Trump and the Fascism of Common Sense

By Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee

We do not have to reach the excesses of Nineteen Eighty-four to recognize ourselves as beings who need an enemy. We are witnessing the fear that can be caused by new influxes of migrants.
-Umberto Eco, Inventing the Enemy

Soon after Donald Trump has been declared President-elect, there are reports of violence already trickling in against many minority groups in America. There are tweets and Facebook photographs of men being accosted and women grabbed in the streets and gas stations. An Asian-American woman in Minnesota was told to “go back to Asia;” an Indian man in North Carolina, “time to go back to your country;” a Muslim woman in Walmart had her hijab pulled off and told this wasn’t allowed anymore and she could hang herself with it around her neck. Some members of the deceptive political category of “forgotten men and women” that Trump promised to serve if elected are finding their feet in the new political atmosphere in a predictably dangerous manner. Are these forgotten people trying to remind everyone that it is the unalloyed venom against ethnic, religious, racial, and sexual minorities that haunts the white American psyche? Is it turning back the clock to the period following the Civil War? Anti-Trump activists in major cities of America are raising their voices against the mainstreaming of racism, sexism, and xenophobia by the President-elect. That raises hopes of a counter-spirit of solidarity and resistance meeting the majoritarian challenge. But no one can enough underplay or assert the palpable fear of violence emerging rather spontaneously after results were declared.

A symptomatic message of the prevailing psyche was reported on Facebook by an immigrant Afghani woman from Washington. Her childhood woman neighbor who has been her mom’s best friend for ten years sent her the message soon after Trump’s victory: “I’m sick of you people who think you know better because you’re educated. You don’t need a degree to know what’s right and what’s right is you don’t belong to MY COUNTRY.” There is a sudden volcano of feelings against the presumed superiority and value of education. It is a reaction against the social and professional entitlement that “others” are seen to carry. The liberal common sense that recognizes and accepts heterogeneity and cultural difference historically evolved in America since the Civil Rights Movement. This demands certain social and cultural codes of behavior — at least in modern, cosmopolitan spaces — based on liberal values that respect and welcome difference.  But the facade of this social consensus gets exposed when hate replaces even minimal signs of tolerance in the social world. Since Trump was elected, this liberal common sense that exists thinly in American society as it does in other parts of the world, is being threatened by an opposite logic that Hannah Arendt equates with the rise of majoritarian politics: the common sense of violence. This common sense of violence assists the rise of fascism. During his Presidential campaign, Trump literally evoked the language of “common sense.” During an interview to MSNBC’s program Morning Joe in December last year, Trump defended his call for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” When the news anchor aired her severe apprehensions about Trump’s divisive politics of “fueling hatred,” the now President-elect insisted, “I’m using common sense. I spoke in for the thousands of people last night…” Notice how smoothly Trump tries to establish a new consensus around the kind of common sense he was arguing in favor of. It was a common sense of the herd, aimed at others whose presence was perceived as threatening. The concern is not just the shock of this emerging, commonsensical logic of violence gaining currency but that such a commonsense lurks beneath cultural differences and that it may threateningly come into existence when certain historical and political factors coincide. In America’s case, the most visible factor seems to be the intensification of structural inequalities and competition for resources fueled by neoliberalism. It creates a danger for democracy by creating conditions whereby a demagogue can appear and try solving the diversity of problems through dangerous means.

