Critique in the Age of Trump
As a form of clear, political argument capable of swaying public opinion, challenging power, spurring action, etc., critique (or political criticism) in the age of Trump is in a serious bind: there’s an infinite demand for it at the same time that it’s becoming completely powerless. Trump himself has done a lot to accelerate this problem, but he’s not entirely to blame. The sad fact is that a lot of political criticism today just flat-out sucks. Before reckoning with this state of affairs, we should first grant two big caveats.
Caveat #1: Trump has largely inoculated himself from critique’s most biting effects by attacking its most traditionally powerful sources: the media and academia. His dictatorial war on the fourth estate continually conditions his base to distrust any criticism coming from “the dishonest media” and to trust him and his hand-picked propaganda rags as the only legitimate sources of “truth.” To disqualify academic criticism, Trump had to hitch his wagon to the right’s long war against “political correctness,” which, as John K. Winston writes, paints “conservatives [as] the victims of a prevailing leftist ideology in American universities, oppressed by radical students and faculty determined to brainwash them.” By instilling supreme doubt in academically acquired facts and data while pretending to peddle a truth that cuts through the lies and oppressive restraints of “P.C.,” Trump undercuts academic critique from the start, tainting it as part of a P.C. culture that, while remaining disconnected from the “Real America,” would only criticize him by employing the subterfuges of ideological bias and political malice.
Caveat #2: in the age of what Jodi Dean calls “communicative capitalism,” political criticism’s power to spur action is largely lost in the flood of “slacktivism,” attention deficit, and a saturated new-media market of think pieces that pop up as quickly as they’re forgotten. And if one uses this flood of differing content as a guide, it’s next to impossible to pin down what ideological foundations and consistent critical stances actually form the base of the so-called resistance.
These caveats undoubtedly stack the deck against the prospect that political criticism from the left can land a telling blow against our contemporary monsters. But they also exponentially raise the stakes for the arguments we make—we have to make every one count.
For the “Trump resistance” to not only survive the next four years, but also to marshal out of its many strands a viable, mass alternative to Trumpism and establishment politics, we must work out, here and now, terms for a more capable brand of political criticism. As a true “movement,” the resistance still doesn’t quite exist, and won’t, unless it comes to grips with its own critical foundations. I’m hoping to at least help jumpstart this process with a “road map” to some of the most damaging tropes and arguments that keep popping up throughout mainstream left-of-center critique and infiltrating the popular talk of would-be resisters. These tropes, I argue, aren’t just logically questionable; they’re politically dangerous.
Unity at the expense of conscience or dissent is just a cult.
Certain people will bristle at this approach from the start, call into question my own motivations, or skillfully dodge the descriptions I give, assuring themselves that this one or that doesn’t apply to them. And that may well be true. Some parts apply more to liberals, others to progressives or leftists. Given our dire political situation, though, I beg readers to take this as more interpellation than description. It’s not “calling out” anyone in particular, but calling to all those who consider themselves as somehow part of the Trump resistance. Because, even if we’re not the individuals advancing these flawed critiques, for the resistance to be a powerful, solid thing, we must take more communal responsibility for the bad arguments that weigh down our collective effort to build a movement.
After the 2016 election, the “popular left” (primarily liberal Democrats and progressives) is in disarray. Many anticipated that the right and the modern GOP itself would be the ones in shambles in the likely-seeming event of Trump’s defeat. So it goes. Democrats went from planning a Clinton coronation to having less power than ever. As a result, there’s been a tumultuous rush in left-leaning political discourse to figure out what the hell went wrong, who is to blame, and what to do now.
In this rush, a nasty trope has carried over from election season. It’s the effort to argue away any in-house criticisms of liberal electoral strategy as “divisive,” even dangerous. Clinton supporters used this trope to berate the Sanders faithful for “dividing the party” while many Sanders supporters likewise used it to berate BLM activists. There’s a clear logic to this charge. First, in scale and scope, the danger posed by a common enemy (like, oh, let’s say Donald Trump) outweighs the problems within and among the ranks of those who must mount a counteroffensive against that enemy. Second, such a counteroffensive requires the strength of a united front, more or less (even if we conceive of such a front as purely instrumental and temporary), and criticizing any part of this front, or the front itself, jeopardizes the ultimate goal. (It’s also axiomatic that the parties guilty of such feckless criticism—usually those of us on the far left—stand accused of missing the “bigger picture.”)
