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Sunday, December 24, 2017


On this day before Christmas, I should like to try to come to terms with a problem that has been troubling me for almost a year: how to speak and write about Donald Trump in a manner that expresses my dismay at his fascistic tendencies and the harm he is inflicting on America’s political institutions and culture while at the same time remaining true to the critical stance I have adopted toward this country for the last sixty years of my life.

Let me begin to explain what I mean with one simple example.  Increasingly in recent months, mainstream political commentators on cable news programs like MSNBC and CNN have stripped away their cautious professionally neutral language and spoken openly about Trump’s flagrant violation of the norms and traditions of American public life.  They appeal to their viewers urgently to defend America’s long tradition as a City Upon a Hill, as a nation born of a faith in freedom, as a society that has since its birth sought to perfect the democratic vision of the Founding Fathers.  I applaud the willingness of even Republican commentators to condemn Trump as a fascist, and I hope against hope that their voices will encourage millions of Americans to vote against him and his Republican toadies.

BUT:  I do not believe that America is a City Upon a Hill.  I do not believe that America is a nation born of a faith in freedom, nor do I believe that America has, since its birth sought to perfect a democratic vision.  I have written an entire book arguing that this story of America, articulated in the most influential college American History texts of the twentieth century, is a myth completely in contradiction to the historical truth. Were I to try to utter the condemnations of Trump in the words used by an ever greater chorus of public commentators and intellectuals, those words would stick in my craw, choking me.

And yet, I know quite well that at this moment it is urgently necessary to forge as broad a coalition as possible in opposition to Trump and his enablers.  I doubt that such a coalition can be encouraged with complex, nuanced criticisms, challenging the unquestioned faith of those I seek to mobilize in an America that I believe is a fantasy.

Another example:  Terrified of the Mueller investigation, Trump has launched an all-out assault on the Federal Bureau of Investigation, an assault that is countered by those same cable news commentators who speak and write in glowing terms of the professionalism, honor, independence, and incorruptibility of career FBI agents.   I have great hopes for the Mueller probe, and I view any attempt by Trump to fire Mueller a threat to American democracy.

BUT:  I am quite old enough to remember J. Edgar Hoover, the Red Scares, the attack on Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, the persecution of progressives, and all the other horrors of these noble professionals.  How can I vocally defend Mueller against Trump without saying things I know to be false?

A third example:  I view Trump’s foreign policy, insofar as he actually has one, as a dangerous embrace of dictators and tyrants and a threat to peace.  But every time I hear America described as “the leader of the Free World” and a “champion for democracy” I must struggle with an involuntary urge to throw up.  Old as I am, I cannot keep in my mind the list of the democratically chosen governments that America has in my lifetime overthrown or tried to overthrow, starting with the Mossadegh government in Iran when I just was nineteen years old.  I first protested publically against one such effort – the bay of Pigs fiasco – fifty-seven years ago.   And yet, I really do think that Trump’s chaotic and authoritarian foreign policy is even worse than what has preceded it in the post-World War II world.

So my question for all of you is this:  How can I, and others like me, at one and the same time join in a politically effective assault on Trump while remaining true to our admittedly unpopular and contrarian view of America?


s. wallerstein said...

Step one seems to be getting rid of Trump. If that involves joining in the chorus of "God bless America", mouth the words, but don't trying to drown them out singing Dylan's "With God on our side".

Step two is teaching others that "With God on our side" is a truer portrait of American history.

If "we" could join with Stalin to beat Hitler, "we" can join together with mainstream Americans to get rid of Trump.

For those unfamiliar with the Dylan song:

David Auerbach said...

Corey Robin, who writes extensively in Jacobin and weekly in The Guardian and extensively on Facebook, has a good take on this; it begins with seeing Trump as NOT exceptional, as the most recent in a long line of Republican efforts (and Democratic) efforts. And, Robin abhors the talk about "norms" being suddenly violated as if Bush's murderous regime, Reagan's crimes, Kissinger's mass murder, etc. never happened. I summarize brutally, but you can go read...

