Monday, March 13, 2017

Eight ways of looking at a landscape

            Speaking of a part of the world as a landscape is to consider it in a specific way: as a terrain that is viewed, seen, organized by the eye, even - especially - if it is only the mind’s eye. A landscape is a place organized by the meanings it has for people. I am going to talk about some of the ways that our meanings form and organize landscapes.

First, as an origin. Famously, nature, nation, native, all have the same root - birth, the place where life arises and renews itself. [etymological image?] Nature, in this sense, means the world, viewed in light of its life-making powers, the origin of each of us and every other living thing, and, ultimately, of every thought we could have about it, or one another. And by the same token it is linked to nationalism, to nativism, and other doctrines that have been demanding our attention.

I want to start at this etymology - this common root of words that name the very idea of roots - because it is especially vexed, and vexing. Talking of origins is always partly fictional. In a sense, because we are born of nature, we come from the whole world. In a sense, because we are born, we are native to just one other person. Nation, with the same root, is famously an imagined community, a story about an Us and a Them, a kind of story that has done a lot of harm, and is not finished doing harm.

Saying these things about how origins are fictional and nations, like nature, are constructed, is easy in my generation of the academic humanities. You might even say it comes naturally, that it is second nature. But I think there is something else also worth naming, in the idea that a landscape of origin, of your birth, where you are native, is also your nature, who and how you are. There is an image that people come to again and again of being born from their terrain. A few examples:

E.P. Thompson’s great study, The Making of the English Working Class, is very nearly the antithesis of picturesque landscape writing. Nonetheless, the book has a steady rhythm of place-names and terrain that infuses an earth-born quality into the human action he details. One time he comes out and says it. Writing of Dan Taylor, “a Yorkshire collier who had worked in the pit from the age of five and who had been converted by the Methodists,” who “built his own meeting-house, digging the stone out of the moors above Hebden Bridge and carrying it on his own back” and went on to walk 25,000 miles to preach 20,000 sermons, Thompson concludes: “he came from neither the Particular nor the General Baptist Societies: spiritually, perhaps, he came from Bunyan’s inheritance, but literally he just came out of the ground.”

And here is Wendell Berry, the Kentucky agrarian writer, in an essay from the 1960s called “A Native Hill.” Berry writes of a place “where his face is mirrored in the ground,” imagines his own death and decay on his native hill, and concludes, “When I move to go, it is as though I rise up out of the world.” 

I could multiply examples, but I think these will specify the thought, or feeling, that I am after here.

Second, as a record of wounds. A landscape is partly a place that is held in memory in a certain way. The Polish-Lithuanian poet Czeslaw Milosz wrote, “It is possible that there is no memory but the memory of wounds.” And it is surely true that the way a landscape memorializes us, how it holds our memory, is largely in the harm we do in our use and habitation of it.
            In the passage where Wendell Berry imagines rising from the land of his “native hill,” he also reflects that his walk is several feet below where he would have walked, if his ancestors had not cut the land in ways that cost it all its topsoil. The Appalachian hills where I grew up, which are steeper than his, are a beautiful place of wreckage: mature red oaks collapse with their roots out because the soil is so thin. Gullies slash the hillsides where people farmed sheep during World War One, answering a booming demand for wool to make uniforms. The streams are sluggish and muddy because all the topsoil has run through them.

            And that is nothing compared with the condition of the coalfields, just an hour’s drive south - less if you know exactly where you’re going. You may know some of the basic facts about mountaintop-removal strip-mining, which combines dynamite to blast mountains apart with earth-moving equipment that can pick up 130 tons of rubble at a bite. You may know that the blasting lowers ridges and mountaintops by as much as six hundred feet in a region where that is about the usual clearance between valley and ridge. You may have heard that two thousand miles of headwater streams have been buried under hundreds of feet of the resulting rubble (a very conservative estimate); that five hundred individual mountains have been destroyed, and that 1.4 million acres of native forest have been cleared in the process. Where mining has been, the terrain is now something utterly different from what it used to be. A terrain dominated by steep hillsides has been replaced by a mix of plateaus with remnant or reconstructed hillsides that are shorter and blunter than before mining. The most common pre-mining landform was a slope with a pitch of 28 degrees, about as steep as the upper segments of the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge. Today, the most common is a plain with a slope of 2 degrees, that is, level but uneven. Across the region, mining has filled a steep landscape with pockets of nearly flat ground.

            What does this terrain show about us? Thoreau wrote about wild places that we go there “to see our serenity reflected in them; when we are not serene, we go not to them.” But what about when what they show back to us is a breaking of the land on a geological scale? What we find there is ecological derangement. What can we say that it reflects of us?

