The Dindu: Towards a White Nationalist Taxonomy of the Saved and the Damned

red-spotHere’s another Breitbart search for ripping open our nation’s damaged, fucked-up heart of darkness. In these inverted times.

Meet the Dindu, white nationalist term of art for an African-American who refuses to take responsibility for his actions with the refrain, I dindu nuffin. Breitbart threads riff off permutations and illustrations of Dindu behavior for dozens (and sometimes hundreds) of comments, generally in response to the posting of provocative videos calculated by the organization’s editors to inflate, twist, and bend reality to the specifically dark emotional needs of the site’s denizens. Dindu Nuffin is actually one of the more mild and restrained language conventions, typically the starting point for unrestrained invective that will pretty much knock your socks off.

The term Dindu probably originated as a meme on the 4chan”/pol/” boardgaining popularity within the white nationalist / neoNazi / Gamergate subculture in the 2014 and 2015, in response to the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement. Andrew Anglin’s white supremacist, neoNazi Daily Stormer website often invokes the Dindu meme, which is apparently considered an epically witty and clever bit of wordplay / imagery. This Daily Stormer post entitled Black Lives Matter: The Rise of the Dindu, includes a variety of racist memes, telling you most of what you need to know.

Casual and freewheeling use of the Dindu label is now firmly embedded within the network of alt-right, neoNazi, don’t-get-out-of-the-basement-enough websites and message boards associated with Gamergate and Pizzagate, including the chan websites and Voat. These fringe (visually and otherwise) sites are the refuge of the young, the alienated, and the angry, mostly of the white and male, Adam Baldwin / Milo Yiannopoulos variety.

That Breitbart Media (catering to older conspiracy-minded Americans in flyover country) also incites and encourages use of the term only demonstrates the extent to which a (pseudo-Christian) white nationalism is indeed Breitbart’s beating, pulsing, spewing, tabloid heart (not marginal, as Steve Bannon claims), and to that degree also the centerpiece of a smash-and-grab Whitefellas movement politics:

  • Fashioned in the past quarter century by denizens of talk radio, cable news, and digital media, beginning with Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly;
  • Enabled by super-wealthy / politically savvy paleo-conservatives such as Charles Koch, Second Amendment freaks spurred on by the gun industry, and Federalist Society legal reactionaries such as Antonin Scalia; and
  • Culminating with the lugubrious takeover, in the past decade, of pretty much all of our county, state, and national political institutions.

In this sense, Trump’s rise is epiphenomenal, of course, consequence and not cause, hence Steve Bannon’s unbridled contempt for media and intellectual elites who desperately avoided the exfoliation that would have allowed them to see this revolution coming. And Bannon is not wrong to savage the non-tabloid media, for his Euro-Christian / nationalist / racial / culture /identity movement has been a long-time itching and a long-time hatching, and indeed has never really stopped breeding through the generations.

In the children’s scary story, The Red Spot, a spider lays its eggs in the cheek of a young girl named Ruth while she sleeps. Ruth’s mother reassures her that the red spot on her cheek is only a minor irritation and that it will go away if she leaves it alone, so long as she doesn’t scratch it. The red spot becomes a red boil, hot on Ruth’s cheek. And Ruth’s mother said, “that sometimes happens, it’s coming to a head.” A few more days passed, and by now the boil was unsightly and painful. “We’ll have the doctor look at it,” said Ruth’s mother said. The doctor could not see Ruth until the next day. And that night, while Ruth soaked in the bath, the boil burst. and a swarm of tiny spiders poured from the eggs their mother had laid in Ruth’s cheek.

Clearly, we are Ruth. And we are also Ruth’s mother. And so now out seeps the poison, which will not be stayed, which frenzied, unhinged baby spiders propagate where they may. The unleashed cultural energy of the angry, emotionally damaged conservative movement now extends well beyond insular online communities where these people can breach moral boundaries with impunity. The rising Trump tide has liberated this movement to take their show on the road, via provocateurs such as Milo Yiannopoulos, but also on crowd-sourced platforms such as Urban Dictionary that are the cultural property of everyone. In the spirit of shattering norms just for the hell of it, Dindu made its first appearance in the Urban Dictionary in November 2014, with subsequent definitions appearing during the spring and summer of 2016, as Trump’s ascent liberated the animal spirits of formerly caged and sequestered white nationalists, and of generally angry white folks. The definitions below.

  • An innocent African-American, a description used by the family members of criminal African-Americans who din do nuffin. (Those dindus are acting up in Detroit again.) (Mike Brown and Trayvon Marin are the epitome of dindus.)  (November 18, 2014. Up/Down Vote Ratio: 4,420/436).
  • African tribe of intense warrior tendencies, promiscuity, irresponsibility, and low IQ. Over thousands of years, this tribe crossed the continent village by village slaying all the men, raping all the women (and children), and destroying the homes. By the modern era, all peaceful, noble, and inventive tribes of Africa had been eliminated by the Dindus. (“Isn’t there somewhere in the world, a functional black society?” “No, the Dindu blood runs deep.”) (May 24, 2016. Up/Down Vote Ratio: 730/99).
  • A “du-er” of “nuffin”, meaning a ghetto-dweller, who claims he “dindu — didn’t do — anything wrong” (within sight of a security camera or, at any rate, anyplace within the last five minutes). Also known as a thief, a robber, a home invader, a rioter, a looter, a rapist, or a murderer by people with a sense of reality, the dindu is , nevertheless, relatively innocent by rap-culture standards. The dindu runs when “scared”, which defeats his purpose of not being noticed by the police, but never mind. Liberals embrace the dindu (in spirit) during afternoon BLM rallies but hightail it back to white surburbia after sundown. Nobody likes dindus. (If you don’t want to be a “dindu”, don’t steal stuff, hurt people, or otherwise act like a damned fool.)  (August 9, 2016. Up/Down Vote Ratio: 323/23).
  • A replacement, more “acceptable” term for a young black man. Primarily men brutalized and killed by police officers, whether they were armed and threatening or not. Originates from the mothers and family of the young black men who exclaim that their son “didn’t do nothin’ wrong,” often in an American dialect that makes it sound like “dindu nuthin.” It’s nothing short of blatant racism…and while its use is defended on the grounds that it’s targeted at criminals who wrongfully claim innocence, it’s still overwhelmingly used in regards to black men, whether or not their claim to innocence is legitimate. Similar to the way “Allahu Akbar” is used to mock middle easterners whether they’re Islamic extremists or not. (“I know, I know, poor boy dindu nuffin, right?”  “Yes, he stole a cigarillo. I didn’t realize theft was punishable by death in America, my bad.”) (August 7, 2016. Up/Down Vote Ratio: 53/407).

