After this dystopian election season with this dystopian result, it seems that we are entering into one of those stupid periods humans impose upon themselves at (surprise, surprise!) fairly regular intervals. But I am not a historian. I leave the job of looking back and making sense of historical significance of this mushroom cloud risen over America and the world more generally to historians.
My background is political philosophy, so also sociology and international relations. It leads me to look at the situation through a philosophical and theoretical lens and to provide some alternative perspectives to engage in politics and the concept of ‘the political’. People tend to focus on the immediacy of political event and are often consumed by passion, anger and fear. It is perhaps a normal human reaction especially if the event is previously unthinkable. My immediate reaction was indeed dismay and denial (I in fact developed some symptoms of anxiety disorder whilst checking the updates throughout the day. Phew…!). But now that the reality has started to sink in, I shall try to go beyond that emotional backlash. What I am going to write here is perhaps still incoherent, simply some reflections to later untangle the complexity of modern political process.
How did we end up here?
Trump has harnessed resentment. It is scary to see so many are wallowing in the mud of bigotry, sexism, misogyny, xenophobia, and overall fear of and hatred to the other and the different. It is scary to see that the only political alternative appealing to those people is nostalgic nationalism and autocratic leadership.
Yet, I hesitate to blame the outcome of the election solely on rhetoric used during the campaign, the rhetoric that has no detail, and drums up anger and hatred.
Rhetoric is not epiphenomenal as some political scientists claim. It is central to political process. History tells us that politics and international relations have been shaped by rhetorical interplay. Liberals usually deploy resonant rhetorical forms to ‘persuade’ their interlocutors of the correctness of their preferred ideas and actions, on the assumption that rhetorical persuasion takes place under the condition approximate to the Habermasian condition of ‘ideal speech situation’. But as history has also proven, liberals are terrible at appealing to the populace. The problem is their very assumption, ‘ideal speech situation’, their tendency to rest their strategy on a strong subjective motivation of individuals and on a presumed situation whereby the opposition would also follow the mechanism of persuasion. Argumentation and deliberation through persuasion in politics is possible if and only if both accept the basic condition of political contestation (Just to note, coercion is perhaps more generally deployed mechanism of political process, particularly in the realm of the international. This itself is an interesting topic, and I should take up on this in some other time). How can we play the game of football with those who throw a baseball and swing a baseball bat?
So, the issue here is not so much about what kind of rhetoric has been used (we all know that already) as it does about how and why Trump’s rhetoric has come to be accepted by so many, how liberals have failed, how structural constraints, be it global capitalism or domestic political system, have enabled the rhetoric of passion, anger and hatred. In a nutshell, how did we end up here?
Democracy and Tyranny
The problem is, I suspect, much bigger and much deeper. Trump’s rhetoric is merely the visible part of a very large iceberg.
One less visible part of the iceberg is the nature of democracy itself. It is very sobering to say, but democracy is inherently unstable. As the authority of and trust in elites fades, as the values of Establishment is replaced by popular ones, modality of our being and our identity can become magnificently diverse and be understood only in its multitude. As democratic principles are realised by removing any barriers to equality and freedom, ‘whatever one wants’ can be established with full license. A woman can pursue any career as she pleases, so can man. Education can become a choice and a child of a waitress can become physician. Misogyny is overturned and family structure is altered to accommodate various needs, aspirations and hopes of family members. Anyone can marry to anyone irrespective of gender and sexuality. This is the momentum of democracy. And yet, as Socrates in Plato’s Republic points out, “tyranny is probably established out of no other regime than democracy,” a would-be tyrant will often abuse ‘whatever one wants’ license and seize her/his moment.
On the election day, my mind was tugged by Andrew Sullivan’s aporia he threw at us even before Trump won the Republican Nomination. Reflecting upon the nausea caused by the advancement of Trump, Sullivan asked if the situation would prove not only Plato but also James Madison’s claim that democracies “have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention… and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” Sullivan was, of course, at that time, simply speculating. Yet, his article has a chilling resonance with the post-election world. In May, he already flagged up that “this election has already revealed about the fragility of our way of life and the threat late-stage democracy is beginning to pose to itself.”
Disbelief and Failure of Liberals
Despite Sullivan’s and some others’ warning, we did not take the situation seriously. It is in this instance of retrospection that I would suggest another less visible part of the iceberg, which is epitomised by our surprise at, dismay by and utter disbelief in the outcome.