            It’s partly because this question is unpleasant that a third way of viewing landscapes has been so appealing to many Americans. This is a painterly view of landscapes as instances of aesthetic ideals. Viewed in this light, we may catalog the qualities of landscapes in the way that Frederick Law Olmsted did those of Yosemite Valley, which, he wrote in the 1860s, combined the following: beauty, the look of a welcoming, regular, gentle world where you could feel at home; and sublimity, the wild, strange, even frightening extremity of a world that was not made for your comfort or safety at all, that was vastly bigger than your powers and maybe even bigger than your imagination. These aesthetic principles were also psychological, even spiritual principles: they tuned your mind a certain way, toward peace and calm or toward inspiration and wonder.

            If this is a painterly ideal, what is the brush? Whatever made the world, of course, is one answer. But another, also true, is the law that picks out these places as special and preserves and manages them according to aesthetic principles. In national parks, monuments, and wilderness areas, the law has picked out hundreds of millions of acres of land as the exemplary American nature, the places where what is best in the world reflects what is best in us, and the other way around. In what I suspect is the most widely read of all his amazing and invaluable work, Bill Cronon has now taught more than a generation of students and scholars that the ideal of the exemplary, nearly sacred place is connected with the willing sacrifice of the fallen place. In prizing what we prize, we also give ourselves a license to neglect or wreck what we do not. More than the atmosphere connects Yosemite with the coalfields.

            Parks and wilderness areas suggest a connection between the most abstract and literary ideas about the nature of nature and why it matters to human beings, and the most material facts about the world - the landscapes that compose it. The link between the two, which completes the circuit, is often the law. The circuit that law completes is very clear when we are looking at legislation as a kind of landscape architecture - rather like the aristocratic gardens of England and France, except that - as Olmsted emphasized - here they should be thought of as parks for citizens, not for owners, and for that reason must be shaped by a sovereign’s power rather than an owner’s. But just as law can perform landscape architecture when it has a very clear, painterly template - in the same way it can shape other landscapes in line with other ways of seeing.

            So, for instance, we might see a landscape in a fourth way, as a stockpile of resources to use for our utilitarian purposes. And this is the way of seeing that the US Forest Service was created to implement in the almost 200 million acres of national forests that it manages - an area almost the size of five Wisconsins. This idea was very important to utilitarian reformers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; the national forests dedicate terrain to the idea. They make it real, as real as dirt.

            Or you might see a landscape as ratifying a national mission and identity. The idea was widespread in the early republic that the world, by its nature, belonged to the people who could make it bloom - and blooming meant being economically productive, according to the paradigm of the agriculture and the commodity markets of northern Europe. People who settled, timbered, and planted land could become its owners; those who merely hunted and lives transient lives there were owners; they passed over it like deer, the lawyers of the time said, or like ships at sea. All of this doctrine had the convenient effect of showing that Native Americans had never become, legally or morally speaking, rooted in the place; only Europeans could do that. John Marshall, the second chief justice of the US Supreme Court, explained in one of the more candid treatments of this issue that although the European claim to North America offended one’s sense of natural justice, it had to prevail: the alternative was to leave the continent a forest, a wilderness.

            This image of the continent and the national mission it called forth is, of course, intimately linked with the expropriation and genocide of Native Americans. And, contrary to certain historical images, very little about the clearing and settlement that it set in motion was spontaneous. Much of American law in the first century of independence was dedicated to converting frontier into private property. Federal statutes offered a series of bargains: you could become an owner, a proprietor, by settling a place, by cutting trees in forest land or planting them in grassland, by draining wetlands or irrigating drylands, by mining valuable minerals or, in some cases, gathering stone. The thing was to transform something, in a way that drew economic value from it and brought it into the legal terms of ownership. The landscapes we mostly know, the private land of the East and the Midwest, began in these ways. John Locke’s famous parable, that people made property by mixing their labor with nature, happened again and again under the aegis of American law - often via the labor of enslaved people; in North Carolina and other Southern jurisdictions, settlers could claim extra acres for each body the law said they owned.

            A few points are emerging here. One is that different kinds of landscapes are produced by different kinds of legal landscape architecture. Laws creating and managing parks are only the most obvious example. In fact, for every part of every landscape - the soil, the trees and other plants, the animals, the water, the oil or gas or metals underground - the law has said, in some respects, what shall be done with it, and, in every case, who will make that decision. The sum of these two questions - what will be done and who decides - is our collective, often implicit landscape architecture, whether it is the cathedral of Yosemite or Glacier or the geology of wreckage in the Appalachian coalfields, which you can trace through property deeds, the legislative compromise that produced the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1978, and the interpretation of the Clean Water Act that allows the burial of all those streams. Not every way of seeing a landscape corresponds to a legal regime as neatly as the ones I have been discussing; but when a way of seeing shapes a terrain, when ideas and materiality rise to meet each other in a changing landscape, law is generally the circuit that links them.