For me, at least, the significance of the appropriation of Urban Dictionary, which through the years has certainly harbored the colloquialisms and vernacular and street dialects of (mostly) young people across a diverse spectrum of backgrounds and interests, has been its seizure for the explicit purpose of trolling (Bannon has called his followers hobbits, but clearly they are trolls). The ratio of up/down votes for the four Dindu definitions is far more extreme than the ratios one normally encounters with Urban Dictionary, and also a far larger “electorate” than one will normally find with a term that has only four definitions. Which is at this point a pretty classic sign of herd-based trolling (for counter-examples, see the numbers for hipster, which is one of the most voted-upon words in the dictionary, and also the numbers for two other alt-right favorites, libtard and cuckservative).

I’ve seen this shit before, but am certainly no less stunned than everyone else – the elated and the gob-smacked alike – to find us where we now stand. When Richard Sherman did his howl on national television after shutting down the 49ers Michael Crabtree to capture the NFC title for the Seahawks in 2014, Fox News online comment threads went postal about Richard Sherman’s impertinence and audacity. Sherman was then a new experience for the NFL and its fans, but the racial spuming of the Fox News cohort – with all of the gutter tropes that one might expect – was nonetheless pretty astounding. This is what I wrote at the time.

Had the Seahawks not prevailed against the Broncos, the trolls would have come hunting for Richard Sherman. No physical mugging, perhaps, but certainly a hungry, persistent claim upon his spirit and soul, retribution for not following the unspoken rules of the race game, for not being sufficiently grateful, sufficiently humble, sufficiently ignorant, sufficiently safe.
In the aftermath, we must wonder why, more than 150 years since the American Civil War, we continue to labor under illusions and misconceptions and prejudices and fears that illustrate the degree to which socially constructed racial categories still rub raw our psychic wounds.
And, too, we must wonder about the unmediated or disintermediated structure of our discourse, the degree to which open online publishing and illusions of digital anonymity tap deeply into the fear centers of our brain, a persistent amygdalic hijack inflamed by coded words and images, a pervasive and journalistically devastating reduction of thought, conversation, ideas, and truth — the constituents of our social coherence — to a mere slurry of tokens, memes, verbal discharge that resembles sewage more than it does considered speech.

What I now realize, of course, is that we should not wonder that we cannot eradicate these destructive and self-defeating “speech” practices. Nor should we wonder about the corrosive impact of the Internet on community standards and norms that allow any civilization and culture, baseline, to subsist. Much has been written about the toxic terminology of the alt-right – shibboleths that both confer status and safety upon the movements true believers, sympathizers, and fellow travelers (see here and here). But truly, there is something deeper going on here than even the free speech debate.

In his recently published (and really excellent) cover story for The Atlantic, David Frum (who’s had more intellectual and political lives than Wile E. Coyote) imagines the playbook Donald Trump (via the sinister counsel and dark arts of his advisers) might use to systematically, selectively, subliminally and (somewhat) sadistically destroy liberal democracy in the United States. Now others – myself included – may also at times long to destroy liberal democracy, but certainly not by using the means employed by the Trump / white nationalist / blow-shit-up axis, nor on behalf of the medieval vision toward which he is leading us. And one of Frum’s great insights in this essay is that this new autocracy will exploit and abuse the soft power of digital and social media to manipulate, intimidate, distract, and cow the American people. The new fascism will not physically terrorize the population, but will not lack for other novel ways to mess with our heads and screw with our destinies. The goal being to accrete power by sowing confusion and doubt about whether reality and truth, certainly with reference to the public sphere and our national life together, even exist. To substitute nagging fear and anxiety, alongside periodic moments of emotional catharsis, for connections to each other based on shared conceptions of science and data and intellectual inquiry, the meaning of words, the possibility of education and enlightenment, the vitality of communities that honor diversity (the spaces in-between each of us) rather than seeking to obliterate those spaces.

Which brings us back to Breitbart and the curious concept of the Dindu, which reveals the maniacal instinct of the silo-hardened alt-right to sprint straight toward their most primitive, hidebound beliefs about huge swaths of the population, grouping within a Biblically simple, pre-Linnaean  taxonomy of the saved and damned those who look like them and those who do not. Will the fever pass? Who the hell knows?