Howie said...

Dear David, there is a continuum from say Reagan to Trump. But Reagan and Trump are real people and individual psychology matters. I think Trump's psychopathology goes rather nicely with taking Republican ideology to extremes. The worst was always there from the beginning, but it was checked by political prudence and you could argue that Trump is not exceptional ideologically while pointing out his psychopathy, narcissism and impulsivity, ad nauseum. Corey Robin is a political scientist and not a psychiatrist and is not qualified to make those judgments.
Yes the Republicans have been fascists quite a while- but Trump is not your garden variety fascist.
It says something about the Republican party that they'd embrace such a sick and toxic human being

Enam el Brux said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Palmeter said...

I don’t think you have to see America as the Shining City on the Hill to say that its professed are ideals are such that--should it ever live up to them--it would at least be something very close, and there are some people who at least aspire to being just that. Martin Luther King very effectively pointed out the hypocrisy of the country in its failure to live up to those professed ideals--starting with Jefferson, perhaps the hypocrite-in-chief. While right now other countries do a better job of moving toward those ideals, it hasn’t been long enough for them to convince me that Trump or something worse could not happen there. I’m not uncomfortable in arguing that we should continue to aspire to the goal of deserving the Shining City title, and that we should oppose those whose conduct and policies diminish that effort.

The Hoover situation at the FBI isn’t a good parallel. There is no Hoover today, and there is no evidence that anything like that is going on today in the FBI generally or among those agents who are working under Mueller.

I don’t see any need to agree with US foreign policy, past or present, as really part of this problem. The “leader of the free world” rhetoric is not without its grain of truth--the grain being military. Many countries that have the capability of developing nuclear weapons (e.g. South Korea, Poland, Japan) have refrained from doing so and supported the nuclear non-proliferation treaty because of our commitment to defend them militarily, with nukes if necessary. One of the tragedies of the Trump regime is the damage he has done to this arrangement. I’m sure that many defense ministries right now are exploring, if they haven’t begun, nuclear weapon development based on the belief that they can’t trust Trump to have their backs.

LFC said...

From the post:

"I do not believe that America is a City Upon a Hill. I do not believe that America is a nation born of a faith in freedom, nor do I believe that America has, since its birth sought to perfect a democratic vision."

These are three separate things, I would suggest.

(1) The City-on-a-Hill thing, which is, roughly, the 'exceptionalist' thesis that the U.S. has a quasi-divine mission to be a light unto the world, should be flatly rejected.

(2)"a nation born of a faith in freedom": well, it was born, to at least some extent, of a faith in certain ideals, none of which has come all that close to realization. It was also born, of course, as a polity and economy interwoven with the institution of slavery. But if you dismiss Jefferson's words in the Declaration of Independence as simply hypocritical verbiage, you are actually, it seems to me, denying yourself a tool in the arsenal of progressive efforts. M.L. King's 'I have a dream' speech includes the line that he wanted the country "to live out the meaning of its creed." It seems to me this line of thinking is compatible with a critical stance toward the country and its history, while acknowledging that admirable ideals have played a role, albeit sometimes a very submerged one, in the country's political life. Might see Aziz Rana's book on different conceptions of freedom in U.S. history -- the author is somewhere on the left, I think (haven't read it).

(3) "has since its birth sought to perfect a democratic vision": yes, this puts the matter way too strongly. Still, it can be fudged, probably.

Conclusion: The only truly objectionable piece of the trinity is the City on a Hill. The other aspects can probably be worked, in one way or another, into a critical stance.

And if they can't, then as s. wallerstein suggests, you do rhetorically what is necessary to get rid of Trump. With Trump gone, one can then go back to the task of getting every high school student to read Chomsky, Zinn, Walter LaFeber, Andrew Bacevich, etc., or even (since the proprietor of this blog cannot be accused of false modesty) R.P. Wolff.

LFC said...

