Originally published to It’s Going Down
by Scott Campbell
Following a calamitous event such as the election of Donald Trump, the first reactions are often visceral. Those who view it positively gloat and interpret it as greater permission to act according to their more base impulses, seen in the increase in anti-Semitic, Islamophobic and racist attacks since November 8. Those who view it negatively experience a kind of shock and anger. In an attempt to process the unexpected, those emotions frequently are vented in the form of projection, utilizing shame and blame in an attempt to shore up a challenged worldview. Social media exacerbates this by permitting us all to become unfiltered pundits, clicking the “post” button to bestow legitimacy upon any thought that may pop into our heads or trying to acquire social capital by presenting oneself as the holder of the correct analysis.
I’m of course of the opinion that Trump’s election is a negative occurrence. The thousands who have been militantly taking the streets all around the United States are an encouraging sign, especially heartening are the youth, disenfranchised by this system yet perhaps the most at risk from it, organizing walkouts of their schools. The immediate and spontaneous rejection shown in the streets establishes an important oppositional framework for the long road that lies ahead and serves as a way to communicate to one another, to those most at-risk under a Trump regime, and to the rest of the world that the fight back is already underway. But as we are all aware, street actions are never enough. From an anarchist perspective, this moment calls for reflection along with action. In my view, I see three main tasks: a) problematizing electoral politics; b) understanding Trump’s victory; and, c) planning for the long haul.
The Sham of Democracy
Anti-authoritarians need no convincing that representative democracy is an oppressive and coercive form of exercising power over others. As many saw, earlier this year Crimethinc published a useful critique of the concept of democracy. With tens of millions feeling burned by Trump’s election, and most of those not resonating with the slower death offered by Clinton, criticisms of the electoral system are running rampant: the convoluted primary system, the corruption of the Democratic National Committee, the anachronism of the Electoral College, etc. Yet these objections seek only ameliorative change, taking the current construct of governance as a given.
Rather than pointing to specific flaws within an oppressive framework, it is more constructive to acknowledge that the system actually worked as designed and provided voters will two physical representations of the core tenets of the United States. On one side was the neoliberal imperialist and on the other the misogynistic white supremacist. As the saying goes, “No matter who you vote for, they win.” The source of our discontent, dispossession and death cannot be resolved at the ballot box. Social constructs of race and gender cannot be voted out of existence any more than capitalism can be undone with the flick of a pen. Third parties are nothing more than the system’s pressure valves, designed to channel dissenting energies into the electoral process where they can be rendered non-threatening.
The illusion of choice and agency inherent in voting are rather acts of disempowerment and surrender. Now that the disillusionment is spreading, the opportunity is available to further ingrain this electoral dissatisfaction and offer alternative proposals for social functioning before the system has its next go at recuperation in two years when, “We’ve got to take back the House…” Part of this is to challenge narratives around voting, to counter the myth that the civil rights and Black Power movements were about the right to vote, that democracy is the highest expression of human organization and freedom, and to undermine the psychic weight and value that voting carries in this society. To vote or not vote is not the issue, rather it is to de-reify voting and properly situate it in our current context while suggesting that the real work happens everywhere except at the ballot box.
If it didn’t have such real consequences, from a step back electoral politics would be laughably absurd. The notion of selecting one person to rule over 320 million people based on the fact they all reside in a single, arbitrary territorial configuration is antiquated, incoherent with the current world system and dictatorially unrepresentative. Not to mention that anyone seeking such a position must suffer from a form of megalomania and narcissism.
The Election of Fear
It’s a hard pill to swallow when more than 50 million people vote for a misogynistic, xenophobic white supremacist. Along with the shock, following the election I felt physically ill, nauseous, lethargic, more irritable, restless and anxious, as well as sleeping more poorly than usual. I can’t imagine what impact the result is having on those more vulnerable than I under a Trump presidency. Personally, my existential cynicism has been reinforced, interpreting the results as yet another mark in the millennia–long list of examples as to why humans can only be explained as a parasitic aberration of evolution, a beta version gone very, very wrong. That there is no hope, we are doomed to destruction, and along the way we will inflict horrific violence and suffering on one another and other beings.