But I did take comfort from a useful Politico essay Rutgers University historian David Greenberg about the “perils of calling Trump a liar.” Which is not a good title. But the article itself probes some really interesting ideas in the history of concepts of journalistic objectivity. Specifically, Greenberg reminds us of Archibald MacLeish’s dictum that objectivity in journalism is not the same thing as being neutral, balanced, or even-handed. “It is current-day fancy to consider a journalist objective if he hands out slaps and compliments with evenhanded impartiality on both sides of the question,” MacLeish said. “Such an idea is, of course, infantile. Objectivity consists in keeping your eye on the object [and] describing the object as it is.”

Words to live by. In these inverted times.

War on Children: The Deeper Meaning of Trumpism


This essay explores what it means that so many Americans can say that Trump’s regime is illegitimate and that he is not their president.

When Barack Obama took office in 2009, the positive energy and sense of purpose he brought to the nation was largely about racial equity and racial healing. Less clearly articulated, but perhaps equally important, was the sense that political leadership, going forward, would also more accurately represent the emerging profile of America’s youth.

Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were both born in 1946, each early-stage Baby Boom progeny of the “Greatest Generation,” the mostly white Americans who had carried the nation through economic depression and world war. Barack Obama was born in 1961, at the tail end of Baby Boom. His election heralded the ascent of a new and more “diverse” conception of American identity, reflecting the rapidly changing demographics of American society.

Let’s probe the dynamics underlying this emerging focus on population diversity. But first, a note on the conventions of racial nomenclature, which have never served us well as a nation, but which have activated and anchored our worst impulses in the digital era.

Racial and Geographic Identity – The One Thing White Nationalists Get Right

Visual racial markers are the acid dissolving our national identity. The random, inconsistent, and emotionally loaded use of color-coded racial categories – black and white, in particular – become a linguistic foundation of our most abject, degrading, and divisive individual habits and institutional practices. We are long past the point when there can be any justification for the use of colors as racial labels. White nationalists, who have tried to package their more rancid opinions as a “reasonable defense” of “European civilization”, unwittingly give us a linguistic basis for undermining the emotional power of these color-coded appeals to deracinated whites.
I have written elsewhere about the destructive impact of visual heuristics, and it remains for me a fascinating irony that college campus progressives have achieved so much by scrapping the “gender binary” and by affirming and celebrating a fluid profusion of sexual/gender identities, while at the same time their focus on “white privilege” has mostly served to rigidify and fossilize our most hidebound binary racial instincts.
Race, of course, perhaps more than gender or sexual identity, is a social category. Genetically speaking, there is no white, no black, no red, no brown, no yellow. As a species, our interactions have produced a racial fluidity that no crude labels based on skin color can capture. But geographic markers do possess some salience, and more accurately (and with far less emotional triggering) absorb meanings that accurately (and reasonably) reflect identity organized around cultural origins. For this reason, whenever possible, I am going to use terms generally favored by the U.S. Census – European-American, African-American, Latin-American, Asian-American, and Native-American – to characterize the broadest national racial and ethnic demographic groups.

The Darkening and Non-Europeaning of America

Some demographic realities.

  • Census data (from 2015) indicates that European (or white) Americans constitute nearly 75 percent of the Baby Boom population (and beyond, through age 81, the oldest age of any Trump appointee). Non-European Americans in that Baby Boom Plus cohort total less than 25 percent of the population.
  • Among younger adults (ages 25-52), these percentages shift significantly. European-Americans represent 61 percent of the population. Non-European Americans comprise the other 39 percent.
  • Among children and youth (ages 0-24), we witness an approaching parity between these two population groups, with European Americans still barely in the majority, at 53 percent of the total, while non-European Americans in this age group grow to 47 percent of the total.

trump-administration-chart-darkening-and-non-europeaning-of-america2 trump-administration-demograhic-dynamics

The De-maleing and Fe-maleing of America

U.S. census data also expose an emerging tension in gender population dynamics. Even as the future promises a less crystalline European identity for the nation, racial and ethnic profluence will also tilt female. Barring any technology fix, females will continue to die with less frequency at nearly every age than their male counterparts. Which means that not only are males, relatively speaking, losing ground to females, but that white males, in particular, as a demographic class, will only experience an acceleration of their current demographic decline.

trump-administration-chart-demaleing-and-femaleing-of-america trump-administration-table-demaleing-and-femaleing-of-america

In 50 years, older European-American male adults, currently 10 percent of the national population, may constitute closer to 5 percent of the population, a descent that inevitably will dissolve their (formerly unchallenged) leadership and wealth precedents. From this perspective, one can appreciate the support for Donald Trump’s full-throated call to arms on behalf of America’s most endangered human species – the aging white male.

The Earth Belongs in Usufruct to the Living

The coalition of Americans who twice elected Obama constituted an unprecedented mobilization of diverse racial, ethnic, and sexual/gender groupings that reflected the nation’s emerging and future population mix. This diversity was, in itself, a cause for celebration (until it wasn’t). But we shouldn’t underestimate the degree to which Americans, in electing Obama, were also endorsing a fundamental proposition in American politics (dating back to Thomas Jefferson’s statement, in a 1789 letter to James Madison, that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living), that the major purpose (and perhaps the sole purpose) of politics is to hold in trust and preserve the nation’s wealth and heritage for future generations. Jefferson went on to write that the dead have neither rights nor powers over this wealth and heritage.

The Obama elections, and the Obama Administration, represented a commitment to the demographically diverse youth of America, which surfaced a tension between competing visions of American society, between the near-dead and the newly alive, rooted in the non-contestable claims of America’s identity and America’s bounty. The candidacy of Donald Trump fully exposed this tension, and what we now witness in the current Administration is a claim to power (with its savagely authoritarian and punitive claim upon the future) of the near-dead most Americans thought we had buried in 2008 (and again in 2012).