            A second point is that, although I have been naming a landscape to instance each way of seeing, every landscape in which people have taken an interest is also a landscape of conflict. They are cross-cut by competing visions and narratives. In Appalachia, for instance, my way of telling the story will run up against another in which the survival of coal mining against environmentalist intrusion is heroic. As recently as the 1970s, there was a third, advanced by the insurgent labor movement the Miners for Democracy, which held that miners should work in a way that preserved their own health and the health of the land, and should strike when they were asked to dig coal in ways that either threatened to give workers black lung or promised to destroy mountains and streams. Now that version of the coalfields is gone, along with most of the power of the United Mine Workers of America, and the meaning of this land is split between two poles. From one, the sacrifice of a region for a few decades of marginally cheaper energy is one of the great pieces of environmental injustice in our age. From the other, the victims of environmental injustice are the miners themselves, expelled from their work as farmers were expelled from the land that became Shenandoah National Park, a few hours to the east of the coalfields. I don’t share the second; I think it is ill-founded; but I do not find it mysterious.
            In some landscapes, the lines of conflict fall precisely along the boundaries of overlapping and competing legal regimes. So on certain federal public lands, you find a palimpsest like this one. A federal agency, which holds the land in the name of all the people, both present and future generations, is directed by a statute to plan access and resource use on - let us say - millions of acres - from timbering and hunting and foraging to solitary camping and bird-watching. But that land is also pocked with private claims: rights to graze cattle under the 1934 Taylor Grazing Act, which carried forward and regularized the remnants of the old principle that public lands were open-access commonses for ranchers; mining claims that still arise today, sometimes with huge environmental and land-use effects, under the General Mining Law of 1872, which is the last of the great national-mission-of-privatization laws still in effect. The land may also be criss-crossed by public-access roads, which persist over and against federal planners’ preferences, created under Revised Statute 2477 of 1866, part of the general pro-development agenda that regulated American landscapes as potential private property rather than public land, and which federal courts have ruled are still governed by principles of private property. And those older, use-and-development regimes interact with ecological and environmentalist regimes from the 1960s and 1970s: designation of some of the land as critical habitat for a threatened or endangered species may take timbering or recreation off the table; the 1964 Wilderness Act may prohibit all roads, motorized travel, or economic activity on some acreage, dedicating it to what the Wilderness Act calls primitive solitude. Federal decisions to leave flowing water in streams to preserve endangered species may conflict with farmers’ legal right to use the same water for irrigation. And so forth. These disparate legal regimes, overlapping on a single piece of terrain and competing to shape it, are also practical expressions of competing landscapes, competing ways to see, value, and inhabit a place.
            And the conflict is not just notional or metaphoric. These overlapping, competing landscapes have their constituencies, people invested in certain ways of relating to the natural world, in the ways they make a living, but also at the level of identity. Those militia types who occupied the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon last spring were carrying forward the view that the land really belongs to those who work it and make it productive. There beef was with each ensuing generation: federal land managers, Romantic aficianados of undisturbed beauty and, of course, ecologists who can explain how cattle grazing can harm the waterways where migratory birds rest. These landscapes are overburdened with conflicting uses, conflicting laws, conflicting meanings, and sometimes the lines of tension snap.
            These landscapes of conflict, it seems to me, are very concrete expressions of something that is often said in grandly abstract terms: that the world has entered a new geological era, which some earth scientists and others call the Anthropocene, the epoch of humanity. I think the Anthropocene idea is best broken down into two ideas, which are distinct but entangled together. First is the Anthropocene condition: the intensity and pervasiveness of human influence on the world’s biological and chemical orders, which means that, from here forward, the world we inhabit will be the world we have made, shared with the other life we have valued enough to preserve it, on the landscapes our visions or, as with the coalfields every climate-changed place, our unspoken priorities even if not the ideas most of us would stand up to claim. Second is the Anthropocene insight, the recognition that all these competing ideals of nature and the human place in it are cultural creations, ways that we have learned to see and to be, and, usually, ways of arguing about our political, economic, and cultural lives as much as about the non-human world. Once we have peeled away the layers of human activity that shape these landscapes, and appreciated the many angles of vision from which they can make sense, there is no avoiding that they are Anthropocene landscapes. What else could they be, as long as we are in them?