P.s. It looks like David Palmeter and I were typing our comments at the same time, and I did not see his before posting mine.

But at least in the reference to M.L. King, it seems we were thinking along similar lines.

Marsha said...

Dr. Wolff, I follow all your posts, and learn from them. Your concerns recently expressed, I think touch on the nature of verbal constructs.
"Words" are necessarily binary, and the world we live includes words but cannot be completely comprehended with them.Myself, I take comfort in remembering the end of WW2. Although our country no doubt committed atrocities, there was a gut level awareness of gradations: I mean, after defeat was apparent to the Germans, people there knew to move west, if they possibly could, so they could surrender to the Americans, and not the Russians. I suspect what we need to remain true to, is our sense of the muddy middle, where reality lies.
Warmest wishes to you and your family.

Jerry Fresia said...

I think you are probing the $64k (quaint) question which is this: with the advent of Trumpism do we build the largest coalition of anti-Trump types and dump Trump? or do we use this moment to confront what the US is and has been and move to transform the situation?

There's tension between the two options given that the latter would not be about building the largest coalition and more about taking over the Democratic party along with a building a social movement outside the party that would keep the Dem leadership progressive.

But the tension dissipates if option one were thought of not as an end point but as a means of getting to option two. In any case, "no is not enough."

LFC said...

P.s. The "live out the meaning of its creed" line doubtless has a long history that one could trace back well before King. E.g., last night I happened to hear a re-broadcast of a 1944 radio program originating from Harlem in which a less well-known civil rights leader, Channing Tobias (1882-1961), made the same point, albeit not in exactly the same words. And I wouldn't be surprised if it goes back to Frederick Douglass, if not before.

Todd Gitlin said...

Politics, as opposed to political theory, takes place in real time. Timing isn't everything, but it's a lot. The clear and present danger now is Trump--and his enablers in the Republican Party and the plutocracy more broadly speaking. Bringing them down and replacing them with a government that respects truth and preserves democratic potential, is Priority 1, 2, and 3 for the foreseeable future.

Myself, I subscribe to no such notion as the existence of a pristine "Free World." Moreover, though some Americans did aspire, uncynically, to founding a City on the Hill, it was not a City that opened its arms to the likes of me, Robert Paul Wolff, or many millions of others. The founders were greatly outnumbered by others, and by other motives. Moreover,

The goal, it seems to me, is to preserve and enlarge democratic *potential*. This does not require raving about America as an achieved democracy--it is far from that. It's a gravely damaged semi-democracy, damaged by a plutocracy laced with quasi-fascist demagoguery, aspiring to erase the democratic residue.

Part of the democratic residue is the spirit of professionalism, which requires respect for knowledge (including for the discourse which seeks to ascertain knowledge, not least through scientific assessments). Today's FBI does some nasty things (e. g. going after Black Lives Matter) but overall Mueller's FBI is not Hoover's. The reform spirit of the 60s and 70s *did create positive changes*. No less a radical than C. Wright Mills recognized the necessity of an independent civil service (see The Power Elite). Police professionalism is a worthy component of a democratic society.

What's required, now, is alliance in the spirit of a minimal program: preserving and expanding democracy; beating back untruth; curbing plutocracy; ceasing the demonization of the other; and a foreign policy that is both realistic and modest.

Exemplary of how to handle this genuine problem is (as surmised by LFC above) Frederick Douglass's great peroration of 1852, "What, to the Slave, Is the Fourth of July?" ( Also Langston Hughes, "America *will* be."

s. wallerstein said...

I want to share this interesting panel on the Russell Tribunal. The main panelist is Tariq Ali, who participated in the original tribunal in the 1960´s and talks about his experience. They go on to talk about a similar tribunal set up to judge U.S. and British war crimes in Iraq and they contrast the two tribunals as well as the two historical periods, the 1960's and the first decade of the 21th century, in terms of anti-imperialist politics in the west.

LFC said...

It's good to see Todd Gitlin in the discussion here. I like the way he's framed things (in the comment above).

s. wallerstein said...