How Can We Reasonably Claim President Trump Is “Illegitimate” and “Not My President”?

Watching Richard Spencer spew shit at the Trump inaugural festivities reminds us (if we needed reminding) of the obviously central white nationalist (or militant European-American) component to the election of Donald Trump, the political base he’s agitated and embraced to the exclusion of pretty much the remaining entirety of the nation. However, we also cannot ignore other, related, dimensions of this new regime – that it is not merely exceedingly European-American, but also exceedingly male and exceedingly old.

Here is a visual that communicates eloquently the extent to which President Trump has stacked his new Administration with formaldehyde-infused, Viagra-popping relics of the Don Draper era (Mad Men indeed). The key takeaway of this chart is, of course, that these Trump personnel outcomes are standard deviations away from what one might reasonably call an expected value for a demographically reasonable Cabinet and White House team (even when holding steady those powerful demographic trends we’ve already identified). 


This visual tells us a lot about how so many Americans can say that Trump’s regime is illegitimate and that he is not their president. Trump is the first sui generis president, representing only himself. Those within the executive branch, with whom he has surrounded himself to execute his will, are similarly self-absorbed, self-aggrandizing players. They are (mostly) old men used to serving only themselves, and about as far as one can imagine from embodying any conception of servant leadership on behalf of anyone who does not look like them.

And so, if political legitimacy requires active acceptance of the proposition that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living (and particularly to the most living, to the youngest among us), we have never experienced a more illegitimate elected regime. Trump’s personal style, values, rhetoric, political tactics, and policy commitments each represent an assault on America’s youngest and most vulnerable populations. For evidence, we can start with the likely evisceration of health insurance coverage for children with the dismantling of Obamacare, and with the likely assault on DACA (Obama’s deportation relief program for undocumented immigrants arriving in the U.S. as children).

VORP (Value Over Replacement Politicians)

There is another way to look at the demographic distribution data for the Trump Administration, however, one inspired by sabermetrics and, specifically, by the concept of VORP (the value of a baseball player over a generic replacement). Without diving into the sabermetric weeds, it is sufficient for now to emphasize that VORP distills player performance, on the margin, toward the success of a team competing within a zero-sum environment. How perfect for appreciating the political skills of those who have both lifted, and then benefited from (what has now euphemistically become known as) Donald Trump’s remarkable run to the presidency.

The zero-sum part matters. Trump is the visible godhead of a 60-year old reactionary/revolutionary political movement, funded by conservative businessmen such as Charles Koch, and animated by the unsentimental Leninist belief that politics is entirely a zero-sum, territorial game. Indeed, one of the precepts of Koch Conservatism (as Steve Bannon also believes and has stated) is that politics is war.

By this measure, we can understand the demographic stacking of the Trump Administration with old, male, European-Americans as evidence of the political talents harnessed, prepped, and unleashed by this political movement. The distribution bias in the Trump Administration can serve, in many ways, as a political version of VORP. Let’s call it Value Over Replacement Politicians. And what we can assume, right now, is that those within the demographic groups left behind (those presumably, with a negative VORP) will not, ever, be able to successfully engage the “Trumpist” movement until they expose, analyze, adopt, and adapt the political strategies and tactics perfected by Koch Conservatism.


Antonin Scalia and the Death of American Law

cropped-paudiss_christopher_e28094_wolf_fuchs_und_schaf_e28094_1666[Note: I wrote this essay several years ago, but am mindful of its relevance as we consider the Antonin Scalia legacy in the aftermath of his death, a task that remains especially vital as Donald Trump, nearly one year later, prepares to appoint Scalia’s replacement. While legal conservatives lionize Scalia, his impact on American jurisprudence and American society has been toxic, perhaps irredeemably so. Scalia’s medieval religious views and equally hidebound perspective on Constitutional Law epitomize what one might call an ontological fundamentalism that quite suddenly runs rampant in American political thought these days.

In October, scores of Constitutional originalists (among them George Will, many others scholars affiliated with the Federalist Society and the Heritage Foundation) publicly stated their dismay at the prospect that a man as unreflective and unfettered as Donald Trump, “a man uniquely unsuited for the office,” might become President. Several months later, it’s fair to say all such scruples had vanished. Federalist Society executive vice-president Leonard Leo has been advising Trump on judicial appointments (alongside those well-known legal scholars Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon). Meanwhile, ten days following the election, legal conservatives crowded cheek by jowl into the Federalist Society’s annual national lawyer’s convention, many of these attorneys suddenly, and quite miraculously, sensing an “unpresidented” duty, one they could not still, to take their talents to the the halls of power in Washington, DC.

Why should this craven and unprincipled capitulation to the excretions of power not surprise us? Originalists cleaving to historically arbitrary determinations about the meaning of denatured and “sacred” texts such as the Constitution (or the Bible) fixate on primitive and absolute moral imperatives that have little to do with the realities of freedom, justice, and equity within historically specific, embodied communities, and much to do with purging these imperfect societies of their impurities. An effort that of course requires access to the instruments and levers of power legal conservatives disingenuously claim they want to limit. As the stolid inhabitants of Middle Earth might say, these are a “fell” people.

Anyway. Here’s the essay.]

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia once remarked in a dissent that many dangers visit the Court in sheep’s clothing, “but this wolf comes as a wolf.” So too with Scalia.