            And what, then, could be the value of imagining that you rise from a piece of land, continuous somehow with its spirit and meaning - the idea of a landscape as an origin, the place where I began this lecture? I would like to return to that idea now, but along a different path, by thinking of a landscape not as an origin but, in one sense, the opposite - as a sanctuary, a place of respite and reprieve: not the place where you come from, but the place you flee to. “Without wilderness,” said Senator Frank Church of Idaho, debating the Wilderness Act of 1964, “Without wilderness, this country would become a cage.” “We need a place,” Thoreau had written more than a century earlier, “where we feel our limits transgressed,” a place outside our villages and subdivisions. This was something that enslaved people understood when they escaped into the Great Dismal Swamp, at the border of North Carolina and Virginia, and established long-lasting settlements there with furtive ties to the solid ground where they would quickly be reclassified as property. It was apparent to the peoples of highland southeast Asia who resisted domination by lowland empires for many centuries - a story Jim Scott tells in The Art of Not Being Governed, a study in geographic imagination, that puts the upland margins of empire at the center of a counter-imperial picture of history.

            I have my own way of thinking about this question, which, as it happens, I developed while thinking about a series of dreams that I began having a few years ago. In these dreams, I start walking up a wooded slope, and—departing from the low terrain of the Carolina Piedmont where I live—the slope rises and rises, through the loblolly pine into steep pastures, which level out into high meadows, then rise again to crests of stone. Sometimes there’s no stone, and the meadows are the top, sloping along a broad ridgeline, or there may be just a couple hundred vertical feet of pasture, tufted with a mix of beech and red oak.

Only waking destroys my new geography. My sense that the dream showed something real is strong enough that I have looked up topographic maps, just to see whether the hills are there.
I think that the wish these dreams express is for a way to get above a terrain without leaving it, to merge many small horizons into one image. These dreams sketch a geography of thinking, a way of seeing a place whole without being overcome by it.

Of course my dream landscape is not the only geography of thinking. It is the one that you might carry if you had grown up where I did, in a very specific Appalachian landscape. From anyplace that people lived, you could escape on foot to a higher spot: every settled place contained its own upward exits. It was, really, not one landscape, but two, a pattern of valleys (“hollows”) with its counterpart in a second pattern of ridges. The pair of terrains were joined by steep, mainly wooded hillsides. Knowing the valleys did not mean you knew the ridges. A slight misstep setting off from a high place could land you in the wrong hollow, with unexpected people, miles by road from where you meant to be. The two landscapes had complementary logics, and moving between them took caution and attention.

It is a landscape that would give its dissidents an upward path to escape on foot, at least for a while, and lend its critics a commanding view. It is not a safe or certain landscape, and moving across can always exact the price of confusion, the likelihood of still walking the wrong way at dusk.  

            With this in mind, let’s return for a minute to those opening images of a landscape as a point of origin. Take E.P. Thompson, whose radical collier “literally came from the ground.” Actually, everyone in Thompson’s story feels as if they came from the ground, and had some of it clinging to them, with its defining chemistry, coloring, and scent, in the moment of their decisive acts. Without saying so (not more than once, anyway), Thompson manages to conjure up that most un-Marxist and un-academic thought, that the land itself was somehow aligned with the populist and radical ancestors of English socialism.

            Berry, too, wants the land to be with him for his dissent: from what he called, in the title of his most famous book, “the unsettling of America,” the separation of identity from place, pleasure from work, eating from knowledge. These claims of nativity are really bids for sanctuary, for a piece of ground where the larger logic of the world does not entirely rule, a seedbed for your dissent. What else are people getting at when they say, “They tried to bury us; they didn’t know that we were seeds”?

            It was a “maimed and imperfect nature” that he was “conversant with,” Thoreau wrote in his Journal. For someone who went into the landscape to see himself reflected, that is a strong piece of self-knowledge. Walking to the ponds, as he put it, was never a return to something pristine. It was, like politics, a way of joining in with a record of damage, and of conceits and fantasies turned to material facts, which then have to be inhabited.

            The violence of nationalism, and of nativism, is partly in their denial of this reality, their torrid fantasy of a terrain that is theirs and no one else’s, that is home to their meaning and no other. The violence is more concrete, of course, when it comes down to it, in detention centers and airports and the building of walls; but some of it belongs to this idea that any place in the world could belong to, and ratify, just one way of being in it. A landscape that sides with its dissenters, like a historical narrative or a constitutional culture that prizes its dissidents and outsiders, may be a resource for a certain kind of gentleness and self-restraint - at least for people like me whose minds are already and always bent toward terrain. In landscapes whose meaning is as crowded and conflictual as ours, there is room, at least, for strange kinds of dissent, unexpected kinds of consciousness.

            When I finish a reflection like this one, I feel, like Berry or like E.P. Thompson’s collier, that I am recollecting myself, rising up from the ground and reborn into my usual consciousness. We might ask this question about any little ecological trip like this one, any sojourn: when we return, does it make the question of how to live among other people simpler or more complicated? If it makes it simpler, we should mistrust where we have been. If it makes the question more complicated, then we might, for the moment, be doing something right, no matter how difficult making sense of it may be.