Mr. Gitlin has quite an impressive curriculum.

I get stage fright commenting when he's in the wings.

Still, I agree that he'll make a great contribution to the discussion here.

LFC said...

@s. wallerstein

A blog comment thread is close to the quintessential egalitarian space, so 'stage fright' is not allowed (or if you have it, at least pretend otherwise). ;)

s. wallerstein said...


Compared to an army (I admit never having belonged to one) or to usual work situations, a blog comment thread is certainly an egalitarian space. It also beats a university classroom since no one in a blog is looking for a better grade. Ditto with political parties since no one has the power to order anyone else around in a blog comment thread and no one is going to get a government job as a result of what one comments.

Still, after so many years commenting online it impresses me how quickly relations of dominance and submission are established in blog threads, often corresponding to whatever social hierarchies are pertinent (that of academic achievement or that of political curriculum), how much group-think there is, how heretics are excluded and
excommunicated for either differing from the party line or for daring to argue with the big "man" in charge (generally a male although it may be a female: we are making progress there), how little interest most people, even those from professions which supposedly value the free exchange of ideas, have in hearing ideas which differ from theirs or in learning from others.

That being said, Professor Wolff (perhaps with a bit of help from regular commenters like yourself and even myself) has managed to establish a fairly egalitarian space of comments, compared to what I observe in other blog comments thread. It may be that I just fit in a bit more here and thus, I am a member of the group-think group, but anyway, I value this blog highly and value my participation in it.

I hope that you had a good Christmas, LFC.

LFC said...

I hope that you had a good Christmas, LFC

You too, s. wallerstein (and I'm using "Christmas" in the most generic sense here, since I'm not a Christian and neither, inferring from a couple of things you've written here, are you). On that festive note, I'm going offline for the evening.

Anonymous said...

Is there a way to defeat Trump?

Or is he the results of decades of deterioration of political, religious, cultural institutions?
The most ignorant victim of self endangerment is not any party or type a voter, business enterprises have made a deal with the devil. They celebrate with crumbs thrown to employees this year but no rewards hereafter. The next assault will be on social security, medicare, medicaid and eventually public education institutions.

People celebrate now but we must take a look at what actually happened. Those 33% that consistently support Trump don't really care who Trump is. There is a rage that has infuriated spitefulness. Many Americans are now experiencing, for their first time in their life, the effects of global capitalism and they are not prepared. While the rest of the world has learned to adapt via immigration, changing familial structures, and living with precarity; many Americans are experiencing this for the first time. There is fear. There is spite. If they must suffer, they will make the rest suffer as well. You can appeal to those notions of exceptionalism but that is a losing battle.

The same pressures that put Chavez into power are emerging here. The business sector is not aware of what will happen, be it slowly but surely.

Jerry Fresia said...


"Bringing them down and replacing them with a government that respects truth and preserves democratic potential, is Priority 1, 2, and 3 for the foreseeable future."

I can go along with that. The key phrase, however, is "foreseeable future." So let's say we dodge the nuclear bullet and by 2020, following the Democratic wave of 2018, the republic is back to an Obama type respect for truth, professionalism and republicanism, and sitting in the White House is Joe Biden or Kamala Harris or Corey Booker or Sherrod Brown or Kirsten Gillibrand or someone that would garner institutional support. Would a broader militancy be appropriate then?

To me, the massive civilizing effect of the 60s was due to the fact that while ending the Vietnam war (a horror show equal in my mind to Trump in all the ways you delineate above) may have been priority number 1, and even 2 and 3, militant activism across the board challenged "the existing structures of authority” and even the effectiveness of “those institutions which have played the major role in the indoctrination of the young,” at least according to Sam Huntington.

If we were able to preserve and expand democracy, beat back untruth, curb plutocracy, cease the demonization of the other, and insure a modest foreign policy as you urge, the accomplishment would hardly be thought of as "minimal." It would, in the eyes of the people who own and run the country be thought of as disobedience and “a breakdown of traditional means of social control.” And that is a problem, irrespective of the dangerous and rather evil individuals who wield power from time to time.