There are also catastrophic limits to this logic. Conscientious Republicans who still fell in line behind Trump for the “greater good” are the poster children for the evil of unity at all costs. Unity at the expense of conscience or dissent is just a cult. “Whoever fights monsters,” as Friedrich Nietzsche famously put it, “should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.” But monstrousness treads softly . . . People rarely acknowledge it for what it is, and they almost always have a good reason for letting it in the house. It may seem a far cry from GOP leaders’ spineless support for Trump, but there’s still something inherently monstrous and self-defeating in the resistance’s well-intentioned rhetorical call to suppress “divisiveness.”
Without the challenges posed by internal criticism, people become dumb and incredibly irritable whenever that is “divisively” pointed out.
Criticism is and must always be a necessary tool for sharpening one’s ideological positions and political tactics, making them more effective and harder to silence in the public realm. Without the challenges posed by internal criticism, positions become dull or just plain dogmatic, and people become dumb, unable to defend themselves, and incredibly irritable whenever that inability is “divisively” pointed out. The result is often what might be called a decaf purge mentality, which replaces one’s insecurities with a militant suspicion of critics’ allegiances and a compulsion to stigmatize them, even if they’re still more demonstrably “on your side” than not. Thus, the compulsion to snub out divisiveness can end up having the most divisive effect of all.
Moreover, the understandable desire to avoid unnecessary divisiveness readily turns into a Mean Girls–style defensiveness against any criticism or perceived malice whatsoever and, as Angela Nagle writes, a “self-flagellating” culture of critics constantly apologizing for stepping out of line. When this happens, the very fabric of solidarity, without which a Trump resistance cannot survive, dissolves. Associating criticism with buzzwords like “divisiveness” creates the illusion that solidarity in addressing a common cause implies uniformity in reasons for doing so, which is stupid and suicidal. Solidarity does not mean uniformity, and critique is among the best ways for people and groups to hash out common bonds and not self-destruct over irreconcilable differences.
When a “movement” rejects the sharpening of political positions that principled criticism provides, or when criticism is allowed to circulate as a never-ending, detached thought experiment with no practical bearing, people become practitioners of some hazy “liberalism,” “progressivism,” or “leftism,” which is held together less by steel-bolted principles than by the scotch tape of unchallenged consensus. Such practitioners are the ideal subjects of a watered-down popular front, which traffics in the generalized sense that everyone who’s already enlightened just understands what is good, obvious, and awful. This is a crappy foundation for a concerted political movement, but it works great as a kind of cultural dress code people can use to mutually affirm their shared “wokeness” while clearly marking the boundaries between friend and enemy. In this vision of politics as sociability-by-other-means, siding with the consensus does much of the work of justifying critical positions. As a corollary, though, individual members of the decaf front lose the ability to do so themselves (when asked, say, to define the point at which something is/isn’t cultural appropriation, is/isn’t an “existential threat,” or when better relations with Russia are/aren’t a “total disaster”).
Freddie DeBoer’s thoughts on this problem are worth quoting at length:
This is a constant condition for me: interacting with liberals and leftists who affect a stance of bored impatience, who insist that the answers to moral and political questions are so obvious that every reasonable person already agrees, who then lack the ability to explain the thinking underlying their answers to those questions in a remotely compelling way. Everything is obvious; all the hard work is done; only an idiot couldn’t see what the right thing to do is. And then you poke a little bit at the foundation and it just collapses.
This isn’t just about smugly berating dumb social justice warriors, though. The point is that engaging in constructive criticism, without discounting it beforehand as divisive, is necessary for ensuring that such avoidable foundation collapses don’t happen at a time when the stakes couldn’t be higher.
