It might seem alarmist to invoke the last century’s struggle between Fascism and Socialism. Trump has proclaimed the press an “enemy of the people” in the language of Fascism, though. He has not demonstrated a respect for the rule of law, and feels no need to tell the truth, factually. He has courted and fawned over authoritarian leaders, reaching out to them instead of American allies. We know that his campaign was aided by a foreign power. If he had only one of these characteristics – aversion to a free press, mendaciousness, traitorous criminality – we would be rightfully concerned. Taken altogether, they are alarming, absolutely. We need to speak out, as artists. We need to not be complacent.
Criticizing someone’s politics because they are the normative ones of a large group of people, not edgy enough, is to aestheticize politics and divorce them from any substantive explanation of how policy affects real people. This is what Tucker Carlson and the like do on Fox News, snorting at the majority who voted for Hilary Clinton in the last election. Fox would have its viewership believe that they’re onto something grand. They are the apostles, and Sean Hannity is a noble voice in the wilderness, talking directly to God. (His net worth is currently $200 million.) Fox News is not news, though. It is an aesthetic phenomenon. It provides entertainment and distraction for its viewers, masking as a channel of information.
Faux-edginess is also the domain of internet trolls. The troll bitches rabidly at anything that smacks of neo-liberalism, without acknowledging that neo-liberalism has given him his platform. He vaguely advocates something much darker. Neo-liberalism has failed a large group of people, but don’t forget what it’s brought: Google, Facebook, YouTube – all tools for the troll as much as for anyone else.
It’s not that I don’t listen to the troll. I listen to him, but I’m more convinced by someone I’m certain has suffered; not someone who has decided to break bad out of boredom, or to sell dietary supplements like Alex Jones (net worth, $10 million). I’ll listen to Jones as much as I can stomach, but my sympathy is for the families of the Sandy Hook victims. The most abominably irrevocable act is murder, and the greatest suffering is in the ones who go on living with their loss.
The consequence of judging political sentiments aesthetically, based on their gritty appeal, is that we get shunned when we express a benign sentiment like, “That’s cruel”. This is backhanded censorship. It is made possible by free-speech, but only permits anti-social speech. It’s a crappy aesthetic that poses as punk. Real punk pokes holes in censorship; fake punks like Milo Yiannopoulos reinforce it. If you equate black people with monkeys, as his followers do, you’re expressing your freedom of speech. If you call for limiting racist hate speech in a social media platform, you are a “totalitarian”.
We are afraid of faceless trolls. We have made them our moral arbiters. In a repeated ritual, the troll is judge, jury and executioner in the various shame-games that play out on the net, and politics is no exception. Why do we give a troll an audience? How is it that we give credence to someone who is too cowardly to identify himself, someone who is not a someone, but a series of sock-puppets on YouTube?
The only explanation is that we sympathize with the troll; we get him. We want to be that voice in the wilderness – the one with the real scoop, who will set everyone else straight and show them their blindness. Acquiring a personal politics, though, isn’t a fast-track gnosis like in The Matrix. It doesn’t sound flashy; it doesn’t make for snappy comments on 4chan. It is a process of self-evaluation. It’s not posting the first thing that comes in your head.
Endlessly ironizing your opponent’s convictions by saying she is caught in another “narrative” is not a political position. It is the beginning of one. You’re seeing the holes in your own story. The next step is that you realize you and those around you are in complicity with actions that go against your moral code, perhaps unwittingly, or covertly, by the leader you all support. You want to rush to tell everyone. But wait – they’ll call you on it, saying that you benefit as well from the status quo.
Your idealism chips away, replaced by self-protection. You don’t want to sound like a hypocrite. You think, “Maybe my idealism was nothing but trying to sound good to myself. I’ve always been a hypocrite.” And you were right. You were – along with everyone else. So you become world-weary and ironic: “We’re all complicit.” You might get stuck there, vaguely.
You shouldn’t get stuck there. You need to push through. You need to find the position you can live with, with all its contingencies – not the untethered contingencies themselves. For me, that is the liberal position. To be a liberal means: I base my politics on the apprehension of everyone’s common suffering. I may fail at my task, but I don’t give up trying.
When I speak with someone who has come to a conservative position through honest self-evaluation, I respect that person. I welcome conservative critique of my own views and often see my own wrongheadedness. To be a conservative, as I understand it, is to not orient oneself toward collective suffering, but rather toward collective sin. Liberals tend to blame someone’s suffering on society, sympathizing with the individual. Conservatives tend to blame someone’s suffering on himself, holding him accountable. Liberals become hypocritical when they start to talk about sin, conservatively – when they start scolding everybody. Conservatives become hypocritical when they start to talk about suffering too much, liberally – whining about their own entitlements.
Liberals specialize in imaginative empathy; conservatives specialize in moral resolve. I’m glad of both. The notion that we’ve somehow moved beyond the liberal/conservative schism is wishful thinking. It’s defeatism and confusion trying to sound clearheaded. It doesn’t play out in reality. Say what you want about the two-party system in America, but parliamentary democracies, with their multitude of parties – Green, Socialist, pro-market, Euroskeptic, anti-immigration, what have you – wind up with the same schism. They have to make coalitions and eventually you get a left-wing or right-wing majority, with some people happy about it, and others not. They get stuck in gridlock, and their governments shut down periodically, just like what happened under Trump for more than a month.
Trump is neither conservative nor liberal. He is an a apolitical opportunist. In the long run – if he is elected again – he is good for no one, because he is bad for democracy. Trump infuriates liberals so much, though, because he reminds them of liberal failure. At its worst, liberalism, with its constant ironizing and self-questioning, tip-toeing around any resolution, leads to inertia and moral relativism that permit the possibility of anything and accomplish nothing. That is Trump in a nutshell – promising something to everybody, delivering nothing.