Guy Tennenbaum said...

I’m late to this thread, apparently. But I agree with much of what LFC and Todd Gitlin said above.

I think we should trust our instincts about T***p, just as a parent would trust their instincts about someone in whose care they wouldn’t leave their child (an especially pertinent analogy when it comes to the serial abuser currently in the White House.) This person is a rotten apple. He does represent a true departure from what we’ve seen previuously. He is a fascist in waiting; he’s openly proclaimed as much.

No, the USA has never been a Shining City on a Hill, and such exceptionalist rhetoric has usually been more pernicious than benign. Still, notice that all the examples you adduced regarding FBI malfeasance are more than fifty years old. (You’ve lived a long life.) We have to believe things are getting better. (I remember my grandfather telling us that here in Southern California, there used to be a separate beach for Mexicans and Mexican Americans.)

A few threads ago, in the course of making an epistemological point about our reliance on authorities, you asked how we know there weren’t weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. A better question would be: Why didn’t the US government plant evidence of WMD? They could have done so, presumably. And the acquiescent media at the time likely would have welcomed such evidence. The fact that they didn’t do so proves, to me at least, that we are not yet living in a totalitarian state where the government holds unfettered power to dictate what reality is. For how long?

Charles Pigden said...

Three suggestions
1) The first is a point for someone who raised his kids on C S Lewis’s Narnia stories (on which I too was raised and on which I raised my own kids). Being an American is a bit like being a human being according to Aslan:

"You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve," said Aslan. "And that is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth. Be content." {Prince Caspian, ch. 15)

America has OF COURSE done some truly terrible things. It is a nation partly founded on genocide and slavery. There can be no serious doubt that by the standards of the Nuremburg trials (say), many of its leading statesmen and generals have been war criminals and that its defense policy since the late 1940s has been based upon the threat to commit an act of genocide which would make Hitler, Stalin and Mao look like a trio of amateurs. There is also the point (which adds an ironic touch of comedy to Democratic outrage at the now reasonably well-established fact that Russia interfered in the 2016 election) that the US has often interfered in the elections of other countries, sometimes punishing those nations with sanctions, military action or systematic subversion if they resisted interference and delivered the wrong result. BUT there are also many things to be proud of in America’s history such as the Marshall Plan and the part America played in the defeat of Nazism; the fact that slavery WAS abolished (in the end) and that Jim Crow has been slowly driven back. The US was the first country to develop an enlightened republican constitution which (as I insist to my students) is admirable in many ways and certainly a big improvement on most of the polities that preceded it; it is one of the first countries in modern times to approximate a democracy (note my careful choice of words); for a large part of the twentieth century it managed to deliver to most of its citizens a standard of living enormously in excess of what most people have experienced throughout most of history; it has fostered institutions that enable and indeed facilitate criticism and dissent (which is not to say, of course, that these could not be a great deal better) ; it has given relatively unprivileged persons such as yourself and your sister massive educational opportunities (though these are, sadly, drying up for the less privileged nowadays); and it has a social safety-net that preserves the majority of its citizens from utter destitution especially in old age (even though by European standards it is a rather inferior affair). It has also been a place where the refugees from poverty, starvation or persecution in the Old World could make a fresh start. (Trump is trying to make America great again by shutting out the kinds of refugees who helped to endow America with such greatness as it has managed to achieve.) Furthermore, though they have of course been very imperfectly realized, there is much to admire in the IDEALS of the Declaration of independence and the Constitution, including of course the separation between Church and State, a strong stand in favor of the liberty of conscience and against religious persecution.

Charles Pigden said...