Nonetheless, we are here and Trump will be president. The results have been broken down along lines of race, gender, class, education, etc. coupled with an overabundance of analyses. If we could eat opinions, we’d be well-fed through winter. Yet it strikes me that many miss or gloss over an important component. And that is that despite our immense ability to collect and process data and to convince ourselves that we are rational beings, the human animal is first and foremost an emotional species. The primary emotion we operate under is fear. Our nervous system, through the amygdala, dedicates twice as much of its capacity scanning for threats and negative information as it does positive ones. Negative memories are stored more easily in long-term memory and recalled more quickly. Our most basic instinct before anything else is to seek safety.
This primal fear accompanies us in a world that is more interconnected in terms of information, yet more isolated on the scale of the individual. In the U.S., we are simultaneously bombarded with content while surrounded by media and education systems that are unwilling and/or incapable of providing context. Capitalism is failing many of those it once served. The environment has begun wreaking havoc on us just as we have on it. A Black man was just president and a woman might have been the next president. Movements from Occupy to Black Lives Matter to Standing Rock challenge the foundational narratives of the country. Economic, social and environmental refugees can no longer be ignored or ghettoized. At home and abroad, indiscriminate violence not sanctioned by the state is streamed to us in real time. Death, destruction and Otherness seem to be everywhere, while formerly reliable (though flawed) means of ordering and interpreting the world no longer suffice. The de-contextualized fear this generates, especially of the unknown, is something not experienced solely by white people or other beneficiaries of socially constructed privileges, but to greater or lesser degrees by everyone with an investment in the system.
The decomposition of capitalistic nation-state modernity produces a psychic upheaval, both individually and collectively, and triggers this anxiety and fear. In her book Walled States, Waning Sovereignty, Wendy Brown examines the impulse to construct physical walls in response to that psychic discomfort – a notion that broadly resonates with Trump supporters. She points to the “following difficult-to-accept and even frightening features of contemporary existence:”
The limited capacity for (economic, cultural, and even legal) containment exercised by the nation-state today; the weakening of sovereign protective capacities; the declining power and supremacy of the Euro-Atlantic world and the attendant loss of status for the working and middle classes; the erosion of national identity based on a shared language and culture; the reliance of Euro-Atlantic prosperity on the production of an impoverished outside; perhaps above all, a Euro-Atlantic existence full of crime, drugs, violence, ennui, depression and drained of its secure economic might, social stability, political power, and cultural supremacy. The hysterical obsession is The Alien, fashioned as a single imaginary creature from the material of immigrants, drug traffickers, and terrorists and representing the pollution of violated borders and the demasculinization of permeable national and individual subjecthood. The phobia is xenophobia.
As hegemonic concepts of the nation-state are challenged by the impacts of neoliberal globalization, the perceived threat to the nation is located in the form of an overarching “alien” other, requiring the construction of walls by the state to protect from the dangers posed by the alien and to defend the nation’s “purity” and “goodness.” Walls serve as a “national psychic defense,” locating both the problem and the threat outside of the nation, as well as blocking out and disavowing the undesirable, and restoring national invulnerability.
Those in the Global South or who locate themselves in the margins of the metropole are likely little concerned with many of the factors listed above, and rightly so. But for the millions invested in a certain structure, its disarticulation arouses fear. A way of framing this that helps explain the success of Trump can be found in Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom. He proposes that the basis for a society can be found in its social character. “The social character comprises only a selection of traits, the essential nucleus of the character structure of most members of a group which has developed as the result of the basic experiences and mode of life common to that group.” Social character serves to mold a society’s members to perform in a way that meets the needs of that society at a given moment. Like Gramsci’s “common sense” and Chomsky’s “manufacture of consent,” social character is inscribed in the individual and collective through the family, media, religion, government and the educational system.
Yet the time comes when society changes such that the social character cultivated over time no longer meets the needs of that society and the social character must shift. Such an occurrence is happening now, as outlined by the excerpt from Brown. For Fromm, capitalism is a warped system that fosters the creation of a social character at odds with the qualities of justice, truth and love that he exalts as dynamic aspects of human nature. It leads to the creation of a social character he labeled the “authoritarian character,” which we can easily see in Trump and his supporters.