Sunday, January 29, 2017

Nine days in: a sketch of Trumpism

I. Trumpism as a Style of Politics
            Donald Trump won the Republican primaries by distinguishing himself sharply from more conventional contenders. How much his November victory relied on his distinctive political style, as opposed to his simply managing not to lose control of the Republican electorate, is not the question of this paper; it is enough to say that his success ratified his style and brought it to the very center of national politics.

            What is that style? To summarize, it relies on open irrationalism and indifference to fact, an ethno-nationalist version of the nation that puts a friend-enemy distinction at the heart of politics, a derogatory and belligerent manner that plays on misogyny and other forms of bigotry, and a fantastical image of what it means to understand or act in politics. There is a certain inadequacy in a laundry-list of particulars, as the distinctiveness of Trumpist politics can seem (and seems to me) greater than the sum of its parts. With that caveat stated, here is a list to get us started.

            A. The Characteristics of Trumpism
            1. The Eclipse of Constitutionalism
A quite specific (and possibly parochial) but, I think, telling point to begin: in the course of his campaign, Trump scarcely talked about the Constitution. Not all candidates do, of course; Bernie Sanders, the other signal insurgent of 2016, did not much.[1] But there is a standard lexicon of American political rhetoric that centers on the idea of constitutional community, the speaker’s preferred versions of liberty and equality, and (not identical but snugly integrated into these), a narrative of American history that vindicates these nation-defining principles in a more or less straightforward fashion.[2] Ted Cruz, who came as close as any opponent to stopping Trump in the primaries, makes for an instructive contrast. Cruz’s stump speech was a paean to First Amendment religious liberty, set within a familiar story of rag-tag colonists, an emancipating Civil War, and Ronald Reagan’s restoration of constitutional balance. In these respects, Cruz’s speeches presented held up a right-wing mirror to Barack Obama’s center-left Lincolnian rendition of the same themes, which emphasize the need for recurrent, cumulative redemption of principles of liberty and equality that have often been betrayed.[3] As this pairing suggests, the language of constitutionalism is in no way politically neutral (whatever that might mean). Rather, as a mode of persuasion it invokes a substantive version of political community, amplified by the claim to transcend partisanship, aiming at an intimate form of intellectual coercion by its appeal to identity: if you do not side with me, you are not really (normatively speaking) an American, not who you say you are.[4] Nonetheless, it does in some way call people together, or, perhaps better put, assume a commonality that then has to be further built out of contest & struggle, but locates that struggle within the premise of an under-specified, constitutive commonality. Trump broke with the most familiar practice of American political rhetoric, the constitutional language that braids every partisan assertion with a symmetrical insistence on the defining, abiding commonality of American identity. (A skeptic might contend that abandoning these forms of constitutional rhetoric advantaged Trump precisely because of widespread recognition that they are in fact partisan codes.[5] Maybe so.)

2. The Politics of Friends and Enemies
Trump’s rhetorical departure from American political convention chimes with a second signature of his style, marking divisions within the political community with the language of “friends” and “enemies” (and rather profligately deploying the same language at the borders of territory and citizenship as well). It was remarkable when Trump tweeted ironic New Year greetings to “my enemies” at the end of 2016, but it was also a vivid instance of a pattern. Notoriously, he threatened to put his general election opponent Hillary Clinton, in prison after the campaign (and then won points for magnanimity when he withdrew this astonishing provocation). In January of 2016, he told students at evangelical Liberty University that Christians suffer from insufficient tribalism: “We don’t band together, frankly. Other religions, they do. We’ve gotta band together around Christianity. We’ve gotta protect [sic] because bad things are happening.”[6] These contrasts were crystallized in an extraordinary pronouncement at a May 2016 rally: “The important thing is the unification of the people, and all the other people don’t matter.” This sentence has become key evidence in political theorist Jan-Werner Mueller’s argument that Trump’s populism shares with that of the new European right a twisting of popular sovereignty that identifies the normative “people” with a subset of the actually existing people - a subset that may be identified racially, linguistically, religiously, ethically, or through a series of slippages among these. The emphasis on slippages strikes me as providing the best characterization: the internal enemy will always be, in one specification, the indisputably bad or dangerous person - the rapist, to take a notorious example - but the category will soon expand to include the “Mexican” generally, or the political opponent, or whichever group the speaker wishes to mobilize sentiment against. Another representative move in this respect was Trump’s tweeted proposal after his victory that people who burn the United States flag should be stripped of citizenship; everyone from George H.W. Bush to Hillary Clinton has taken advantage of Supreme Court precedent to propose consequence-free criminalization of flag-burning, but it was emblematic of Trump’s political style to go further and propose expulsion from the political community.