We can attribute much of the contemporary sclerosis in national government to the crouching wolf at the door, the successful arrival on the national stage of the legal conservative movement. In the last 30 years — lovingly midwifed by the Federalist Society and lavishly sustained by frankly astonishing levels of financial support from conservative foundations, think tanks, and business associations — legal conservatives have steadily assumed more power and influence in public life. All the while black-cloaking their political agenda behind allegedly non-political, purely intellectual commitments to the original meaning of foundation legal documents, particularly the Constitution. All the while bleating like sheep about their beleaguered position at law schools and on the bench.

But Scalia, their champion, cannot help himself. He opens his robe. Inside he is all wolf.

Court Jester

Scalia swaggers. He intimidates. He’s NinoColorful, quotable, and charismatic. Brilliant and hard-working. Voluble and entertaining. Irrepressible and fearless. He can do it all. He writes. He hunts. He sires nine children. His words are swords, ambuscades of righteous religiosity aimed at the nation’s legal and moral deviants, its corrupt parasitic entrails. He is a lawyer’s lawyer. He could argue either side of a case and win. The liberals love him. He’s so charming and amusing. He disarms them. They fear him. His withering diatribes and clever insults.

Scalia is the Court Jester. His influence, however, also illustrates how legal conservatives have seized the palisades of American constitutional theory. Conservatives of all stripes  – libertarians, advocates of judicial restraint, federalists, Christian conservatives, law & economics partisans, executive power hawks  – have set aside their differences to present a united front on the infallibility of the Constitution. Their methods  – Originalism and Textualism – have become their madness. Scalia contains within himself and symbolizes their unity of vision and purpose. Nothing less than the full recalibration of American political life. A two-pronged strategy. Control the courts. Seize legislative majorities. Limit the scope of judicial activity to preserve the political primacy of state and national legislatures.

Jesuitical Casuistry

With six Roman Catholics on the Supreme Court, with four of them (Scalia, Thomas, Alito, Roberts) theologically and intellectually and politically conservative as only well-educated Catholics can be, it is not unfair to characterize the legal conservative movement led by these justices as medieval in its intentions and Jesuitical in its methods. Here is where Scalia the wolf can instruct us on the impact of the broader flock of sheep in this legal movement, who are neither so brave nor so honest as Scalia in their self-justifications.

Scalia frankly attests to his opinions. “I’m a law-and-order guy. I mean, I confess I’m a social conservative, but it does not affect my views on cases.

Well, who knows if his opinions do or do not affect his legal judgments? It does not matter, because the brilliance of Constitutional Originalism and Textualist exegesis is that SCOTUS conservatives will generally achieve the political outcomes they want simply by punting tough policy issues back to the legislative bodies.

So yes, there is some Jesuitical casuistry at play here, and Scalia (who was first in class at his Jesuit high school and Jesuit college), Clarence Thomas (graduate of a Jesuit college), and other leading judicial conservatives are entirely mindful that their formal methods and substantive goals harmonize. Scalia frequently cites his commitment to the First Amendment as proof that he does not hew to a doctrinal line. He supports the free speech of flag burners! But this commitment is the exception that proves the rule, for Scalia also supports the free speech rights of abortion clinic protesters and corporate campaign contributors. The active component of his commitment may be less to the First Amendment itself as a principle, and more to the character of those whose interests advance under the protection of the First Amendment.

Not surprisingly, Scalia could not conceal his wolfishness when he declared at the inaugural meeting of the Federalist Society in 1982 that among the Founders he preferred Alexander Hamilton, the sexy bad boy of the Constitutional Convention, to its nerdy goody-goody, James Madison. Indeed, despite some disingenuous protestations to the contrary, legal conservatives generally love the vigorous, independent executive first envisioned by Hamilton, an executive that projects its power far and wide, and does not concern itself overly much with trivialities such as human rights, international law, legal transparency, and the more inconvenient amendments to the Constitution (we might appropriately consider SCOTUS conservatives to be the rightful inheritors of the philosophically conceived political realism originating with 13th-century Scottish philosopher Duns Scotus).

Sheepishly Slouching Towards Bethlehem

The Federalist Society is Scalia writ large and small. Writ large because the Federalist Society is the organizational expression of the legal conservative commitment, theologically conceived, to anchoring political life in the original, infallible meaning of the U.S. Constitution, which is their communion chalice, their Bible, their ark of the covenant. Writ small because the Federalist Society members, from founder Stephen Calabresi to political philosophers such as Charles Kesler, all gripped with a perpetual sense of aggrievement, mewl incessantly about liberal elites and an activist judiciary, while shamelessly (wolfishly) advancing their own profoundly reactionary intellectual agenda.

The Federalist Society initially conceived itself as a political alternative within law schools to the activist National Lawyers Guild, a bête noir of conservatives since its establishment in the 1930s. Truly, the comparisons now ring hollow. In 2013, the Federalist Society, with 60,000 members, reported revenues approaching $14 million and more than $8 million in net assets. Donors contributing more than $50,000 to the Federalist Society in 2013 included both Koch Brothers, Koch industries and (perhaps more surprisingly) Google and Microsoft. By contrast, the National Lawyers Guild, with 5,000 members, and which has never benefited from the largesse of the wealthy and powerful, in 2012 reported only $525,000 in revenue, and merely $100,000 in net assets.

