The Whims of Those who Rule: Our Age of Lawlessness

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Photo via: @portlandresists

Tonight thousands of people are protesting across the country in reaction to Trump’s ouster of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Led by MoveOn, progressive groups are mobilizing in fear that with Sessions’ departure, the President is now taking control of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation into his campaign’s murky ties to Russia.

“If Trump is above the law, then so are the rest of us. From here on out, the only legitimacy is in the streets.”

Under the banner “No One Is Above the Law,” large crowds have appeared in dozens of cities, united less by a single political vision than outrage at Trump’s latest abuse of power and disregard for political norms. A loose coalition, self-styled as the “Resistance,” hopes to curb his autocratic instincts, check his legal impunity, and return the US to the normal routines of democratic governance.

It may be encouraging to see thousands take to the streets against such a vile politician, but there are reasons to be wary of a protest movement that sets its sights on restoring law and order. It’s true that democracy is under siege today, but is it really our task as revolutionaries to shore up the state?

Resistance in Name Only

The Resistance has always been a strange one, made up of good-hearted liberals (who would have been content had Hillary won) and a handful of earnest, if misguided, leftists. It should be said they have also allied with a smaller number of conservatives and libertarians, whose disagreement with Trump is mostly a matter of temperament rather than policy. Certainly they have also attracted more than a fair share of self-interested types, from the pathologically self-promoting Michael Avenatti to the many Democrats who promised to hold Trump accountable only so long as it guaranteed their own reelection. Every movement has its contradictions, so the Resistance might be forgiven this incoherence.

What is more worrying is the extent to which the Resistance articulates its political demands in terms of rightful democratic process and norms. According to this logic, Trump’s crude approach to governance, and not the fact that we are governed at all, is what is inexcusable. What is outrageous about his policies is their unilateral character – changes suddenly decreed from the Oval Office, or just via Twitter – rather than their obviously malign intent. And therefore what is desperately needed is a citizen’s movement to impeach the president, as is manifesting in the streets tonight, and not a moment of rebellious overthrow.

Today in America we can say the people do want the fall of the regime – but only provided that the next regime is more stable, more coherent, more in line with what we have come to expect from our leaders.

The Resistance, dedicated exclusively to an anti-Trump agenda, has as its endpoint only a kind of restoration: to return to the state its right to the frictionless governance of our everyday affairs, to bring the nation back to legitimate rule by way of popular protest.

A Crisis of Legitimacy

After all, one way to understand these two years of Trump’s presidency has been a slow-rolling crisis of the legitimacy of democratic institutions.

The Supreme Court, once considered the last bastion of judicial neutrality, abolished its own credibility with the recent confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh. In recent years, law enforcement – from the epidemic of police murders nationwide, to the layers of intrigue within the mismanaged and schizophrenic FBI, to the sheer maliciousness of the much-reviled ICE – has lost any shred of credibility in upholding “public safety.”

Basic electoral integrity is likewise in question, from shadowy social media operations to disappearing voter registrations, from the possibility of hacked voting machines to racist legacies of gerrymandering and voter suppression. The question extends even to Trump’s legitimacy as president, given the apparent scope of foreign influence operations and his own possible complicity in whatever nefarious schemes Mueller is investigating.

Meanwhile, to jeers of ridicule from Left and Right, the media strives for a ridiculous notion of balance in their polite profiles of fascists and their diligent coverage of an infantile president.

Clearly, democratic governance seems to have recently misfired in remarkable fashion. Amid endless scandals, diversions, and conspiracies, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for anyone to maintain that this system of governance is still somehow legitimate.

The Meaning of Loyalty

If not legitimacy, then what? As a figure of power, Trump is as instructive as he is repulsive.

There is a refreshing honesty to Trump’s understanding of power. In his egocentric thinking, the presidency is the truly sovereign institution: other branches of government exist only to support his agenda. To act otherwise is to undermine the very foundation of governance. Trump is personally offended by the least hesitation in meeting his demands, a trait which has left plenty of former aides without jobs.

With yesterday’s forced resignation of Sessions to protect Trump’s own skin – as with so many other dramas of the regime – what we witness again and again is the the consolidation of power around the president’s uncontested authority. Trump’s dream is of a pure sovereignty, without the popular pleasantries of democratic affirmation the Resistance craves. On the other hand, his supporters – who for decades considered themselves stalwart defenders of democracy worldwide – have been quite happy to jettison their former democratic predilections in favor of strongman rule.

Trump prizes loyalty above all else. Hence his nepotistic reliance on his family and an ever-shrinking number of close advisors. Even James Comey, the former head of the FBI turned Resistance icon, couldn’t help but notice this. Comey wrote that Trump’s repeated demands for loyalty reminded him of his experiences chasing organized crime bosses, recalling La Cosa Nostra with its “silent circle of assent” and the Mafia’s all-important omerta. To his credit, Trump has brought the usual gangsterism of the presidency to new light.

By denying its logic, power draws its circles around us tighter and tighter.

Cruelty is the Point

Or consider Trump’s approach to government policy.

Despite his buffoonery, Trump has transformed policy from a supposedly open arena of political debate into an effective vehicle for realizing his authoritarian impulses. Contra the standard view that policy is the legislative translation of political beliefs, Trump directly wields policy as a weapon against political opponents and especially against those deemed socially undesirable. From the Muslim Ban to Family Separations to today’s crackdown on asylum seekers, his regime’s policies are crafted to directly carry out the violent fantasies of his diehard supporters.

In the eyes of millions of Americans, the laws Trump passes are now perceived as the deciding expression of who will bear the brunt of state violence any given week. The law itself has suffered the loss of its semblance of neutrality, while the idea that it somehow embodies social consensus has been irreparably damaged. Instead, it is more and more identified as precisely what it is: the whims of those who rule.

A bloody veil has fallen away from the real function of law within society. This is but one of many unhappy truths which scandalize tonight’s protesters, however sincere they may be in their opposition to Trump, and a sharp reality which the Resistance would prefer to ignore.

We’re All Above the Law

Where does this leave those of us who despise Trump, but also oppose this newfound maneuver to restore legitimacy to a failed regime of governance? How do we defeat this desire to reinstate an inherently vicious rule of law, currently being carried out in the form of popular protest?

It begins by shedding the hallmark of the Resistance: the insistence that “No One Is Above the Law.” Contra that slogan which adorns tonight’s “patriotic” protests, we should instead recognize what is unique in our historical moment. Dark though the times may be, there are possibilities of meaningful revolt within democracy’s hurried decline.

Trump, in his small-minded brutality, has revealed an important fact for all to see: the law is not and has never been a neutral mediator of social life, but is the means through which rulers exert their reckless power and their cruel violence. The hard lesson of our time is that even when the people themselves come to power, the senile logic of sovereignty remains. To return to the rule of law, as the Resistance clamors for, could only mean re-enshrining the power to govern how we live. Trump must be deposed, no doubt, but in that process so too must the law.

In making himself impervious to the consequences of the law, Trump has done today’s ungovernable forces a strange favor. We too are now relinquished from the fiction that the law serves us and from pretending any longer that we are still beholden to its decrees.

If Trump is above the law, then so are the rest of us. From here on out, the only legitimacy is in the streets.


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