3. Aggression and Love
There is an emotional corollary to this friend-enemy political rhetoric. Trumpism is also marked by personalized aggression as a style of political confrontation: personalized toward opponents, such as Trump’s demeaned and unmanned primary opponents, and in his nakedly misogynistic attacks on Hillary Clinton and his tweet attacking Indiana union leader Chuck Jones, who had criticized him during the Carrier factory controversy there; and personalized in the attacker as a style of self-presentation that is his signature. Trump offsets this aggressiveness with pronouncements of “love” - for his audience especially, but also for worthy members of whatever nationality or other group he has just attacked.[7] “We’re going,” he promised a North Carolina audience in October, 2016, responding to new charges of sexually inappropriate conduct, “to be a unified nation, a nation of love.”[8] The rawness of the emotional assertion, oscillating between incipiently violent and embracing, is arresting. I am tempted to call it political emotion unsublimated.

            4. An Ethno-national Polity
Trump’s friend-enemy contrast and personalized emotional rawness blend easily into another characteristic of his political style, an ethno-national and/or religious picture of national community. To be sure, he reliably falls back on assurances that he embraces law-abiding immigrants (and all Americans), and his electoral support among some immigrant communities indicates that plenty of people take those declarations seriously. But Trump is also the candidate who called repeatedly for a blanket ban on Muslim admission to the country, invoked an explicitly Christian “we” in a call for intensified tribal solidarity, and moved without any simulacrum of a logical transition from grim images of undocumented criminals to the suggestion that a descendant of Mexican-American immigrants could not fairly adjudicate a case involving Trump. Trump’s racially and nationally selective friend-enemy language must be taken, too, in light of the views of his chief political strategist, Stephen Bannon, who argues for a “global Tea Party” of middle-class nationalist movements, explicitly invoking affinities with Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharartiya Janata Party, Marine le Pen’s National Front, and the advocates of Brexit - each in its way an exclusionary consolidation of national identity in contrast to a religious and/or racial other.[9] There is a certain coherence between Trump’s indifference to constitutional versions of national unity and his embrace of versions built of “the people” that are partial and exclusionary. It is as if the ethno-national version of shared identity filled the space previously occupied by the constitutional one.[10]

5. The Political Agency of the First-person Shooter
Trumpism is also marked by a bizarre form of hyper-individualism in its approach to political knowledge, judgment, and action. Trump’s famous “I alone” boast of his unique power to change a compromised political and economic system, uttered during the Republican National Convention, expressed an image of how political action happens that has been recurrent in his campaign: a pumped-up great-man image in which one special person, acting with force and decision, rips away institutional barriers and other constraints. This is “strong-man” politics not just in the sense of favoring a swaggerer and braggart as a candidate, but a vision of what politics is, and how one makes things happen in that medium.

This hyper-individualist image extends from political action to political knowledge. It is emblematic that Trump began the current version of his political career purveying the claim that Barack Obama was born outside the United States and was therefore constitutionally ineligible for the presidency. And he concluded his presidential campaign with a two-minute television ad accusing Hillary Clinton and her Democratic allies of “secret meetings” to “undermine American sovereignty,” the stock-in-trade of right-wing conspiracy thinking in this country since opposition to the League of Nations, if not since the French Revolution scare of the 1790s. (The latter contributed to the Federalist Congress’s passing the Alien Act, an early instance of ideological xenophobia.) In between, Trump almost gratuitously suggested that primary opponent Ted Cruz’s father had been connected with Lee Harvey Oswald, John F. Kennedy’s assassin, a National Enquirer-worthy claim premised on an old photograph of someone who might have resembled the senior Cruz.

Both strongman imagery, which Trump takes to a comic-book super-hero pitch, and conspiracy theory are basically forms of fantasy. The fantasy is that one’s own powers could press back the opacity and resistance of the political world, revealing patterns hidden to others and grabbing levers of effective action. Trumpism appeals, evidently, to people who find this fantasy charismatic rather than ridiculous, who would like to identify themselves with it even if they do not quite believe they can embody it. If I may speculate, it seems plausible that such a view appeals to people who experience the world’s obstacles as obdurate and opaque, and nonetheless have a sense of themselves as meant to enjoy mastery over it, or at least feel frustration rather than resignation at lacking that mastery.

6. Irrationalism and Emotion
The indulgence of conspiratorial thinking and fantastical images of political agency, which I have suggested might be in part a form of compensation for despair of affecting or even understanding politics in ordinary ways, can serve as synecdoche for a larger pattern in Trumpist politics: an abandonment of even the appearance of adhering to canons of empirical fallibilism, consistency in assertion of fact, rationality linking one’s assertions, and the openness to challenge and disagreement that are implied by taking these standards seriously.[11] It is important, of course, not to make this contrast with pre-Trumpist politics too categorical or self-congratulatory. It is almost too banal to say that political speech is always instrumental and always aims partly at manipulation of feeling. Nonetheless, there is something arresting in the degree of Trump’s defiance of the normative canons of public argument, from shifting sands and disappearing streams of his syntax to the casual reversal of factual assertions and indifference to evidence in favor of the intuition of the moment. The consequence is a switch in the goal of political speech from persuasion to emotional trigger, from an invitation to believe what is proffered to permission to feel something - often, as in the case of deliberate violations of “political correctness,” something Trump’s supporters may believe they are otherwise prohibited from feeling.

