Welcome the Trump Voters Back
By now most media-addicted readers will be familiar with “the BBQ, Beer, Freedom guy”, who disrupted a press conference of the Clark County registrar in Las Vegas to inform the assembled reporters, mask down below his mouth, that “Joe Biden is stealing this election.” The guy in question is deeply familiar to me. I would not be surprised to learn from Ancestry.com (which Henry Louis Gates enticed me into using a few months ago) that he is a member of my extended family, perhaps a fourth or fifth cousin. I was born in Reno, a place with a culture somewhat distinct from Las Vegas, but still part of the broader Mormon Corridor, and forged like the rest of the state by the same history of mining, gambling, brothels, nuclear testing, and divorce. If you were to look only at photographs of my two parents, you might well imagine that a combination of their several traits would yield up such a one as he. If I appear different from my fellow Nevadan today, this probably has something to do with the fact that I have mostly used my freedom to pursue other things than beer and BBQ. I am nonetheless able to see right through differences of wardrobe and of lifestyle-related body type, and behind these what I see, most plainly, is my similar, my brother.
But having the same genes as someone is certainly no reason to extend any particular sympathy to them. That’s how we got into this whole mess in the first place! For decades now, on both the right and left in America, political parties have won elections by cobbling together support from ethnic and quasi-ethnic identity groups that are compelled to think of themselves as homogeneous blocs and of their interests as being in zero-sum competition with other blocs. The “Latinx voter” hesitating between Trump and Biden is not quite made to think of herself as would, say, a member of the minority Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania who is considering an alliance with the governing Social Democrats. But just as in a republic dolloped out of a multiethnic ex-Ottoman macédoine, there is now a near-total absence in the US of any ideal of citizen solidarity across interest-group lines that transcends the merely strategic.
We are, thankfully, seeing some early signs of new Democratic leadership showing us a way out of this Balkan trap, where the palace elites keep the peoples of the empire in perpetual check by anchoring their position in the polity to the contingencies of their birth. Thus when someone on Twitter asked the Arizona Democratic congressman Ruben Gallego how “we improve our work with the LatinX community across the country,” the congressman responded bluntly: “First, start by not using the term Latinx”. I suspect Rep. Gallego has a bright career ahead of him.
The far better reason I am able to find for sympathising with the BBQ, Beer, Freedom guy is this: I was doing more or less the same thing four years ago. I did not interrupt any press conferences, but I did spend several weeks insisting that the results of the 2016 presidential elections had to be illegitimate.
In Harper’s Magazine in early 2017 I declared Trump’s presidency to be a fake presidency. To be clear, I stand by most of what I said. I was not duped by anyone, whether Christopher Steele, Rachel Maddow, or Louise Mensch, as to the degree of Russia’s involvement in Trump’s election. I thought it at least possible that there would turn out to be proof of direct involvement. But I always insisted that in the era of the internet, you do not need people behind the scenes pulling the strings, giving other people briefcases full of money and so on (in Foreign Affairs I have insisted on a similar point regarding the “stochastic terrorism” preferred by Islamists in Europe, ordered through the open channels of the internet, and obviating the old need for hidden and elaborate networks). You just need to cultivate an information environment in which people cannot distinguish between truth and falsehood, in which expert claims are treated with suspicion, and in which fringe figures and theories are valued more highly than mainstream ones, and you are creating the conditions for the ascent of an internet troll like Trump to the highest political office in the United States. And we know that the Russian state was deeply involved in creating such an environment in 2016.
I still cannot forget one pro-Trump video I saw circulating at that time, with edgy graphics and cool music, in which the makers had inadvertently revealed their identity by spelling the candidate’s name Tramp. This was plainly a transliteration of the Cyrillic Трамп — there is no ə sound in Russian, no schwa or mid-central u as in “gun” (my own given name in Russian is Джастин/Dzhastin), and so the neutral а, halfway between the vowel sound in rate and the one in root, serves as a sort of all-purpose vowel that approximates the absent u. Such amateurish pro-Tramp propaganda as this exploded all over the internet during the 2016 campaign. It was perfectly clear where it was coming from, and it was perfectly clear why. Trump profoundly weakened the US-centred Atlantic order that had dominated Europe since the end of World War II, not because he was afraid that not doing so would cause the Russians to release “the pee tape”, but just because he was too stupid and self-interested, still too much a real-estate developer from Queens, to understand what an international strategic alliance is and why it might be good to preserve. (I am not saying the post-war global Pax Americana is good or just, only that if it is to be dismantled, this should be done consciously, rather than inadvertently.)