Why do we (by ‘we’ I mean liberals and those who oppose to anything Trump has said and done) think that Trump has performed the improbable? If every one of us in this democratic society has a full license to do whatever we want, this should be also applicatory to Trump himself and all the Trumpers. I mean, the inadequacy is ours, in that we did not fully recongnise Trump supporters have their license to do whatever they want to do as much as we have ours to do whatever we want to do, and dismissed them simply as deplorable. It is a consequence of our irreflective, naive and yet damaging logic of exclusion, dispelling him on the margin of political debate, mocking him as the entertainer-in-chief or the groper-in-cheif. This, of course, served our emotional end (Note that the self-righteous bigoted misogynist idiot makes me sick to my stomach). It is ultimately our failure to imagine the unimaginable. Hence, surprise, dismay and disbelief.
Improbable Miracle and Unpredictable Action
Hannah Arendt’s concept of action, its beginning and its unpredictability is insightful when thinking about why we have failed to imagine the unimaginable.
Insofar as human action as ‘beginning’, as a manifestation of freedom (freedom as the capacity to challenge and alter any given situation), Arendt claims, any action carries with it the capacity to introduce the totally unexpected, something almost appears as a miracle.
It is in the nature of beginning that something new is started which cannot be expected from whatever may have happened before. This character of startling unexpectedness is inherent in all beginnings… The fact that man is capable of action means that the unexpected can be expected from him, that he is able to perform what is infinitely improbable. And this again is possible only because each man is unique, so that with each birth something uniquely new comes into the world. (The Human Condition. 1958: 177-8)
Action, thus the beginning, is in its nature unpredictable, because it is in essence a manifestation of the capacity of human individuals to innovate and to alter situations by directly engaging in them, and yet because any action takes place within the complex web of human relations, within a context only understood in its multitude and heterogeneity.
though it may proceed from nowhere, so to speak, acts into a medium where every action becomes a chain reaction and where every process is the cause of new processes… the smallest act in the most limited circumstances bears the seed of the same boundlessness, because one deed, and sometimes one word, suffices to change very constellation. (The Human Condition. 1958: 190)
Our Archduke Ferdinand Moment?
So, the smallest act could bear the seed of a bigger change.
Think the War to end all Wars. At a local level in a specific historical time, or let’s say, in Bosnia on 28th June 1914, I think not many people imagined that the killing of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, a minor European royal, would lead to the mobilisation of 70 million and the death of 17 million. Another example is in Berlin on 9th November 1989. No one really anticipated that Gunter Schabowski’s lack of information on the new regulation and his comment based on his own speculation would lead to the tearing down of the Berlin Wall and subsequent unification of Germany.
Since the election day, 8th november 2016, a countless number of comments and analyses have been made on the uncertainty of the future of, albeit in relative decline, the hegemonic power of the world. Some are hopeful, others are pessimistic. But the most, if not all, has this undertone of ‘life goes on’. Perhaps. The nausea comes and goes. The explosion of social media feeds is already becoming the thing of the past.
But I have an urge to ask: is this dystopian election result our Archduke Ferdinand moment?
If you know a bit of history, you have all the reasons to fear that it might be. You have all the reasons to be frightened by the result of the election in all its guises. You have all the reasons to think that, once again, we are plunging ourselves into another destructive period of human history. I cannot help but exhibit a tone of pessimism and resignation. At this historically specific moment, the nausea would go sooner or later and life goes on, but the charismatic (for some) narcissist will be there as president. As the Brexit manifests, Europe has already been divided, and the populist, autocratic leaderships are gaining their momentum in Hungary, Slovakia and other places. Russia is eyeing on Latvia in the hope of expanding its influence westward, and of course on Syria waiting for the decline of the US influence in the region. There are many nations trying to seize the moment of hegemonic decline to advance their own national interests. There are many Trumps in the world waiting for the popular tide to turn their way. There seems to be no alternative but to accept the current phase of political process in the US and in international relations more generally.
In these instances of disillusionment, however, we should return to Arendt and her understanding of action. If we are to act against the situation, if we are to manifest our capacity to alter the situation, then, we need to directly engage in the situation. We will only be able to combat the damaging consequences of the 8th of November by becoming integrated into what has emerged since. Perhaps, this is the discourse of our moment of defeat, a moment that has not yet been surpassed. New liberals, new elites, new political leaders, who are capable of inspiring and implementing progress for the benefit of the people, are required to rupture with any discourses of denial, but to engage in this situation.