7. Hyperbole, Irony, and Deniability
Trumpist politics is hyperbolic. Its hyperbole, however, relies on a quite different quality that complements it. This is a self-aware, even halfway ironic understanding of political utterance as a kind of performance, deliberately overwrought for effect, and to be indulged because it is, after all, performance. Here it feels pertinent that Trump has been, among other things, a promoter of professional wrestling - a vulgar-operatic exercise in friend-enemy hyperbole par excellence. If it has become cliché that politics is merged in a series of ways with entertainment, the introduction to politics of this genre of entertainment is at least worth noting. Part of the point of professional wrestling, after all, is that taking it in any way literally would be a sure sign of failing to understand it. Even as audiences at Trump’s campaign speeches were invited to feel that the country was in “disaster” and that the candidate would soon set everything right, there was another sense in which they were in on the joke of a performance whose key elements included the appeal of the overwrought, the quick conjuring of extreme emotions, but with the ready antidote of the self-checking shrug, the stock line. (“Not going to happen. Not going to happen.”) The genius of the observation that Trump’s supporters took him seriously but not literally was that the element of performance kept up the option of disowning the entailments of what the candidate said. A menacing or inflammatory statement might be, from one instant to the next, or even in the same moment, the sort of thing everyone must take seriously and the sort of thing one knows better than to take seriously. This rhetorical manner is crystallized in the familiar double move of provocative breaches of “political correctness,” which Trump’s supporters often called a major part of his appeal: one the one hand, the Trumpist urges, the dangers of liberal thought control are urgent truths that honest people ignore at their peril and dishonest elites labor to conceal; on the other hand, what, brah, can’t handle a joke?[12]

            B. A Trumpist Worldview: Threat, Identity, and Legitimacy
I now want to attempt a general interpretation of Trumpist politics, focused on two connected parts: the picture of the world in which this style of leadership purportedly makes sense and the sorts of claims to legitimacy that Trumpist politics makes. I argued near the beginning of the first Obama administration that presidential rhetoric across eras of American politics portrayed the nature of political community, its defining capacities, threats, and tasks, in ways that tended to justify one mode of governance or another.[13] For instance, between Woodrow Wilson and Lyndon Johnson (with some continuity into Richard Nixon), it was a characteristic presidential refrain that complex economic and social life would overwhelm individual agency without the counter-force of a strong regulatory state. Ronald Reagan perfected a reversal of this mode, in which the site of effective agency moved to individual initiative and community-level cooperation, and the image of the market economy switched from alien, opaque, and potentially threatening force to homelike nexus of mutually beneficial collaboration. Bill Clinton adjusted the register, with a bit more emphasis on community and a bit less on the market, but kept the basic picture. For another example, consider the Lincolnian narration of American history as a long struggle to redeem elemental but compromised principles of equal liberty, which Barack Obama perfected in a tradition that runs through Martin Luther King, Jr., in contrast to a Goldwater-Reagan line of historical interpretation in which redemption would be superfluous because the country has been, with some wrinkles, right from the start.[14]

Judged by the history of American presidential rhetoric, Trumpist politics is singular in its portrayal of country as besieged at every point, its ordinary inhabitants under threat from (to take a few stock examples from his speeches) criminal immigrants, terrorists admitted as refugees or allowed across porous borders, violent criminals escaped from prisons, and residents of their own dysfunctional neighborhoods. A typical Trumpist name-check of the Second Amendment ignores the doughty armed patriots of a Ted Cruz speech in favor of a frightened couple with “a gun on every table, they’re so afraid” of roving criminals.[15] Absent from his speeches are Ronald Reagan’s Springsteen-appropriating, Whitman-hinting images of steelworkers and farmers whose work is the strong and healthy heart of America. Trump portrays a country traduced and abandoned by its elites, infiltrated by enemies and domestic rot, and in need of strong defense. Not since Woodrow Wilson gave the first inaugural address to describe the lives of women and children, factory workers and dwellers in urban slums, whom he called on a strong government to protect from savage market forces, has a president portrayed Americans as so pervasively victimized and essentially vulnerable. Wilson’s portrait, however, was of social vulnerability created by an order of economic power, which needed a counter-order of political regulation to mitigate it. Trump’s is of infiltrating invasion and moral rot, in need of a strong leader to defend its good elements against the bad, the truly national against the literally or figuratively alien.