Anthropologically speaking, Trump is too well-attuned to the “big man” politics (in Maurice Godelier’s sense) characteristic of most of the post-Soviet space to feel at home with the dull procedural Eurocrats who were our supposed allies; far more natural was it for him to gravitate towards those people for whom beauty pageants, wrestling matches, and other such atavistic spectacles lie comfortably within the domain of the political. It was said of Bill Clinton that he was “our first Black president” (as I recall this had something to do with his going on the Arsenio Hall show and playing the sax while wearing shades; “our first president as pure Baudrillardian spectacle” may have been more apt). It could be said with at least as much justice that Trump was our first Caucasian president — that is, the one for whom doing politics was most like what you would expect at the court of Putin’s vassal Ramzan Kadyrov. And so when I saw in November, 2016, that they were popping open champagne (or at least shampanskoe) at the Duma upon the announcement of Trump’s victory, just as they might have done some years earlier upon learning that the mightiest of the Chechen warlords had pledged his fealty to Moscow, I admit this seemed to me to amount to some sort of rupture in the history of American domestic and international politics, and the way I articulated the frustration at witnessing such a rupture was to declare: This is illegitimate.
In 2016, I attributed perhaps 50% of the responsibility for that illegitimacy to conscious human villainy, of the sort that requires the exercise of the will, and the other 50% to technological forces that had got out of control and overrun us. But the past four years have provided abundant reason to think that in every domain of our collective life these technological forces have a vastly greater share in the erosion of our old ways of doing things than on my earlier estimate. The internet is ruining everything. A new world will emerge from the ruins, but in the meantime some weird things are going to happen, and the weirdness of a troll getting elected president was indeed a loud announcement of this historical shift. I took my visceral feeling that This cannot be happening, and tried to render it in more procedural terms: This is politically illegitimate. But strictly speaking it was not: Trump got more votes in the electoral college than Clinton did, and that’s how we choose our presidents. (The same point applies here as for the Pax Americana above.)
In 2020, in turn, Joe Biden won more votes in the electoral college than Trump did. On the internet this result is being described as the victory of the cringeposters over the edgelords. Should you require a translation, this is to say that the mainstream centrist types who say sappy things about the sanctity of American democracy and who distinguish between bad nationalism and good patriotism, who always have a flag in storage to pull out when things go their way, have won out against the forces of both the left and the right that have so thrived in social media over the past years, that have sustained themselves on increasingly illiberal and extreme demands, and that have learned to cut their radicalism with enough irony always to be able to deny, when called on it, that they are literally committed to sending tanks back into Prague, or to the Juche ideology, or to the gospel of Kek.
It is unlikely that the Clark County protester found his way to Trump through the effervescences of the edgelords. While he surely used the internet over the past years, the information environment he inhabited there is one that is likely continuous with post-FCC Fairness Doctrine talk radio. If the edgelords were a crucial part of the vanguard that memed President Trump into existence, the Clark County protester is a member of the Trumpian rank and file, someone who aligns with the movement ideologically not because it appears edgy to him, but because it appears normal, or the closest thing to normal that there can be in a world gone berserk, a partial continuation of the form of life that he would like to be able to take for granted, rather than something radically new.
The most urgent thing for the survival of American democracy at present is that the conditions not be allowed to persist in which the Clark County protester is constrained to understand his political options as an American citizen in the same way that, say, a member of the Hungarian Alliance understands her political options as a Romanian citizen. Our man in Vegas is susceptible to white identitarianism, and will vote for identitarian reasons if that is how his options are presented to him. But this is not a reason to write him off — on the contrary to write him off is to guarantee that he will continue to conceive his political options in identitarian terms.
That so many millions of white Americans adopted such a conception in the 2016 and 2020 elections (though slightly less, proportionally, in the latter) is being treated as a moral failure on their part, and many liberal cringeposters over the past few days have been pompously virtue-signalling about how these people do not deserve “forgiveness”, as if 70 million rank-and-file partisan voters were really an appropriate target of such a magnanimous moral gesture.
Trump himself, certainly, does not deserve forgiveness, and the court of the Southern District of New York or some other body may indeed determine that what he does deserve is criminal prosecution. Stephen Miller, it is to be hoped, will be prosecuted for his part in the family-separation policy enacted by ICE. The Trumps and their boyars will, if there is any justice, be ostracised and subjected to a damnatio memoriae of the sort that we have not yet seen in the history of the American presidency. But the Clark County protester is not one of Trump’s boyars; he is one of Trump’s suckers, drawn to the movement out of a mix of economic desperation, a natural desire for absorption into a community of the like-spirited, and the omnipresent deceptions of the information ecosystem that occlude from him the real possibility of community with people who do not share his demographic profile or his lifestyle preferences.