Just as legal conservatism shelters under its umbrella a broad spectrum of intellectual approaches and philosophical commitments, Originalist and Textualist methods derive from a range of intellectual traditions centered around a few key academic institutions: the University of Chicago, the Claremont Institute, and more indirectly Princeton University, the Hoover Institution, UCLA, and George Mason University. Intellectual godfathers include political philosophers such as Leo StraussAllan BloomHarvey Mansfield, and (the recently departed) Harry Jaffa, all of whom have employed a species of magical thinking about foundation political texts in the Western philosophical canon, beginning with Plato and extending to Nietzsche. These classically trained philosophers — often categorized as Straussians — have also branched their carefully constructed tree of canonical works of Western political philosophy to encompass both European and American political thought. Straussian students of political philosophy have done much to vitalize the thoughts and writings of the founding fathers of the United States and Abraham Lincoln.

The “esoteric” method pioneered by Leo Strauss borrows heavily from medieval Church philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus, and burrows deeply into the meaning of foundation philosophical texts, which because of the conviction that they contain timeless truths about human nature and human relationships, obviate any need for historical situation. Straussians privilege text over context and universal truth over the thread of history, largely because historical and narrative understandings can lead to moral relativism. Additionally, Leo Strauss’s efforts to elucidate the influence of Plato through the course of the Middle Ages led him to the conclusion that the most precious truths contained in the Western philosophical canon were secret and encoded, and could only reveal themselves to the initiated acolyte or the most subtle student.

Legal conservatives have to some degree reaped the rewards of the spade work done by this older generation of academic political philosophers. The precepts of Originalism and Textualism with regard to constitutional studies reinforce the Straussian focus on foundation texts, hidden or subtle meanings, an ahistorical valorization of frozen language possessing timeless universality, and a morally driven concern for the dissipation associated with values relativism.

The legal conservative method, of course, leads otherwise very bright people deep into the darkened logical caves associated with biblical fundamentalism, in which scriptural exegetes hyperscrutinize sacred texts to locate hidden meanings anchored to divinely authored truths. Legal conservatives will writhe around the unanswerable and possibly irrelevant question: What did this clause of the Constitution mean to the Founders? One might reasonably ask in return: Why not closely inspect entrails?

You think there ought to be a right to abortion? No problem.

Well, actually, there is a problem. Justice Scalia asks and answers this question rhetorically by way of his capsule summation of Originalism and Textualism. Scalia’s answer being: “The Constitution says nothing about it. Create it the way most rights are created in a democratic society. Pass a law. And that law, unlike a Constitutional right to abortion created by a court, can compromise. A Constitution is not meant to facilitate change. It is meant to impede change, to make it difficult to change.

The problem is this. Legal conservatives attach a meta-meaning to the Constitution (it is designed to impede change), along with particular interpretations of its clauses, that elevate the importance of old-fashioned politics for securing non-universal rights (versus judicial remedies). However, the meta-meaning conflicts with an unfortunate reality. The political organs established by the Constitution have ceased to function. Moreover, we have ample evidence that this stalemate is exactly the political result favored by legal conservatives.

We have seen this before. In 1860. In 1936. Actually, we even witnessed this happen in 1786. The stalemate is called a Constitutional crisis. Under these circumstances, the principles that support the rule of law in the United States — equality, fairness, justice, transparency — principles enshrined within the preamble to the Constitution itself, begin to crack and crumble. Legal conservatives therefore face a dilemma. Is the Constitution a means? Or is it an end? They will tell us the Constitution is an end — a Procrustean bed as it were. But legal conservatives employ the Constitution as a means. To reconstruct politics itself, a breathtakingly radical, and risky, dissimulation that wagers all in the service of a hidebound medieval vision.

Messages in a Bottle

ww1-gas-masksFragile Democracies. Around the world, in nation after nation, the commitment to liberal democracy has weakened. Fewer people believe it is “essential” to live in a democracy; more people are open to military rule if government institutions weaken; and broadly based parties and movements have become influential or gained power by arguing that existing regimes and institutions are illegitimate. Most strikingly, young people are significantly more likely to believe only weakly in liberal democracy and are more open to military or authoritarian alternatives.

Systemic Corruption. Studies of corruption regimes in nominally liberal democracies such as Brazil, Argentina, and Korea also confirm what we intuitively know, that the pursuit of private gain infects and hollows out trust in governing institutions. Systemic self-dealing and the absence of accountability  corrodes norms and ideals of public service and breeds pervasive cynicism about the rule of law. The unabashed mixing of public and private interests in the Trump government also assaults these norms and pretty much obliterates public trust and the rule of law, and in these respects fully resembles an emerging corruption regime.

When Words Mean (Less Than) Nothing. Corruption regimes also hollow out public speech. When the assumption prevails that all public figures and politicians lie and deceive endemically, political parties and political movements are more likely to self-organize as territorial gangs and warlords with tribal loyalties and affiliations. Movement rhetoric becomes more about sowing further mistrust and breeding cognitive chaos, rather than striving to meet standards intrinsic to a nation’s governing institutions and founding ideals.

It Can Happen Here. It Is Happening Here. Those among us who deal in ideas need to ask ourselves hard questions, perhaps especially in the academy (of which I am not a member). The fragility of intellectual diversity and discourse in colleges and universities is a major problem, at many levels. I think Nicholas Kristof gets that right. If universities and colleges close minds, where else on earth will they open? But Kristof, and David Brooks and Thomas Friedman and other mainstream pundits who get paid for being “wise and reasonable men,” entirely miss a deeper point, which is that insular and sheltered academic institutions are incredibly vulnerable.