            It is also a zero-sum world, in which the purpose of “deals” and strong leadership, particularly in the international realm, is to take a larger share for one’s own people, at the expense of others. A recurrent theme of Trump’s accusation that political elites has disserved and abandoned Americans was this zero-sum image of trade deals and other international accords, in which the premise was that one side must always be left short - frequently ripped off - and the goal was to be on the winning side. “We will bring back our wealth and bring back our dreams,” which had been “redistributed around the world” by disloyal elites, he explained in his hyper-nationalist inaugural address, whose slogan was “America first!”[16] This is, of course, a dramatic rejection of Barack Obama’s theme of globalist reciprocity in trade and political cooperation. More basically, it is an imaginary political economy in which the themes of tribalism and friend-enemy contrast make an inevitable, pseudo-empirical kind of sense. The image is of a country in crisis, set within a world tending to crisis by virtue of its perennial and inevitable qualities of tribalism and zero-sum distribution.

            In this world, presidential leadership serves the following role: to serve as uniquely powerful and effective individual tribune of “Americans,” defined normatively as those who are on the right side of the friend-enemy distinction, who are loyal to the proper vision of the country, who participate in the version of “unity” and “solidarity” that Trump defined as the keys to national identity in his inaugural address. The basis of legitimacy here is the virtual representation, in the person of the president, of a country whose membership is nominally all-inclusive is also recurrently defined with reference to ethno-national, religious, ideological, and ethical lines of authenticity, loyalty, and desert. Substantive alignment with a tendentiously partial version of American identity, expressed aggressively, and powered by the sentiment of belonging (and of rejecting what does not belong) forms the basis of the right to rule.  

[1] I have argued elsewhere that Sanders’s relative lack of interest in constitutional framings for his egalitarian claims reflected his attachment to, and revival of, a version of left politics for which American identity is not especially central, an approach that Aziz Rana argues has been little seen since the early twentieth century. [Purdy, Atlantic essay; Rana, intro to current book manuscript]
[2] Jeff Tulis on presidential rhetoric; Purdy, Presidential Popular Constitutionalism; Rana on “creedal” rhetoric.
[3] Rana’s superb treatment of this; maybe my Guardian pieces from back then.
[4] Siegel, Post
[5] Pozen, Constitutional Bad Faith.
[6] Speech details.
[7] For instance, a relatively scripted and disciplined speech on immigration, delivered in Phoeniz, Arizona on August 31, 2016, included the following: “I love the people of Arizona”; “I am a man who loves my country”; Mexico’s president is “a man who truly loves his country”; Trump’s opposition to immigration is mitigated by “my love for the people of Mexico”; “our right as a sovereign nation to choose immigrants that we think are the likeliest to thrive and flourish and love us”; “to make sure that those we are admitting to our country share our values and love our people”; and “I love you.”
[9] Bannon’s Vatican speech.
[10] As Aziz Rana points out, constitutional conceptions of political community were relatively unimportant for Progressives of the Teddy Roosevelt era, who were attached to an ethno-national understanding the United States as connected with England and other Anglo-Saxon settler colonies, such as Australia and South Africa.
[11] I have in mind, of course, Jurgen Habermas’s reconstruction of communicative practice in his discourse ethics, especially Volume Two of the Theory of Communicative Action.
[12] Other features of Trumpist politics stand out, of course: One is the casual attitude to the blending of public power and private wealth and influence, the familist inner circle. The familist blending of public and private authority and advantage resonates with a larger sense of the bending or breaking of form-giving limits on the pursuit and exercise of power.
[13] Purdy, Presidential Popular Constitutionalism
[14] One half of this account in Aziz Rana’s essays on constitutional redemption in Obama’s politics.
[15] [Cite to the speech in which he said this.]
[16] Inaugural address.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

2016 writing

            I wrote a lot outside scholarship this year, and decided to put what I think holds up in one place, in categories:

I wrote a lot on the Sanders campaign, the ways that certain establishment liberals resisted it, and what I think we can learn from its remarkable success.

Bernie, Socialism, and Liberalism

More generally, I wrote on the rise of populism and where it seems to be leading, in the US and around the world:

I wrote on Trump before he was the nominee, and before he was the president-elect, trying to understand what was distinctive about his campaign and what it portended:

I wrote a bit about the Trump aftermath:

about North Carolina politics:

about Constitutionalism & legal theory:

As always, I wrote on environmental politics, in Appalachia, in history, and for the future (and am sneaking in Katrina Forrester’s wonderful review of After Nature in the Nation)

and What I love - an essay on Gillian Welch’s music, one on Thoreau and making sense of the world in a time of political alienation and fear, and another cheat, this one an essay on growing up under neoliberalism, which n+1 brought out from behind the paywall this year.