Trump instigates a crude form of majoritarianism, where people seek pleasure by hurting “others.” Demonizing “others,” issuing threats and violating their dignity, becomes a viciously pleasurable game. It is a game without end, for hate is violence without measure. The “other” draws meaning negatively as an unwanted, disturbing presence, whose difference is enough reason for endless suspicion. For Trump’s right-wing agenda, inventing the enemy also serves as a good old ploy to solve the intricacies between economics and politics. The demonizing game directs mass energy and attention towards perpetuating hate. It is the most perverse option for a politico-economic system for hiding its crisis. The idea of the enemy who within and outside, has fed both right and left wing ideologies in the last century. In the name of nation or class, both ideologies have ruthlessly challenged and undermined the humanist principle of the concrete and the figurative other as a moral entity. Arendt holds that “the activity of thinking” may bring in conditions that help people “abstain from evil-doing.” The Afghani woman’s white neighbor, who is “sick” with her assumption of the intellectual and moral superiority of the outsider, illuminates the fact that her xenophobia is purely based on symptoms and notions we call pathologies. Hate is a symptom that does not need thinking, though it can also be carefully and deliberately manufactured by educational apparatuses including the media. Thinking can contribute to constructing a demonic version of “you people.” Hate is a phenomenon where language exists without thought. But even though hate is without thought, it isn’t without reason. The fascist sense of pride is different from other forms of pride for it needs to hate “others” for its raison d’être. The project of making “America Great Again” includes the project to build the wall along the Mexican border, keep Muslim immigrants out, and harass other minorities. Hate, in that sense, limits pride within a stern and violent territory, which is the territory of the nation. Fascist nationalism offers reasons that may allow monstrosities carried out in its name. Fascism is the monster of reason.

Xenophobia does not accept difference either as a reality or a value because its roots are harnessed by the similar ideology that controls the idea of the family and private property. “My Country” is an affinity-based claim at total ownership. My country is not your country, just as my family and property. You are a trespasser. Your presence is a threat, a violation. Trump said two things during the campaign that can be read together. “I will build a great wall,” declared Trump, and tried to convince everybody that “nobody builds walls better than me.” On another occasion, justifying his plan to ban non-American Muslims and refugees from coming to the U.S and deporting existing refugees, Trump clarified, “We are not talking about isolation, we’re talking about security. We’re not talking about religion, we’re talking about security. Our country is out of control.” Security becomes the ultimate value associated with nationalism, for security helps do two things: one, it makes the insider-outsider divide urgent and definite; two, it builds walls, both real and symptomatic. Under totalitarian-minded regimes, Arendt said, the idea of freedom gets reduced to the idea of “preservation,” which is the “logic of animal species.” This logic initiates a crude, animal symptom of preservation that one finds in Trump’s language as well as in the language of the white neighbor in Washington.

Trump’s speech after being declared winner, in contrast to the hate language unleashed by some of his supporters, was calm and inclusive. He paid tribute to Hillary and acknowledged the contribution of “Americans from all races, religions, backgrounds and beliefs” behind his victory. But Trump has already managed to disseminate his ideas among the American public. Once ideas propagated by a leader get disembodied, it penetrates every pore of the body politic. Trump has managed to infuse that venom of divisiveness and hate from which he can now tacitly withdraw and see the story unfold on its own. The effect has been so deep that Trump’s language during his campaign has also managed to stir the language of the protesters. Placards saying, “Hands off my pussy” and slogans like, “Fuck your tower! Fuck your wall!” reveal how Trump has managed to enforce a fiercely crude response from people who are airing their palpable sense of disgust at his unexpected (and unwelcome) victory. There are ominous signs of politics returning to the 50s when the Civil Rights Movement began its fight against racial discrimination by taking to the streets. This time there would be other people of color to further strengthen the chorus of protest, and that alone sounds promising.

The dangerous trend visible currently in India, the U.K after Brexit, and now the U.S, forces us to rethink the limits of modernity. The modern condition seems to keep returning to an originary moment of crisis where due to acute economic and political conditions, the idea of human labour and human presence are forced to lose their rights and dignity. Every discourse of hate is based on the refusal to share life’s entitlements with others. It takes the form of xenophobia in order to grow and spread more formidably, for hate is centred on the idea of creating borders, territories. The modern condition falls back upon racism as the community’s limit-imagination. Modern enmity has no space for the old sense of rivalry, where conversation outside the instrumentalist logic of life and thinking is possible. The culturally enriching rival has been reduced to a crude figure of profit and loss. Capitalism dictates this instrumentalist limit as Marx saw it, by individualising and alienating the idea of both person and labor. Old prejudices between communities remain intact, while competition for resources keeps relations viciously edgy. With the racist history that America inherits, that edginess is compounded by an underlying paranoia. A fascist takeover wearing the garb of democracy can easily exploit this crisis.

 

Leave a Reply