The Coming Purge. In a pretty vile, self-congratulatory (and self-disclosing) post-election interview, Steve Bannon savaged the media and others who had written off Trump’s. Their mistake, he said, was that they did not understand Politics Is War. In the recent election, the Democratic Party and the establishment media had made the foolish, contemptible error of bringing a (butter) knife to a gunfight. So yes, as Kristoff says, the time for liberal hand-wringing is over. Because Trump and Bannon and Betsy DeVos and like-minded partisans in Congress and in state legislatures (e.g, Wisconsin) will now seize every opportunity to diminish and curb student activism, diversity programs, and academic freedom. They will place their people in charge of public institutions, cut funding, roll back tenure protections, dismiss faculty they don’t like, and purge and and punish and silence everyone else. These looming realities are what academic institutions need to concern themselves with, not white privilege and its discontents.

Messages In A Bottle. The only question that remains for all of us is What Is To Be Done?  This is not an easy question to answer, and the answers may vary among us. But it should be the single question that occupies our thoughts and our conversations. I’m aware that I write things and send them by email in this Journal Of Jeremiadus. I appreciate my methods are unorthodox. I also don’t know much about whether people read what I write, so the emails definitely have the quality of a message in a bottle. Which I’m okay with. Because most of our communications, when you think about it, have that quality. We lose a lot of control when we try to speak with and understand each other. We know this. Communication between living creatures is fraught. Meanings are diaphanous. When we speak with others, we risk presuming too much about the value of what we are saying, and about what they can and should do with our speech on the basis of the value we assign to it.

Macaque Monkeys. But speech is pretty much all we have. You might have seen the recent article about the macaque monkeys, who possess the ability to vocalize like humans, but not the brain wiring to actually fashion speech, at least as we understand it. The macaque monkeys in some ways resemble Donald Trump, our next President, who similarly can vocalize like other humans, but who (in addition to his emotional challenges) is obviously profoundly learning disabled (a point that cannot be overemphasized) and who therefore lacks the brain wiring to communicate in a humanly meaningful way.

Epistemological Incoherence. Our status as humans is at stake when we think about the contemporary degradation of speech, the gaslighting (Teen Vogue!), the epistemological incoherence we now confront, and the fog of war that has begun to descend upon us. So messages in a bottle are somewhat like luminescent beacons that can help to guide us through the darkness. If this is true, then one of the things we can do is send out as many messages as we can, with no certain knowledge that any one bottled message will reach its destination, but with an awareness that the focus and coherence of our messaging can somehow lead us home. For my part, this means that one of things I can do is write as if my life depends upon it.

This Will Not Happen. Which is, in a sense, the answer for all of us to the question What Is To Be Done? Each of us has a skill or a gift, a mastery in some domain. And we must each use that special type of mastery in the service of the things we most care about, because everything of value in our diverse, profluent, abundant world is profoundly at risk. So even more than writing (or researching or teaching or composing or painting or healing or building or litigating) as our lives depend upon it, we must do these things as if the world depends upon it. Without ego. Without hope of personal gain. Without regard for personal consequences. It really amounts simply to each of one us individually, in our own way, saying No. This Will Not Happen.

Explaining Our Befuddlement. One of my recent (and perhaps faddish) obsessions is with emergent systems. It may be useful for us to consider the Trump phenomenon in these terms. For the purpose of this essay, I’ll only say that our befuddlement about the political inversion we have recently witnessed probably is the result of what we might (loosely and metaphorically) call a phase state transition, such as the transition from water to ice, in which the properties that constitute reality fundamentally shift. To the degree we live in a world in which we map reality along a stable continuum, say of water temperature, we might experience the water as warm or cold, but know it always to be water. When water phase shifts and becomes ice, that continuum shatters. We live in a new reality. If we remain trapped in the cognitive map of the continuum of the old reality, we are truly lost.

What I Am Gonna Do. Therefore (and as a heads up), I am committing myself to writing – and sending – something out via my Journal Of Jeremiadus on a thrice-weekly schedule (Monday, Wednesday, Friday). Please (please) unsubscribe if this is too much for you (I would certainly understand). But if you don’t unsubscribe, I can promise that the things I write will be short (between 500 and 1,000 words) and specifically and usefully topical (e.g., white nationalism, Breitbart, the Urban Dictionary, identity politics, the Anthropocene, the prison industry, Citizens United, charter schools, the gun culture, free speech, Constitutional originalism and textualism, revealed religion, ontological fundamentalism, head injuries, war casualties, patriotism, trees, frogs, water rights, ice cap melt, desert encroachification, ocean acidification, fascism, voting rights, emotional dysregulation, urban violence, mammalian consciousness, stochastic tinkering, the three-point shot, horse racing, fiction, executive compensation, automation). In each of these essays, I also promise to keep the focus on the larger themes of what it means to be human, and what we can do, specifically, to shrink and subdue the evil that has risen amongst and between us.

"His Majesty the (Angry) Baby": Trump, Narcissism, and the American People

Figuring out what personality disorder explains Donald Trump is an emerging (possibly self-defeating) parlor game, part of our efforts to make sense of the new political world in which we live. Last week, N. Ziehl posted thoughts on Facebook about the narcissism of Donald Trump (republished on Medium and then again by James Fallows in The Atlantic). I have written myself about Trump’s narcissism. Prior to the election, most of these armchair diagnoses functioned as both warning about the risks of electing Trump and as a way to reassure ourselves that the American electorate, collectively and infinitely wise, would ultimately vote with their heads, not their spleens. Post-election, conversations about Trump’s narcissism have more the flavor of tactics for surviving a four-year cage match with a deranged grizzly bear.