[T]he most important feature to be mentioned is its attitude toward power. For the authoritarian character there exist, so to speak, two sexes: the powerful ones and the powerless ones. His [sic] love, admiration, and readiness for submission are automatically aroused by power, whether of a person or of an institution. Power fascinates him not for any values for which a specific power may stand, but just because it is power. Just as his “love” is automatically aroused by power, so powerless people or institutions automatically arouse his contempt. The very sight of a powerless person makes him want to attack, dominate, humiliate him. Whereas a different kind of character is appalled by the idea of attacking one who is helpless, the authoritarian character feels the more aroused the more helpless his object has become.
While reducing society along such a binary is simplistic, it is illustrative of the current psychological shift underway in the U.S. The social character no longer matches with the needs of reality. From that, the authoritarian character emerges. And as Fromm points out, “The authoritarian character worships the past.” In the U.S., the past (and present) is white supremacy, colonialism, and patriarchy. In his grandiose narcissism, Trump embodies all of these qualities, and the reciprocal relationship between Trump’s authoritarian character and his supporters’ authoritarian character reinforce one another. By glomming onto the power and worldview projected by Trump, things begin to make sense again for his supporters. Fear is assuaged as safety is found. (As false and appallingly destructive as that safety may be, it provides psychic comfort nonetheless.)
The purpose of this assessment is not to propose empathy or the finding of common ground with those who voted for white supremacy, no matter their individual political leanings. I have no interest in accommodating white fragility or any other privilege. Rather, it is one perspective on the current terrain that hopefully can assist in conceptualizing resistance moving forward.
Much is already in the works building resistance to the coming Trump reign. From general strikes and disrupting the inauguration to safety pins and hand-holding, rejection is being expressed in many forms. I’m not hubristic enough to claim to have the answer, nor do I believe there is one. More important than what resistance looks like is the framework from which it is operating under.
Things are already bad and they are going to get worse. Along with building our material capacity for resistance, focus also should be directed toward growing our individual and collective psychological capacity for what is to come. Things will not be OK. As a counterpoint to those who say, “We survived Reagan,” many note that from Managua to San Francisco and beyond, millions did not. Violence, injustice, loss, heartbreak, rage, and repression will increase and we need to be prepared.
Part of that preparation involves deciding where to direct our energies. The nonprofit industrial complex is kicking into high gear to suck up resources and time for their specific causes, all of which they correctly surmise will be negatively impacted by Trump. Yet Trump is but a symptom. The main enemy is the white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist system that gave him the throne. There are innumerable important points of entry for resistance, and of necessity resistance will have to be both specific and global. Yet any struggle that does not operate with a systemic analysis and hold as its ultimate goal the abolition of all constructs and institutions of oppression, domination and exploitation is a distraction. Reform for its own sake has no place on the terrain ahead. This is not to say that partial or ameliorative gains should not be fought for or defended, but that in doing so we understand such an act does not in and of itself signify victory nor represent the culmination of the struggle.
Commitment among crews, networks, organizations and affinities will tested. Autonomous infrastructure addressing the multiple facets of our lives, wants, desires, and needs require development and strengthening. There is much work to be done in the interior of our movements and scenes. Yet that is only the beginning. The anger and distress among tens of millions in the U.S. is palpable. As true libertarians, let us reach out our hands in constructive conversation and genuine solidarity. Let our words and deeds be accessible, replicable and inspirational. May what we build be of service to more than ourselves. And just as our work is uncompromising, may it also be living, malleable, guided by a spirit of humility and an eagerness to incorporate criticism and new learnings. We have a lot to offer, but we also have a lot of growing to do as well.
Fear through the ballot box brought us the far-right edge of the status quo. The pendulum of fear now swings back to where it always has a home, among the marginalized, stigmatized, exploited and vulnerable. Just as fear put Trump in power, for centuries it has also moved communities to self-defense, defiance and resistance. This is something we can both learn from and offer. Resistance as the balm for fear. Defense and solidarity in the face of state and extra-official violence can transform that fear into hope and offer the material, emotional and spiritual support so necessary during these times. Safety can never be found in the state or institutions premised on coercion, hierarchy and oppression. Only a communal liberatory framework can offer true safety and meet that most basic human impulse. Authentic safety is a key component of liberation, and is something we offer one another and build together.