For the Trump resistance, figuring out “what is to be done” will require more practical trial and error than endless pontificating in print. But to ensure criticism contributes to this process productively, we can adopt one very simple guideline: Criticism directed inward isn’t divisive—unless it is. For criticisms to be cast out as divisively harmful to our political coalition’s goals requires first that there are clear goals to be harmed. In the long game, this involves figuring out whether such goals include: halting as many of Trump’s policies as possible, pushing him to support policies we like, establishing a new party, reviving existing parties, pushing for individual state secession, organizing economic protests, creating strategic mayhem, etc. Such goals cannot be properly hashed out and mobilized on a mass scale without being fire-tested through rigorous criticism. Doing so may also reveal how and when the resistance’s critical platform needs to be selectively divisive in order to clearly differentiate it from the Democratic platform.
If, from there, a critique’s effects and conclusions present no discernibly constructive aid in achieving such goals—if, after arguments have been honestly considered, even if it means confronting our own wrong and vicious traits—if, after all that, it becomes clear an author’s criticism is only motivated by self-serving, destructive, or vindictive ends, then the would-be critic can go to hell.
This one’s pretty self-explanatory. When fielding hot-button concerns—whether they’re about “echo chambers,” “political correctness,” “limousine liberals,” “smug liberals,” the “coastal progressive elite,” or Trump’s “white working class voter”—many critics and readers have developed the pointlessly hyperbolic reflex of writing off such concerns as falsified “myths.” At best, after slapping irresponsible “The Myth of X” titles on their articles, critics will backtrack immediately, explaining that fears about “X” are only partly justified and the issue is complex. But even with a more nuanced approach, it’s stupidly triumphalist to throw the baby out with the myth-steeped bathwater. People do this to deliberately frame issues with a stance of purposeful nonchalance and a sense of insignificance that’s more concerned with shaming proponents of a certain view than addressing the core issue itself. A counter-movement for the future—again, I’m interpellating here more than describing—needs to be able to deal with nuance, for Christ’s sake.
A watered-down popular front traffics in the generalized sense that everyone who’s already enlightened just understands what is good, obvious, and awful.
To call something like political correctness a “myth” is to resort to the same self-serving impulse that Trump uses to discount any news he doesn’t like as “fake”: the impulse to perpetuate one’s self-righteousness (even if that means erasing counter-evidence) and pretend all the problems are with the “other side.” It’s a confirmation-bias mentality that seems to afflict liberals the most; hence, eye-roll-inducing claims like Hillary Clinton’s flaws were a mirage cast by decades of right-wing smear tactics and that, actually, she was just about perfect. (She wasn’t). But none of us is immune to this mentality. Because it’s often the result of habits we don’t know we have, habits that lead even careful progressives and leftists, for instance, to take the bait of fake news stories just because they confirm our worldview.
Echo chambers exist. Personal flaws like being smug or politically correct—in the actual sense of the term—afflict people on the left and on the right, and everywhere in between (sometimes they appear in more “micro” settings, other times they set fire to everything, even from within our “own ranks”; look at the Steven Salaita case, for example). They’re not “myths,” and it’s important that we deal with them on our own turf instead of brushing them aside and letting our opponents frame the political field for us. To become a serious political entity, the Trump resistance can’t just shake off these bad arguments as a centrist, progressive, or neoliberal problem; it must actively distinguish itself and its critical positions as the antidote: a forum in which such things are addressed seriously, honestly, and with extreme doses of self-awareness.
One of the most repeated refrains of the Trump era is that we cannot allow ourselves to “normalize” him and his antics. In promulgating this caution, our left/leftish interlocutors hazily lump together two expressed concerns about “normalization”: (1) Trump himself is extreme, not normal; (2) we mustn’t allow Trump’s extremism to become commonplace. Whether the concern is Trump’s misogyny, his petulance and incessant lying, cabinet appointments, authoritarian maneuvers, unprecedented conflicts of interest, etc., we continually frame these issues with the refrain “this is not normal!” More than expressing opposition to Trump, such exclamations often become the driving justification for that opposition (i.e. Trump must be resisted because of the threat he poses to the accepted norms of our political system).
