of what remains, regardless of whether or not they deserve it by Trumpist standards, its opposite number -- something more than the obvious "death cult" of antifa -- rails against the Man, if you please, for refusing to share. If a Trump voter feels that we'd be better off today if not for so many freeloaders, the hardcore anti-Trumpist feels that we'd be better off if so many rich white men weren't so greedy, or so many poor white men so selfish. It probably becomes as increasingly intolerable for leftists to have to share the world with angry white men in our interesting times as it is for angry whites to have to share it with those who think they're the devil. Either way, Grandin's rant reminded me of that line from  Jean Paul Sartre's existentialist play, "Hell is other people." Sartre's play was set "literally" in Hell, and attempted to express a universal anxiety about humans' inability to truly comprehend each other. In 2018 America, partisan polarization has nearly reached the point of mutual incomprehensibility, making us ever more strangers to each other even as we scramble to form new tribes or reclaim older bonds. Grandin probably doesn't see this afflicting the left as much because his own leftism recognizes no problem that can't be solved by more sharing, but the increasingly intolerant tone of many on the left tells a different, more troubling story. Grandin put a lot of analytical imagination into his essay, but David Bromwich tops him elsewhere in the magazine by writing, "The Democrats are not heartless -- Trump could never have been their candidate -- but they have not yet begun to think."

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