At some point in the coming weeks, I’d like to write an essay, a brief essay, on political criticism in the Age of Trump—a how-to, or a rules-of-the-road, for the way we ought to be doing analysis right now.
One of the counters I often get to the various claims I make about the weaknesses or vulnerabilities or incoherences of the Trump regime—or when I point out policy moments when I think those weaknesses, vulnerabilities, or incoherences are being expressed—is this: Well, even if Trump pulls back from position x or even if he does action y (where y is not as a bad as z), he’s still awful, he’s only doing it to save his ass, he’s not giving birth to a new order of justice, he’s no friend of the left, and lot of people still will suffer.
I’m always brought up short by that response. Because, I think to myself, of course he’s not going to do anything good, of course he’s not going to do anything for the right reason. He’s a horrible man leading a horrible party that believes in horrible ideas. Given everything we know about this party and this movement, how could it be otherwise?
But also, and more important, how does it tell us anything to say that if something changes in Trump’s positions, it’s not in alignment with the ACLU or Jacobin or Bernie Sanders or even the most minimal Clintonism? How does it tell us anything about what we really need to know—which is not that Trump is bad or that a lot of people are going to suffer under his rule (Does anyone on the left really dispute that? Do most people in the mainstream media even dispute that?) but whither are he and his movement and his party tending?
What I worry about—and why I want to write this essay—is that we seem to occupy two simple poles when we assess the Trump regime: fascism/authoritarianism/terribilism OR human rights, maximal liberalism, democracy, socialism, what have you. And if we can only toggle between these two poles—between Trump bad and left good—we’re going to miss a considerable amount of action within the Trump regime itself.
My presumption when I say the Trump regime is incoherent, vulnerable, weak, etc., is never that that regime won’t do a lot of damage or that there is anything redemptive in it. It’s that if we’re going to be watchful for and of the moment, we need to be watching what’s happening in the moment. And thinking and looking beyond the moment, both to the past and to the future.
I fear, in short, that some of our normative judgments—our insistent and relentless turn to the normative, our constant need to be normative, to always and everywhere remind ourselves and each other that things are bad and wrong, as if any of that were in doubt—are getting in the way of seeing the Trump moment for what it is and, more important, what it may be becoming.