One of the favourite themes of the cringeposters over the past few days has been to display their despair at the realisation that 47% or so of their fellow Americans would vote for a borderline-authoritarian, an apologist for white nationalism, etc. But we’ve known for years that his consistent approval rate has been only 4% or so less than this, and we’ve seen unmistakable evidence both before and after the election that the real reasons for voting for Trump are numerous, and if everyone who votes for him is a white nationalist, then there is a growing number of Black and Latino white nationalists in this peculiar country, and a declining number of white white nationalists relative to 2016.
This irregularity aside, the cringeposters would also do well to step away from their own species of “America First” ideology for a moment, and to try taking a look at their country from a comparative perspective. When we do this, it becomes immediately apparent that whatever species of illiberal politician Trump has been, it is not wholly unlike the kind that was also lately propelled into power in Brazil, the Philippines, and many other places besides. Are we also to bemoan the moral failure of Filipinos in electing a leader who brags about assassinating drug dealers and about walking around naked with a hard cock while staying at the Manila YMCA in his student days? Trump belongs to a type, and around the world voters have been attracted to that type for similar reasons. The best thing for Filipino voters is that they be presented with more attractive political choices than Rodrigo Duterte. The best thing for American liberals is that they learn to think about their country’s plight with at least some tiny inkling of an awareness of the existence of a world beyond their borders — not just a fetishisation of Scandinavian perfection, but of a world that also shares our own country’s weaknesses.
You can do whatever you want with your morals, forgive people or not. But your duties as a citizen are somewhat different than the duties you might have as, say, a Christian (the kind who strives to follow the gospel), and here forgiveness is not so much what is required as, simply, recognition of a common plight. This civic virtue overlaps, admittedly, with the moral; it is difficult to articulate it in terms that do not come across as moralising, and certainly it would be an impediment to its realisation to articulate it in the bare terms of calculative strategy. In France it is traditionally articulated in terms of fraternité, which seems to strike just the right note between strategy and moralising. We need to hold things together somehow; in a real family unit this might have to pass through an overtly moral gesture of forgiveness, but in a polity what we should perhaps expect is that people aspire at least to a recognition of their fellow citizens through a lens that represents them as brothers and sisters.
Even after the defeat of Nazi Germany, the Allied forces understood that de-Nazification meant, first of all, punishing the leaders of the movement, and, second of all, getting the masses of the German people oriented towards an ideal of civic belonging more attractive than Nazism. Trump is, obviously, no Hitler — he is too incompetent ever to have accomplished even a fraction of the evil designs of any true fascist leader, and even his malevolence was mostly opportunistic and flexible. From the “birther” controversy to the pitiful and ignoble fit he has been throwing over the past few days about the legitimacy of the election, Trump’s primary character trait has been that he is a stunted and selfish liar. This alone has been profoundly damaging to the civic health of the United States, and it has been facilitated by the structures of the internet, which value truth no more than he does.
At his astounding, final-act-Shakespearean press briefing a few nights ago, Trump managed to make some fairly legitimate points about the hollowness of the Democratic party, its neoliberal subservience to finance, etc., which could have been a redeeming and graceful note to go out on. But of course, Trump being Trump, he blew it, and the legitimate concern, shared by Bernie Sanders and by many, many young progressives, was drowned out by the ridiculous conspiracy-mongering, which will be Trump’s only significant legacy.
My God, what a pathetic man. It’s been years, and I still cannot process how such an utter human failure managed to impose himself on us as he did.
I am, again, significantly more sympathetic to his millions of disaffected voters, or at least the ones who supported him not “for the lulz”, but against the very unfunny diminishing prospects for a happy life under the emerging regime of digital serfdom, where the only real job left is that of data cow, and where we are forced to build up hastily and from scratch a sense of community for ourselves that we hope can at least partially replace our lost civic belonging.
The forms of community that emerge in such a vacuum are of course going to look ridiculous to those who are not participating in them from the inside. The Clark County protester looks ridiculous. But he is still our fellow citizen, and it will do no good, if we wish to prevent the further weakening of our civic bonds, to mock him and exclude him. So far, Bidenism seems to understand this; I think Bernie understood it too. There is however a very powerful contingent of liberals in the United States who take the BBQ, Beer, Freedom guy as their enemy. And just as I hope this guy can be won over to something more compelling in the coming years, I hope these liberals can be won over too, to a renewed appreciation of the bond of citizenship.