The case against normalizing Trump is founded on the conviction that treating his antics as anything but horrifyingly extreme and abnormal will desensitize us. We then will presumably overlook just how dangerous he really is while making it easier for his antics to become permissible, or normal. To be clear: resisting Trump’s uniquely dumb and dangerous qualities transmogrifying into the “new normal” is absolutely necessary. However, anchoring this resistance in appeals to the political norms of the past is a death wish—and not simply because doing so fails to address the fact that millions of people voted for Trump because he’s abnormal.
The critique of “normalization” has a self-destructive logic built into it that’s morally weak and easy to derail. The fallacy of indiscriminately decrying “This is not normal!” as a way to highlight Trump’s dangerousness has led (even very good) critics to presume, ipso facto, that somehow “the norm” is not only worth preserving, but it’s suddenly the best barometer for measuring what is just. Moreover, this proxy defense of the status quo also implies that misogyny, racism, and corruption in the White House just poofed into being, out of nowhere, when Trump took office.
Anchoring our resistance in appeals to the political norms of the past is a death wish.
Again, to be clear: the people in question may very adamantly oppose such notions (who in their right mind would believe that none of our former presidents had racist, sexist, xenophobic qualities?). But the very tactic of discrediting Trump by appealing to some (real or imagined) standard of normalcy, which he’s guilty of violating, backs critics into a compromised position from which they are forced to answer for the baggage that comes with this appeal. At best, framing Trump’s abnormality as the core of his awfulness puts us in the limp position of defending the status quo as our righteous standard. At worst, it traps us into accidentally implying a deeply misleading, rosy vision of how things used to be—a vision suggesting either that we believe no former presidents were liars, racists, sexists, narcissists, etc., or that we’d prefer them to Trump because at least their dark sides were hidden behind some normative public etiquette.
Every time we sell our criticisms of Trump with the tagline “this is not normal!” we’re passing up an opportunity to repeatedly frame and reinforce the narrative around him in more powerful terms. Trump’s awfulness must be continually understood as posing an immediate world-historical threat to justice, life, equality, peace, etc., not simply to comfortable political norms. Many things were wrong with our political system before Trump arrived. And we can resist him without making it seem like we just want to go back to the way things were.
In the rush to denounce Trump’s destructive traits and policies, people easily forget (or don’t bother investigating) the deep roots of the awful tools and traditions he’s simply inheriting. We should rightfully direct much shock and disgust at Trump himself. But a great deal of what shocks and disgusts people is actually a longstanding, interlocking system of power—a governmental apparatus, a capitalist empire, and a military-industrial complex—that simply has Trump (or Steve Bannon) in the driver’s seat now.
Outrage over Trump’s Muslim immigration ban, for example, can lead critics to overlook or downplay the quieter precedents set by Obama’s Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015 or, as Trump loves pointing out, the temporary implementation of more extreme vetting for Iraqi refugees in 2011. Trump’s and Obama’s respective actions are not equal in scope and extremism, but there’s still serious connective tissue there, and it does more harm than good to pretend there isn’t.
The question ultimately boils down to how we in the Trump resistance can and should use this information. For Trump and his base it’s a “trump card” justifying his “continuation” of Obama’s precedent and confirming that “libtards” who didn’t complain then have precisely zero right to complain now. There’s some overlap here with leftist criticisms of liberals and progressives, not just in regard to the Muslim ban, but in weighing Trump’s plans against Obama’s record deportation numbers or the Democrats’ “deplorable” history on surveillance, crony capitalism, war, human rights, etc. As certain indispensable leftist critics, like Yasmin Nair, have laid out, such criticisms should force people to face up to the contradictory forces (ideological, racial, national, gendered, etc.) limiting their empathy and outrage, smash those forces, and install socialism in their place.
Leftists should capitalize on liberal outrage and redirect momentum at the local and popular level.
For leftist critics, though, it’s crucial not to let such necessary goals be overshadowed by our “snarxist” impulses to simply rub people’s faces in a piss-soaked carpet, scoff at their outrage, and send them packing without thinking about whether or not we can capitalize on and redirect momentum at the local and popular level. We may determine that such an effort is not the best path for our movement, but we can’t really afford to squander tactical opportunities just to shame liberals and confirm our spot on the moral high ground.
This is not because it’s the left’s responsibility to tend to people’s hurt feelings if it’s pointed out that centrists’ nonpartisan commitment to protecting undocumented immigrants or refugees is suspect (or that punching a neo-Nazi is fine). This is purely a tactical question: can we use them, or not? Should we work with them, or against them? Such questions need to be asked because they force us to clarify what we want the ideal intended effects of our political criticisms to be. It’s not the resistance’s job to always be liked, but to be right and get results. And perhaps the most vital result we need right now is mobilization. Thus, we have to be clear about whom we intend to mobilize, who is just cannon fodder, and why. Establishment Democrats are already trying to claim the banner of “the resistance” for themselves, so we must clarify how our resistance will either redirect or out-compete theirs. The side-effort to “win over” undecideds will not come at the expense of allowing their reactionary habits to go unchecked. But, more important, this effort requires us to go beyond stirring rhetoric and to clearly mark who the resistance is, who should be won over, and who the opposition is.
Democrats’ and Republicans’ selective amnesias provide the resistance with a golden chance to leverage uncomfortable nuances and counter-histories in order to expose the most unsustainable flaws of the dominant bipartisan field itself. To assert the righteousness of our resistance’s critical brand requires that we demonstrate, over and over again, the dangers and inadequacies of conservatism and liberal centrism. Beyond shaming duped opponents, such glaring opportunities must be a springboard for us to publicly and broadly reinforce one of the most consequential moves in the age of Trump: establishing the authority of non-bipartisan critique.
What does this entail, exactly? “Nonpartisan” views pretend to be politically neutral. “Non-bipartisan” describes a still-critical, firmly principled position that can’t be crippled by the two-party conventions in the current dead zone of political debate. This is the bane of all mainstream politics: bipartisan political fields have a way of splicing all critique into an endless game of tit-for-tat in which all crimes are presumed equal, and the strongest defense for a political position is balancing out the dirty past of one’s opponents. Your political convictions are kept in check by a zero-sum game that chains any “side’s” critique to the sinking chest of party skeletons that you must now also answer for.
When taken to its eventual end, this zero-sum game leaves a corps of intellectually bankrupted players in its wake, and produces a neutered critical discourse that, as Nathan Robinson writes, is utterly incapable of taking down someone as eye-poppingly awful as Trump. And as an all-but inevitable corollary, huge sections of a disaffected population share a deep and deeply frustrated collective need for political expression that neither established party can adequately provide. Such a situation continues to provide a hopeful opening for the resistance’s critical voices, especially when the Democrats’ credibility is shot. At the same time, though, our idea-starved political status quo is equally an opportunity for autocratic shysters like Trump. Critics can continually frame popular consciousness and familiarize it with an identifiable “third way” through repeatable actions, decisive positions, and memorable mantras.
Huge sections of a disaffected population share a deep and deeply frustrated collective need for political expression that neither established party can adequately provide.
Moreover, the resistance must reckon with selective amnesia and the bipartisan trap because we cannot build an inspiring, just, and enduring movement otherwise—at most, we could only hope to swing things back to Democrats in four years. We must carve out a critical position in the current political playing field from which the fight for a more just future can sing upward without being undercut by forced ignorance of its own unjustifiable blind spots or by hitching itself to the fat, flightless birds of bipartisanism.
Many will remember the tire fire of left-leaning political criticism sparked by Columbia Professor Mark Lilla’s post-election argument in the New York Times that “the age of identity liberalism must be brought to an end.” Lilla’s piece prompted a veritable deluge of heated rebuttals (like this one, this one, or this one). For all its flaws and merits, though, it still served as a flashpoint for political criticism to produce essential points and refreshing positions.
The specific debate over so-called “identity politics” (or what Lilla calls “identity liberalism”) is too broad to address here, but the op-ed firestorm generated by Lilla’s article exposed one of the most serious obstacles for political criticism today. As Lilla himself points out, to mobilize a mass political movement (liberal or otherwise) capable of defeating Trump’s so-called “populism,” critics and all other political actors must be able to parse out political priorities. For the future (liberal) movement Lilla envisions, “narrower issues that are highly charged symbolically and can drive potential allies away, especially those touching on sexuality and religion,” must be worked out “quietly, sensitively and with a proper sense of scale.”
Lilla must have known that, especially as a straight, privileged white guy, addressing political issues rooted in people’s specific identities—not just sexuality and religion, but gender, race, ability, etc.—as “narrow” concerns would piss a whole lot of people off. (Perhaps, indeed, that’s the point he was trying to prove.) Many would argue this is because all politics are rooted in matters of identity, and pretending that “identity” is just a special interest category that only applies to some (while straight white concerns set the standard for “normal” politics) is just another way to marginalize minorities. It’s equally troubling to insist we not scare away the kind of “potential allies” who would be scared in the first place by what are, at base, struggles for equality, for the freedom to simply be who you are. The inherent double-standard embedded in the injunction not to be equally concerned about scaring away “potential allies” for whom these “narrower issues” are everyday concerns is precisely why “identity politics” is still necessary.
It shouldn’t be controversial to point out that our political struggles need to maintain some semblance of scale, but when Lilla does so, he actually exposes the unacceptable limits of the liberalism he defends. The very fact that current debates about scaling political priorities inevitably end up pitting things like so-called “identity politics” against class or environmental concerns proves how grossly inadequate our prevailing political traditions are. Lilla is not at all unique in this respect. As Chris Lehmann asks, “What is it about the insistence that social domination takes multiple forms that drives so many soi-disant liberal devotees of sober and reasoned discourse so very crazy?”
For the Trump resistance, it should be a priority to rewrite a forceful, popular politics that can fight Trump and provide a path for a more just, equitable, and prosperous future. This means decisively creating a resistance that can address issues of “identity” and class simultaneously; that can ensure the preservation of a livable planet while combating the viciousness of capitalism; that can safeguard the life and dignity of human beings without predicating it on denying the life and dignity of others (see, for instance, Jodi Dean, Jerome Roos, Bhaskar Sunkara, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, etc.). And we need to smash any force, tradition, or institution that limits our political imagination to the point of believing such goals are unthinkable.
Nevertheless, certain pillars of Lilla’s argument won’t burn even after multiple blowtorchings. Lilla’s priorities may be the wrong ones, but blasting him should not come at the expense of prioritizing our own urgent political demands. (Among other things, this entails determining whose fears and anxieties are worth addressing politically, where government resources should go, where we need to channel our organizing energies, etc.). It’s essential to create an appealing political platform with principles that are open enough to account for different and intersecting groups’ struggles for justice, equality, and dignity. But it’s pie-eyed to think that such principles still won’t (or shouldn’t) come at the expense of others.
The uncomfortable position of constructing a political future, as opposed to making do with one that’s been constructed for us, requires first that individuals (with limited energy and resources) determine for themselves what fights they can commit to, no matter how big or small. Moreover, the hard work of solidarity-minded resistance demands that organizations be able to learn from and collaborate with each other in order to channel the greatest number of people, and the largest contingents of resources, to platforms that can rally support for, but are not limited to, single issues. Sometimes that also means self-described critics (myself included) need to shut up and listen to the grassroots before jumping in with our ideas.
While a critic like Lilla may fail to assert a convincing system of liberal priorities, his point about scale is perhaps most valuable for the domain of critique itself. In today’s digital media news-sphere, there’s a near unmeasurable overflow of critical think pieces that crop up to cover just about every conceivable topic from just about every conceivable angle. In such an environment two of the most obvious (but often unacknowledged) priorities for good critics are, first, to carve out a somewhat unique view on a hot subject and, second, to get as much circulation for your hot take as possible. These are standard responses to the habits of media consumption we have today, and it’s not critics’ fault that they operate the way they do. But we still need to confront, and remedy, the adverse effect that all this digitized noise can create for the challenge of effective critique and, more important, mobilization.
Simply put: in the publishing world and on the ground, what should our priorities be as critics in the age of Trump? If wide circulation is a given priority, we inevitably have to ask if and when we’re just writing to be liked, to improve our intellectual brand and preach to choirs that tend to circulate arguments they already agree with. If finding a new spin on a given topic is a prime directive, we have to be hyperaware of the ways we’re contributing to a saturated market that has “something for everyone”—a critical perspective for every fragment of a splintered public but very few rallying cries for a popular front. If our most urgent need is to provide actionable paths to achieving concrete ends, what are the paths (e.g., protests, strikes, campaigns, “raising public awareness”)? And what are the ends (e.g., ousting certain officials like Steve Bannon, impeaching Trump, “changing people’s minds,” starting a new party, revamping the socialist party, leveraging power on policy decisions)?
Going beyond communicative capitalism involves mobilizing through and beyond the digital world and retaining deeper memories and attention spans.
Perhaps most important, the Trump resistance must make it a priority to give staying power to the critiques it will use as a base to stand on. The only way to short-circuit the obstacles placed in our way by “communicative capitalism” is to successfully achieve what it doesn’t want us to. In our case, this involves mobilizing through and beyond the digital world and retaining deeper memories and attention spans when we’re encouraged to forget stories and arguments as soon as new ones come out. Against the infinite tide of new concerns and differently slanted critiques, the resistance must establish its own brand of critical thought and continually air-condition public spheres by producing mutually supportive arguments and visions that refer back to that recognizable brand. This does not mean we should strive for an anti-critical unity in thought. Rather, the point for critics in the Trump resistance, even those who vigorously disagree with each other, is to collaboratively reinforce a consistent set of principles and actions that we should never downplay or forget. This, as much as any anodyne retreat from criticism in the name of non-divisiveness, will frame the resistance itself as something more solid than a hazy dissatisfaction with Trump.
This is just a thought experiment, a simple question—partly rhetorical, but not entirely. I’m not fishing for a specific answer here. The point of asking it, though, is simple. Even as a staunch lefty, I’m often taken aback by the popular and far left’s knee-jerk oppositions to designated political opponents (not just the obvious ones like Trump, but whole swathes of average people, representatives, and institutions that have been marked as the opposition).
This is important: conservatism’s reactionary worldview is skewed by basic tenets that are in fundamental opposition to a sturdy leftist resistance. Thus, the problem isn’t that our impulsive opposition to the right or center is somehow unfounded or undeserving, but that it’s impulsive. Such impulses are a lazy substitute for critical thinking that can cripple us when it’s time for nuance. What to do, for example, when Trump attacks free-trade deals like NAFTA and TPP? Or when the right does the left’s work of exposing Democrats’ hypocritical stance on immigration? Sit in silence? Oppose them on principle? Form single-issue “alliances”?
Even as a staunch lefty, I’m often taken aback by the popular and far left’s knee-jerk oppositions to designated political opponents.
The point here is that “the resistance” must have more hard substance to stand on than pure magnetic opposition to the right. This isn’t about defending the right or glorifying some hackneyed ideal of “compromise,” but, once again, reinforcing the need for a popular, non-bipartisan brand of critique (a brand I believe must be thoroughly socialist). To make this outlook a genuine source of political power, we should not treat it as sacrilege to ask ourselves and each other where our impulsive critical stances come from. At a minimum, such self-questioning will better enable us to publicly defend our positions—and, conversely, to know when to scrap them if we find them to be indefensible or just plain unworkable.
The world has, in many ways, become exponentially weirder and more unpredictable in the age of Trump. And this core set of derangements demand more imaginative and radical modes of thinking. Nevertheless, the forces of resistance share a natural, troubling impulse to fall back on bland sentiments and rhetoric that stuff political questions into old Manichean divides between good and evil, hypostatized “democracy” and fascism, conventional wisdom and stupidity. This tack isn’t just boring and flaccid; it also plays right into the existing coordinates of the bipartisan field, making it that much easier for critical positions to be swallowed up by either the rote-conservative or rote-liberal pole of debate. The brand of critique carved out by the Trump resistance needs to distinguish itself from this simplistic reductionism while also advancing clear, principled responses to the right, especially when there are issues on which the two happen to agree.
To build this brand on something more forceful than impulsive, Manichean opposition to conservatism or centrism requires first that we identify, define, and continually reinforce the basic principles in which our convictions are rooted. The problem here is that defining principles to live by is difficult—it requires a lot of brain, heart, experience, and time.
If you believe in the principle of justice, for example, and are thus dedicated to act in its defense, you will inevitably have to start asking hairy questions about what justice actually means to you. (Is it a principle of fairness before the law? Or can laws also be unjust—and how? Is it some kind of cosmic force meant to establish the equality of all beings? If so, equality by what standard? Etc.). And so, too often, we allow other people, schools, or institutions to interpret our principles and direct our convictions for us, either because we have some strong (emotional, civic, religious, etc.) attachment to them or because it’s just easier that way.
This is what leads so many people to follow the backward, dangerous process of allowing something like an established party to dictate their principles. They may very well have been drawn to said party in the first place by identifying more closely with the principles it supposedly embodies. But when so many people have so little time to reckon with so many political and ethical quandaries, it’s seductively easy to hand the relevant moral and organizational authority to an official body (like a party) or a handful of thought curators (journalists, pundits, politicians etc.). We then are left having to trust that they’ll point us in a direction that is consistent with the principles that made us align with them in the first place. The toxic cycle of bipartisanism sustains itself by this very process—and that’s the reason why the Trump resistance urgently needs to break it.
In place of constant self-evaluation and principled assertion, it becomes all too easy for good people to give into agreeing with, and absorbing, pre-packaged political convictions mainly because of who is expressing them, where they are being published or broadcasted, or who their declared opponents are. Specific parties, publications, or charismatic leaders become, under this intellectual dispensation, the de facto dictators of our conscience. We typically claim to believe what these dictators say because it’s right. But, more and more, we operate on the dangerous belief that what they say is right because they said it.
Trump’s core set of derangements demand more imaginative and radical modes of thinking.
The extreme end of this cycle, of course, is Trump—a blabbering machine who has no need or desire to tell the truth because he’s discovered that he can create what others will see as truth simply because he’s the one saying it. Even the sharpest of critics, endowed with the near-saintly patience of Socrates, probably can’t do anything to sway those Trump disciples who are fully devoted to this delusion. But it’s equally delusional for those of us in the Trump resistance to pretend we don’t have the same kind of chip in our brains that generates this kind of thinking (or non-thinking). Everyone has it, no matter how disciplined and self-aware they try to be. It’s activated whenever we let impulse and habit do the work of dictating our position, like when we really just want to prove someone wrong. It’s activated when even those of us who fiercely want to get involved sit in dumb, Beckettian waiting for the resistance to emerge of its own accord and tell us where to go. It won’t. We, the flesh beneath the scab, are it.
In the age of Trump, the coming movement must be prepared for a new kind of sustained, principled action. To know deeply, to strengthen collectively, and to defend convincingly the principles that will drive such action—this is the no-bullshit value of “critique,” not just as something we read and publish but something we use daily to spark a movement out of the cinders. If there’s one silver lining to the horrors unleashed in this new era, it’s that we’ve been given the opportunity and the fuel to establish a collective resistance and a political alternative that can march thunderously beyond the crabbed intellectual confines of the broken parties, self-interested institutions, and anti-critical habits that hijacked our principles and left us marooned in this ungodly mess. We can’t afford to waste it.