What will life be like when Trump, that bright orange “Sun King” around which all social and cultural commentary revolves, finally goes out? His legacy will be examined by historians, and for all the talk of hyperpolarization and harsh rhetoric surrounding him, perhaps he ought to be best remembered as a unifier—unifying his most loyal partisans, certainly, but also bringing together a motley anti-Trump coalition comprising the FBI, the CIA, Wall Street firms such as Goldman Sachs, Amazon, Google, China, nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations and their Bill Gates-tier sugar daddies, the NBA, Bill Kristol and fellow Bush-adjacent NeverTrump Republicans, and every other company or public figure looking to set aside their differences to #Resist Trump.
Talk about strange bedfellows! Even if one can’t stomach Trump, the alternative entails aligning oneself alongside these variegated, surplus value-appropriating creatures of neoliberal capitalism.
This vast and disparate coalition ranges from wine-mom celebrities whining into their podcast microphones to a ride-sharing service actively urging “racists” to #DeleteUber, or from a sanctimonious Bill Gates chiding politicians for not heeding his unelected dictates about vaccine research to clout-chasing #Resistance doctors with dubious credentials tweet-storming about the next apocalyptic round of COVID-19.
The coalition materialized so quickly that its sudden existence now likely excites the fancies of the most fanatical conspiracy theorists, to be tossed in with QAnon, Pizzagate, Jade Helm, and other tales popular with the “tinfoil hat” crowd.
This is bad, if one’s goal is to resist the resistance, for two reasons. The first is simple enough: a conspiracy that functions as a just-so story or religious myth undoubtedly contains a lot of easily dispelled hogwash, and makes fools of believers whose inclination to endorse it arises from a genuine uneasiness with the state of the world.
The second can be derived from French theorist Jean Baudrillard’s take on Watergate: Watergate was neither conspiracy nor scandal, but rather a mere manifestation of everyday governmental operation, of “monstrous unprincipled enterprise,” that must be endlessly highlighted as an exception to the rule to keep people from realizing this obvious truth.
And why, after all, is anything so complicated as a conspiracy theory needed to explain away this convergence of interests?
J. A. Hobson, with his 1901 book Imperialism: A Study, and Vladimir Lenin, distinguishing and expanding upon these claims in 1916’s Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, disagreed on many items, but they did concur on a central point: imperialism, the form by which Western Europe achieved physical or market control of various nodes in a vast economic network, was the early 20th-century means by which finance capital spilled across borders, destabilizing everything it touched. This international capitalist competition, Ber Borochov noted in 1905’s “The National Question and the Class Struggle,” sowed chaos within affected countries, driving emigrants en masse into foreign lands and preventing the development of a “genuine nationalism” that “does not stifle the genuine interests of anyone” in those places. This continues today, and none of it is conspiratorial in the least: capital finds its way, as those benefiting from its manipulation make individual, rational decisions that in combination yield disastrous results.
In other words, the freest of agents—rich people and powerful, amoral bureaucrats—will have their way, or else. And their way, insofar as there is any discernible direction at all, is to burst forth from the indebted shell of the United States and into a vibrant future elsewhere, as in China, or perhaps everywhere.
Idealist Nonsense at Its Worst
Even though this is as far from a conspiracy as one can get—because, for example, the NBA expanding to a much larger Chinese market is perfectly rational and Goldman Sachs operating to maximize investment profits is precisely what its employees are paid to do—well-meaning people will say, “oh no, that’s just you being conspiratorial, these folks are merely trying to do well by doing good, and the good they wish to performing is Dumping Drumpf.”
This is poppycock, idealist nonsense at its worst. “Capital,” wrote Baudrillard, “was never linked by a social contract to the society that it dominates . . . it is the Left that hopes capital will comply with this phantasmagoria of the social contract and fulfill its obligations to the whole of society.”
Right now, most of the agents in this uneasy coalition are seeking to manage decline, specifically the decline of the United States and more generally the frequently remarked-upon “decline of the West.” In the world of facilities maintenance, certain aging buildings, having endured past their effective repair dates, are thereafter “run to failure”; only essential maintenance is performed, and the impacted structure is left to sag under its own weight until it can be demolished or sold. The principals running the show at Goldman Sachs, the NBA, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Amazon, and so forth have surely drunk this bitter tea (“so while you’re in it try to get as much shit as you can, and when your run is over just admit when it’s at its end,” to quote an Eminem rap of ancient vintage).
For the bureaucrats involved in this coalition, particularly those in security fields, there is a remarkable opportunity to lock down and privatize control of human behavior at a fairly reasonable cost. Constitutional law bars federal and state governments from taking a variety of rights-encroaching actions, but the restrictions placed on private actors are far more modest. So let these companies chasten labor with “zero tolerance” firing practices, break what remains of the legacy labor unions on the rocks of independent contractors and automation, control speech on their privately owned social media platforms serving in theory as “public commons” for the interchange of ideas, and even pay for private police forces to protect the lives and property that actually matter (namely, theirs).