Republicans in Washington relish Trump because he unwittingly exposes liberal hypocrisy – he is the biggest failure of liberalism they’ve ever been able to dangle in front of everyone. They don’t even have to do anything. The more he lies, the better for them. That’s why they line up behind him in formation like apparatchiks.
There’s two-facedness on both sides – liberals conservatively shunning, and conservatives liberally whimpering. But those two sides are still there; they haven’t just cancelled themselves out into some utopian hyperspace. I am not attacking the conservative viewpoint. I am calling out xenophobia, racism and hatred. If a self-proclaimed liberal wants to equate these abhorrent attributes with conservatism, he is disingenuous. If a self-proclaimed conservative ties his identity to racism and nativism, he is dangerous.
The point is that liberal and conservative truth claims are submitted in the framework of a democracy, which implies mutual, if at times grudging, respect and civility. Both liberals and conservatives have an account for suffering and the ones who inflict the suffering; neither ignore those subjects. The desire to blot them out is anti-democratic. If you ignore the both suffering of others and personal accountability as they play out in the political framework of your society, you are flirting with true totalitarianism, where the individual has no voice, no power – not through the state, nor through her own resolve.
* * *
I’ve learned about other people’s suffering though strong literature: fiction, political writing, scripture. Musicians are my guiding lights, like the African-American ones who gave me the music I play, who heroically surmounted their own suffering and made something beautiful and lasting. That surmounting was a personal achievement, but also a political one. The politically transformative power of great music and art is not only in its protest. It’s in its victories. The creative victories of my musical heroes are also political victories that raise our society as a whole. Music and art are always political.
I don’t want to make art for art’s sake. No thinking artist believed in that after two World Wars and a Holocaust. “Art for art’s sake”, when Nabokov or Thomas Mann make it a subject, is not a dictum. It is an admission of provisional defeat from a great writer, an expression of inconsolable irony. It is born out of consternation, not glibness. It means: “If I wanted my art to be only for art’s sake, I couldn’t.” At the same time, it signals: “If I wanted my art to matter, I couldn’t.”
An earlier aesthete like Oscar Wilde put the second of those admissions succinctly when he said, “All art is perfectly useless.” It’s funny, but we don’t really think he wants art to be useless. He’s just having a shrug about it, motoring through with his humor. Every artist wants her art to matter, no matter how they might self-defensively posture. So art for art’s sake is never something to which we aspire. It’s something we resign to when we truthfully admit the limitations of art, when we say: “My art did not affect political change this time the way I wanted.” Or, more troublingly: “That art, looking back now, was used for wrong kind of political change.” We don’t abandon hope in art though any more than we abandon hope in democratic discourse; we keep trying.
A troll tries to be creative, even artistic, when he attacks someone. It’s bad art though. He has no vision. His expression is unoriginal. This troll culture is the only one that Trump knows. His tweets are miniature, shitty artworks, with no accountability. They are disposable by design; they replace each other continuously. Here one might say: I am contradicting myself; I am aestheticizing politics. Yet trolling, whether from Trump or anonymously, is not political – it is cruelty, nothing more. This cruelty for the sake of cruelty is the sinister, final outcome of art for art’s sake; it is what Orwell meant when he said, “The object of torture is torture.”
To say that Trump acts “cynically” is to give him too much credit. Trump is not an intelligent animal. He does not self-reflect, nor does he apprehend humor. The only time he laughs is when someone else has been brought down. He may have learned that from his father Fred, as some surmise, but he’s all grown up now and is accountable for his actions. The problem is he is still a child. We’ve grown fatigued of this absurdity and want to escape. That is the emotional sentiment of the track that immediately follows “The Prophet Is a Fool” on the record, “Make it All Go Away”.
Trump’s lies have fostered the defeatist belief that no one is thinking for himself anymore – whatever I’m thumping my chest about is just some fake news. The title of “The Prophet Is a Fool” comes from the Book of Hosea. I don’t refer to Trump as a prophetic fool; the biblical translation into English is misleading, but Hosea’s poetry is strong: He meant that even if a real prophet came along, everyone would call him a fool – he’d get lost in all the noise. Trump keeps the noise constant – that is the only thing he is good at.
I’m not smug about Trump. Anyone who lived in New York City in the 80’s and 90’s knew Trump already then for what he was: A real-estate mogul who kept always kept his own money by exploiting bankruptcy laws. The fraud accusations already followed him back then. His strategy is no different now. He sells America short every time, exploiting the rule of law to grab his own share. There is nothing mysterious about him. He is driven by malevolent greed. The tax law he signed returns tens of millions of dollars to his own pocket. The presidency was attractive to Trump because he could tweak the system to serve his own family dynasty.
Trump was a misogynist long before he landed in the White House. We don’t need CNN “mainstream liberal” media to tell us that. He’s been a sexual braggart with a predatory streak for decades. You don’t need to be a liberal to know that.
One thing I don’t recall from Trump’s earlier decades in NYC was him going to church. No one believes that Trump knew or cared about Mike Pence – also no bright light – until his bid at presidency became a possibility. The homophobe Pence is ineffectual except in keeping his credulous brethren in Trump’s bullpen. The people who vetted Pence are smart enough. Oily figures like Mitch McConnell who actually do Trump’s bidding are intelligent. They are also immeasurably cynical.
Mike Pence is dumb enough, but you can be dumb and kind. He is not kind. When I look at his glazed eyes and frozen smile, I see resolute, pernicious pride. Christian apologist C.S. Lewis identified spiritual Pride as the most lethal of the Seven Deadly Sins, far more deadly than the merely animal Lust that sets Pence aquiver: