“Let’s Make America Great Again”: Trump’s Paranoid-Schizoid Politics

The cry that Donald Trump repeats at every rally — “Let’s Make American Great Again” — taps into a dual wager: (1) that those who imagine themselves as the dominant and quintessential “American” people need not mourn the loss of their presumed dominance at home and abroad and (2) that those who are undermining the old status quo can be undone, thrown out, excised from the body politic, making possible an ideal and perfect state. Those who will not mourn their losses nor tarry with indeterminacy, uncertainty, and democracy demand a politics of black and white and good and evil; and they presume that those who oppose them are the enemies of all things perfect and true.

This wager has been going on for decades if not millennia and is likely a large part of what made Reaganism and neoliberalism possible. All the ostensible reasons for taking down the welfare state had subterranean motives of demonizing the poor, the dark, the queer. Even the most belligerent and conservative politicians cloaked their ulterior motives with reasons, however illogical, e.g. Reagan’s mantra that a rising tide lifts all boats. (It didn’t take a Ph.D. to point out that if one didn’t have a boat, one was sunk.) But they did at least pretend to trade in reasons. And people who shared their ulterior views could vote for them and support their policies as reasonable affairs. We all said we dreamt of freedom and equality for all, even if we had different ideas about how this could be achieved.

But now there is Trump, who dispenses with all the niceties and gets to the truth — or what many imagine to be the truth — who says out loud what was never said on a national stage in the modern era, even by people who believed it. Here are few samples from recent rallies:

“Are you from Mexico? Are you from Mexico? Are you from Mexico?”

“Get out of here, get out of here. Get out.”

“We’ve become weak; we’ve become weak.”

“Our country has to toughen up folks. These people are bringing us down. … These people are so bad for our country, you have no idea. They contribute nothing, nothing.”

“Get him out. Go home to mommy. Go home and get a job. I tell you these are not good people, folks ….These are not the people that made our country great. But we’re going to make it great again… These are the people that are destroying our country. Get him out.”

The Trump phenomenon taps into a deeper political problem, not in just the U.S. but in multi-cultural polities throughout the world: a lack of public and shared means for working through ambiguity and loss, for coming to understand the strangers in our midst, that is, for moving from a paranoid-schizoid politics to what we might call a Kleinian depressive position. Psychoanalytic theory, including Freud’s tantalizing but undeveloped concept of working through, offers a doorway out of this mess. The iconic scene is the analytic space: patient on the couch, analyst behind, and the analytic third to their dyad where Manichaean divides can transform into shades of grey; where projected demons can be taken back and metabolized; where the adolescent selves we all are at one time or another might grow up and realize the world is not made of saints and sinners but of complex and imperfect people; and most importantly that there are no perfect solutions that will solve all our troubles.

The task now is how to take this micro-politics to a macro level, how to move to a politics of mourning and working though. How to see people different from us not as threats but opportunities to open up new worlds and possibilities.

Trump slams shut any such door. Maybe he needs to get himself out of here — or at least get off the stage.

Politics & the Work of Mourning

Here’s something I’m working on….

There are many languages of reason, but perhaps the most powerful and insidious one is the unconscious logic that emerges during political, ethnic, and religious conflict. What may at first seem madness, is, if looked at with the right lens, a very cool calculus of justice aimed at righting past wrongs — no matter how out of scale the “solution.” The unconscious is not mad. It keeps careful tally. It never forgets insults, injuries, traumas, or wrongs. It waits for its moment to set matters straight. And the unconscious of a people traumatized and bereft will bide its time for centuries, if need be, waiting for an opportunity to set matters right. Consider what lay behind the shot that set off World War I: six hundred years of grievance and political melancholia. Psychoanalytic hermeneutics can help make sense of the effects of political traumas. Might it also help people work through them? With his all-too-vague notion of “working through,” which shows up in dream work and the work of mourning, Freud thought he found an antidote to traumatic remembering and repetition, a process that could calm and bind the psychical excitations that trouble the organism. Considering a political body of restless people haunted by past traumas and injustice, what kind of Arbeit can help political communities deal with buried traumas and insults before they explode in vengeance? Without some kind of work, politics becomes an enactment of fantasied, unrealistic expectations; demonic projections; and persecutory anxieties. In this paper I draw on and move beyond Freud’s model toward a post-Kleinian one that can be tethered to the political process of public deliberation. In my account, political deliberation is not just a process of reason giving and consideration, which many political philosophers think it is, but an affective process that helps people work through fantasies of denial, splitting. and revenge and toward a position that can tolerate loss, ambiguity, and uncertainty, that is, the human condition.

Political Cultures and the Culture of Poverty

“‘Culture of Poverty,’ Once an Academic Slur, Makes a Comeback” reports the New York Times this morning, referring to the debate that started with Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report that described “the urban black family as caught in an inescapable ‘tangle of pathology’ of unmarried mothers and welfare dependency.” According to the story, written by Patricia Cohen, while the idea had lots of traction politically up through Clinton’s war on welfare “as we know it,” many on the left in academia took offense at the suggestions that blacks were somehow to blame for poverty and that the situation was next to hopeless. And so discussing it became verbotten for decades.

I was just a tot when all that happened, but I grew up hearing references to the “culture of poverty” notion, and I never found it offensive, at least not prima facie. To say that one is born into a culture that is disempowering and hence helps explain inequity makes sense to me, especially if we don’t then blame the victim.  This country is in toto to blame for a history that has never been recognized, wrongs that have never been righted, legacies that are harmful all around.

As Cohen reports, economists, sociologists and others are returning to the idea now, shorn of some of the baggage, able to actually look at the situation of unwed parents, absent fathers, and continuing poverty as a problem of culture.  The new crop of academics are looking at the effects of shared understandings and perceptions. Positive ones help communities flourish; negative ones seem to doom communities to perpetual dysfunction. Paraphrasing Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson, Cohen writes,

The shared perception of a neighborhood — is it on the rise or stagnant? — does a better job of predicting a community’s future than the actual level of poverty.

I applaud all the work that Cohen points to in using the rubric of culture to understand poverty.

But I think we should take this much further.  Even more widespread and endemic than a culture of poverty is a culture of powerlessness. Maybe five percent of the population is exempt from this problem, those with the money and / or connections and / or sense of efficacy to think that what they care about matters and that they can make a difference. So many more think that what they think about on issues of common, political concern just doesn’t matter and that little they do will make any discernible difference. It’s a wonder that as many people vote as do.

Our culture of powerlessness tells us that politics is what governments do, not what civil societies, publics, or public spheres do. It pays attention to administrative and economic power, not what Habermas calls, following Dewey’s lead,  communicative power or what Arendt calls the power of acting and speaking in the presence of others. This is the culture we need to cultivate.

Civil Society, or the Public Sphere?

I am ready to come clean with my worry about these two terms, “civil society” and “the public sphere.”  My political theorists friends (trained in political science departments) act and talk as if the difference between the two is patently obvious.  I just nod, a bit hesitant to admit that I don’t quite get it. Many others use the terms interchangeably to denote a NONGOVERNMENTAL arena.  Okay, yeah, I get that

Between the state and the mass of individuals there is this other, nongovernmental realm.  Hegel aside, let’s suffice it to say that by the late 20th century people were returning to the idea of civil society to point out the political importance of the nongovernmental arena of associations such as labor unions, civic clubs, higher ed, churches, bowling leagues, choral societies, garden clubs, you name it.  Some theorists included the market; others didn’t.  (This seems to me to be a huge question that didn’t get enough attention.)

At the same time, or really earlier, with Habermas’s publication of The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, the term public sphere came into vogue. Habermas’s book was originally published in the 70s, if memory serves me (this is a blog so I don’t feel compelled to look it up just now). It was translated into English in the early 1990s, just when the term civil society was hitting it big.

Both terms seemed to hit the zeitgeist in the same way.  But there were some key differences. Various arenas of civil society may, at any given moment, be attending to things political, or not.  But the public sphere seems to be defined as an arena that is all about political matters.

Moreover, civil society is a demarcation of entities, asssociations, not activities. But “the public sphere” is something else. In the popular imaginary, the public sphere may be a space waiting in the wings upon which people can enter and attend to things political. But in Habermas’s conception it was something else altogether. He described it (in Steven Seidman’s 1989 volume) as the space that arises whenever two or more people come together to talk about matters of common concern.

In this sense, the public sphere is not a space but an occurence. It’s not an entity; it is a phenomenon. It is the effect of two, three, or more people coming together to figure out what to do on matters of common concern.

Where civil society seems to map formal and perhaps informal associations, the public sphere maps activities. We have here the difference between substance and process ontology. In philosophy, substance ontology focuses on the essence of things, which it generally sees as having essences and properties, with things being relatively static or at least continuous over time. It might move from a focus on a thing to its relations between things, but in general it attends to the thing itself. Process ontology doesn’t see things as fixed or having essences. It sees beings as matters of being, as phenomena. The desk upon which my hands rest isn’t a table so much as it is some matter TABLING.  Likewise, we could say that the public isn’t an entity but a phemonenon of people in relation taking up matters of common concern.  One day they might do that, and we call them a public, and another they don’t, and we don’t call them much of anything.