This is “nudging” of the sort favored by scholars like Cass Sunstein, who believe individuals can not only be incentivized to engage in behaviors the state deems “good, actually” but that the guilt for collective failures in this regard, such as obesity and global warming, can be heaped at the feet of these individuals, regardless of how impoverished or hopeless their circumstances.
A Kinder, Gentler Despotism
Will either a Biden win or a Trump win challenge and perhaps even fracture this consensus coalition? Certainly a Trump win would lead to its metastatic growth over those next four years; one can easily imagine a state of affairs when privately-run media censors every image or remark by Trump in deference to “fact checks” that ignore the fact, as judge and lawyer Jerome Frank noted decades earlier, that most “facts” are themselves contested.
If Biden ultimately prevails in the vote count fight, expect at least some superficial fragmentation: those leftists who police the boundaries of “the Left” will stake out more radical positions, at least rhetorically, and distance themselves on paper from their temporary “Vote Blue No Matter Who” alliance regarding the defeat of Trump.
But one can expect Biden to pursue a more favorable course—an accommodationist course—toward China and continue to encourage corporations to control private conduct through a combination of sweet-sounding but toothless corporate social responsibility initiatives (statements such as “Nike doesn’t own this land that we’re leasing, the Chippewa Tribe does,” neglecting, of course, that their lease is with the owner of the shopping center) and increasingly hair-trigger HR hiring and firing practices. The latter, at least, will be aided and abetted by a largely “locked down” service sector, a vast “bonus army” of the unemployed who can be paid starvation wages on a “take it or leave it” basis at those essential businesses still allowed to operate (Amazon, grocery delivery, Dollar General).
Such a future will be less rhetorically violent, at least in the mainstream media’s comprehension, because they won’t cover this; instead, they’ll be dealing with the real issues, the real work: outrages du jour, pillorying some professor who announces she’s secretly “transracial” in the Rachel Dolezal style or shaming some fat, belligerent schlub who isn’t wearing a mask in the Walmart. Expect, eventually, that companies like Netflix and Amazon will start canceling your own subscriptions to their unavoidable services if you complain about the products on offer (“Netflix senses a lot of toxic masculinity in how you’ve been rating these films, Karen!”).
Can any of this be combated? Is this sad future, presented here for your consideration like an episode of “The Twilight Zone,” a fait accompli? Perhaps. Certainly our elites can now live indefinitely on compound interest and no longer need to honor their noblesse oblige bargains of yore. A Yale man no longer needs to become an admiral of the fleet if he’s penned up inside his well-armored “bugout bunker” in New Zealand firing off w(h)ine mom-style tweets about how the “orange man’s bad” or the “fat toxic male in the Walmart is bad for not masking his fat ugly face.”
Toward a Politics of Dignity in Labor
What about the people, as represented by the two dominant political parties? This will certainly be a heavy lift.
Years of “anti” discourse, pointing out why this or that person or idea is wrong because it’s missing some essential component, have made a productive politics, a restorative and empowering politics that goes beyond pat phrases like “the president needs to do the work,” rather difficult. In such cases, the better is always the enemy of the best; every action is doomed to failure; and merely giving some program a chance, even in a small state hoping to serve as a “laboratory for democracy,” is risking embarrassment and failure. “We’ve tried nothing and we’re already out of ideas,” as the saying goes.
But I do believe that something can stand athwart this tsunami of negativity and blunt its impact: a politics of dignity in labor. Not a politics of “greatness,” or “returning to greatness,” much less one that insists on endless superficial apologies for the sins of commission and omission of long-dead generations. No, I am talking about a politics that tells the people they are not the end of history, but only a stage on history’s way, a building block that will support generations to come. This view of the future, which requires a deep respect for posterity even if they’re not your kids or your kin, is something that has animated generations of immiserated immigrants to all but annihilate their own bodies so that their children could become something, anything, so long as it were merely a bit better than they were.
This means, of course, articulating and then experimenting with practical programs that could ensure the survival of the nation rather than allow for its managed decline: a nuclear new deal intended to achieve energy independence; reinvestment in social and civic infrastructure that will cause the largest buyer of construction trades services, the state and federal governments, to open the pocketbook and prime the pump; and a means of ensuring that people not only know they “matter” in some abstract way but also that they have the tools and training to farm, craft, build, and otherwise employ themselves useful pursuits not amenable to outsourcing, that keep their hearts rooted in the fertile, if polluted, soil from which they sprang.
These are just big ideas, and they can be batted down or written off as quickly as I typed them. “That’s just fascism,” “that’s racist New Deal democracy,” and so forth. The objections are endless.
After all, it is much easier to do nothing and criticize everything, to fiddle on the live stream while this would-be New Rome burns, but not all of us want to carry on like this. Some of us want to shuffle off this mortal coil, exhausted from exertion, able to tell the inheritors of what’s left that we put their lives first, that we gave them everything we had, that we tried our very best and they were so patient. Our country will be theirs, if they can keep it.