2) Given all this, there is an obvious propagandistic line to take, a patriotic rhetorical strategy that even a left-wing contrarian such as yourself can employ without dishonor or dishonesty: *Trump and the Republicans betray the best in American tradition*. If there anything good in the American Way, they are against it, as they are (very obviously) opposed to both Truth and Justice (on any reasonable interpretation of those highly contested terms). You don’t have to endorse all this half-witted ‘City on the Hill’, ‘Leader of the Free World’ bullshit to say that Trump has betrayed everything that is good about the American tradition – you just have to think that there are some things about it that are indeed good. And even an anarchist such as yourself is likely you think that there are SOME things in the American political tradition that you can celebrate with a clean intellectual conscience.

More specifically I think you can say this. The American Constitution was designed on purpose to guard against potential populist tyrants such as Trump. The founders had read about such people in Plutarch and did their best to erect a system of checks and balances that would prevent such a person assuming dictatorial powers. The system is just about working, though it is aided and abetted at the present time by Trump’s own stupidity and incompetence. (A less idiotic Trump could have done a lot more damage than the actual Trump has managed to do.) Trump is a traitor to the republican ideals (though not it seems to the Republican ideals) embodied in the Constitution, ideals that are not wholly ignoble. It is of course true that Russian interference in the recent election has given America a very mild taste of its own medicine, but just because it was wrong for America to interfere in other countries’ elections it does not follow that it is right for Russia to interfere in America’s and you can surely go along with the thesis that this is utterly deplorable. So I think that there is a lot you can say and a lot you can say as an American patriot without endorsing the idiotic myths that sustain the patriotism of many of Trump’s less educated opponents.

3) In this connection there is a book I would very much recommend (if you have not read it already ) James R Flynn’s *Where Have All the Liberals Gone*, especially chapter 1.

s. wallerstein said...

Charles Pidgin,

I agree with much of what you say.

No one is claiming that the U.S. is a totalitarian police state. As you probably know,
mainstream U.S. thought, even in so-called quality media like the New York Times and even many academics who should know better, push a story of American exceptionalism, that the U.S. always acts in the name of freedom and human rights in its foreign policy (Viet Nam was a well-intentioned mistake; we invaded the Dominican Republic to restore order, we invaded Iraq because Saddam Hussein threatened world peace, etc.), that the U.S. is a model of human, civil and political rights in its domestic policy (ask Black Lives Matter about that and as you point out, the U.S. is the only developed nation which does not assure healthcare to all as a, yes, human right), that the U.S. is a meritocracy where anyone who works hard "can make it" (the U.S. has the worst Gini co-efficient of all developed nations, etc.).

I guess we (those who see through the bullshit) can go easy on the debunking of patriotic myths in order to get rid of Trump, but many of us have a lifetime habit of deflating patriotic bullshit and habits are hard to kick.

s. wallerstein said...

Ed Barreras,

You ask why the Bush administration didn't plant evidence of weapons of mass destruction.

I'd say that the answer was the arms inspectors. Remember Hans Blix and his team of experts?

If Bush and his gang had planted arms, Blix and his team knew enough about the Iraqi weapons program to be able to say if the weapons were bogus or not.

I see from Wikipedia that Blix is still alive and I wish him a long and healthy life.

Todd Gitlin said...

To Jerry Fresia, we disagree on very little, but to me the question of whether an upsurge of militancy is called for is never absolute. It's tactical. It always requires a canvass of the forces in play and an assessment on how certain forms of militancy are likely to play under the circumstances. I'm old-fashioned about thinking about how to achieve political power, as opposed to expressing our zeal.

Jerry Fresia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jerry Fresia said...

Blogger Jerry Fresia said...
Todd Gitlin: Great; okay, got it: zeal alone isn't the answer! However, my suspicion is that one's assessment may turn on whether or not one's ox is being gored - I look forward to your tactical and strategic analyses.

Just found this which could be helpful:
"In his new book, "Welcome to the Revolution: Universalizing Resistance," Prof. Charlie Derber says progressive movements must work together to confront interconnected hierarchies of power, because smaller issues are intertwined with a larger system; you can't confront one problem without confronting them all."

Video interview with Derber here:

January 1, 2018 at 5:11 AM Delete