I still think that civil society is a useful notion, but I don’t think it should ever stand in for the more robust and specific conception of the public sphere. Perhaps we should attend to how, in a particular moment, under certain kinds of conditions, entities of civil society, and even those not seen as qualified members therein, morph into the public sphere.

if we think of the public sphere as a process and a phenomenon, as an effect of political engagement among people who may not in any way be “authorized’ to act, we can see it as a really poweful and potentially transgressive space for politics. The idea of civil society might contain that, but only the idea of the public sphere makes this manifest.

A Phenomenology of Democratic Politics

This academic year I’ve been working on a new book project. Roughly, it’s a phenomenology of democratic politics — democratic in the deep and strong sense, not the thin sense of liberal, representative democracy.  I’ve written several chapters, that have been published as papers here and there. It’s time to start ordering this all in a coherent way.

I think I’ll use this blog of mine as a way of trying out the ideas. Of course my writing here will be in a rather different register than the book.

I’ll start posting a discrete thought one at a time.  Please do share your thoughts as I move along.

Here’s the first thought:

To help a country become more functional and even flourishing, it is important to look at the whole body politic.  This will include at least two things: the mechanisms of government (what we often refer to as the state) and the political culture. To understand the political culture it is important to start from the very local and immediate. At the neighborhood level, when there is a problem, what do the people do?  Do they have habits and norms of problem solving?  Or do they leave the problems for someone else to address? What are people’s habits and expectations about who will define problems, frame them, decide what to do and then act?

Alexis de Tocqueville noted that we Americans are peculiar. In France when there is a problem people start knocking on the magistrate’s door, demanding that the magistrate do something. In America, when there’s a problem, people form an association to do something about it themselves. By the 20th century this habit was long gone. But if Tocqueville was right, in the 19th century the French and the Americans had distinctly different political cultures. They had certain habits and norms about what to do when problems happen.

Think about where you grew up or where you live now.  When there’s a problem, how do people behave?  Do they get together? Do they protest, beseech, complain, or even riot? Do they give up? These habits are crucial indicators of a community’s civic capacities.

It’s about context not content

The Havas Media Lab just put out a paper on user-generated context — a significant tweak of the new media mantra about user-generated content (meaning all those videos, blogs, and podcasts that the people formally known as the audience are now making for themselves). The authors argue that most of this new content is really not new information but rather commentary upon professionally-developed content. All those enterprises that are trying to capitalize on the explosion of new user-generated content are in danger because they mistake context for content. And more importantly they don’t see the value that people are providing by their context making. “We discuss the mistaken strategic assumptions behind the idea of user-generated content, and why it’s preventing the media industry from exploring new paths to business model reinvention.”

Most user-generated content, is, in fact, context. The bulk of what connected consumers create isn’t content: its context—information about the value of goods and services. Context, in turn, lets connected consumers search and navigate the exploding universe of media more effectively, and massively amplifies incentives for quality.

The report is a bit thin and not very clear about what it means by context. But I’m happy to leap in and provide some ideas and put their work in a wholly different context. Let someone else worry about business models (but please someone do so) — let’s think about political models.

If we replace the report’s economic language with political language, it gets pretty powerful. Instead of consumers and users, think of citizens, people, political agents, and the public. Then the report becomes good for understanding the political and democratic dimensions of new media.

* citizen media and professional media can complement each other; they needn’t be seen as competitors

* individual citizens don’t and can’t create context; communities do and that’s why new media is so powerful; it let’s the public interconnect:

A naked rating, ranking, or review on its own has little value or meaning—but millions of them, in the aggregate, weave complex and multilayered webs of meaning. Put another way, context is the result of the complex, multilevel, network effects that happen when millions of [people] connect.

* context isn’t really “generated” but is that is “deeply culturally specific and socially bound”

The report gives a nice language for understanding something that’s been apparent for a long time. Professional players feel under siege, but not because the audience has morphed into producers but because the public finally has a way of articulating the sense it has and can make about “all the news that’s fit to print.” No longer are the old, big players the arbiter of what’s news and what’s entertaining; the people themselves can loudly say whether what’s on the news or in other media is actually meaningful and useful for their lives.

If this kind of phenomenon had been going so strong back in the 1990s, the public journalism movement would have been on a whole new footing. But that’s a thought for another post.

The Better Candidate

What a delight to vote yesterday for the candidate I liked the best rather than, as in years past, the candidate that I didn’t dislike more than the other.

Obama’s huge success in Virginia, a state with an open primary, seems to show that independents are drawn to Obama more than they are to McCain. Note how tight the race was between Huckabee and McCain. I suspect this was because conservatives rallied around Huckabee and many moderates and independents voted in the Democratic primary.  If it ends up being a race between Clinton and McCain, the conservatives may come out to vote against Clinton.  But if it’s a race between Obama and McCain, the conservatives may stay home, the independents may go with Obama, and the Democrats will finally take back the White House.