This recent suffusion of the familiar tropes of narcissistic symptomology (grandiose self-conception, impulsive behavior, absence of boundaries, instrumental manipulation of others) and etiology (attachment trauma, foundational mistrust, arrested emotional development) should remind us that narcissism is a social pathology (in the sense that, unlike with depression or bipolar disorder, narcissism requires active social engagement to exist). Trump’s personality disorders don’t matter enormously except to the degree his political ascent communicates and refers us to political dimensions of this pathology that refract the distance we have traveled from norms of political health. In other words, we might be missing the mark if we spotlight the personal narcissism of Trump without embedding its importance for us politically in the social and relational dynamics on which narcissism feeds.

The Ziehl essay reminded me that, many lifetimes ago, I had actually written quite extensively about the political meaning of narcissism. In 1989, I published an article in the journal Political Theory entitled “His Majesty the Baby: Narcissism and Royal Authority” (which led to a brief exchange – here and here – with political theorist Patricia Springborg published in a subsequent issue of Political Theory). The premise of the article was that Freud’s 1914 essay “On Narcissism”, and his famous reference to “his majesty the baby,” might yield interesting insights if we focused attention less on “the baby” and more on “his majesty.” Below, I’d like briefly to apply the insights of the article, particularly those deriving from object relations theory, to the unreality of our present circumstances, the major lesson being that we need to appreciate how Trump has tapped into the psychologically atavistic and primitive desires and anxieties of a broad swath of the electorate, conditioned by real and addressable events in the world.

A simple rendering of the N. Ziehl essay on Trump’s narcissism might be “don’t feed the beast.” And this makes enormous sense, as attention is the only thing that fuels our President-elect, who possesses no inner life as most of us experience it, and so does not feel himself to exist without the attention and validation of others. But here’s the problem. We can’t not feed the beast. We cannot look away. None of us, those who voted against Trump no less than those who voted for him, those who despise and fear him no less than those who worship him (as on Reddit) as their new emperor-god. Trump only exists because we allow him to. He cannot directly make us read his tweets and follow his headlines. But he doesn’t need to, because each of us, yoked to the Pavlovian incentives of social media and reality television, experience the same override of our cognitive processes when he or his minions ride into our field of vision as we do with the Kardashians or with other celebrities. We literally lose our minds.

We have seen this before. History provides countless instances of the distortions and excess and cognitive confusion that can occur when a single ruler tramples the hedges of law and convention and becomes the “disintermediated” focal point of the political landscape. The family intrigues of imperial Rome, the machinations of the medieval papacy, and the rancid behaviors of the absolutist, dynastic (and inbred) ancien regime provide templates for this type of descent. The current moment presents some twists, however, with a semi-choreographed institutional implosion (a back-to-the-future return to a post-modern state of nature) that Donald Trump, with his cavernous emotional needs and intuitive, mercenary affinity for shit disturbance, has relentlessly exploited, thumbing his nose indiscriminately at all convention, and absorbing and enlarging himself via a calculus of taunts that in no way resemble political discourse as we have ever before experienced it, nor to any reality most of us can recognize, but which for these reasons offer a voice to those who see through a glass darkly (darkened gorilla glass of myriad “devices”) and mutely, and for whom speech and rhetoric are simply instruments for hyperventilation of an inchoate rage, and for the promise of succor and satiety and safety. No wonder democracy has exposed fragile, reed-like foundations confirming (ironically, of course), the dark realism of Alexander Hamilton and, before him, of Thomas Hobbes.

As many pundits have noted (some only with 20-20 hindsight), Trump is both vessel and voice, the (perversely unintended) consequence of an enormously successful eight-year campaign by Congressional Republicans to destroy Barack Obama, assisted by entirely craven and merciless political allies in the heartland: 1) a hugely well-funded and well-organized business / lobbying complex; and 2) a consolidated Tea Party / white nationalist media (I think we can now safely use “white nationalism” as an appropriate term for the goals of conservative talk radio, book publishing, and digital media). These scorched-earth campaigns activated and exploited popular emotional vulnerabilities and deficiencies that had little to do with concrete interests, needs, and goals, and everything to do with the mercenary accumulation of power.

This project of political destruction has really been about cementing fear and loathing into our political institutions (let’s call it the real infrastructure project). And clearly, many analogies of this sort present themselves, from whatever myth or fantasy one chooses, anything to characterize the unreality of the moment. The bottom line, however, is that we can no longer ignore the toxic emotional energy released by this recalibrated political environment, the intentional birthing of a new, diminished and twisted kind of man.

My article on narcissism and royal authority is obviously dated, and it is with some trepidation that I even introduce it into conversation about politics in the 21st century. But having read the essay again, after a break of several decades, I think the analysis is still pretty robust, partly because it was always meant to ground our understanding of politics within a universal model of human development, but also because the impact of economic globalization and digital communication and media technologies has, if anything, heightened the polarized, yet twinned, experiences of helplessness and omnipotence around which a political narcissism can form itself. Two paragraphs from the article summarize the emotional dynamics supporting this condition.

Object relations theorists, such as Margaret Mahler and Heinz Kohut, do not deny that separation from the mother dictates that the young child exchange “some of his magical omnipotence for autonomy and developing self-esteem.” However, they also stress that separation and individuation do not require the flourishing young child to abandon the primary narcissism of its infancy. Rather, the child’s developing ego builds upon this narcissism as a foundation, as a source of basic trust, inner strength, and enduring self-regard. Mature and socially valued qualities such as creativity, empathy, humor, and wisdom represent successful attempts to harness and to transform the energy generated by narcissistic sensations of grandiosity and omnipotence. With the attainment of these qualities, burnished over time, comes the ability to accept one’s mortality, to live fully and completely within the limits imposed upon us a embodied creatures. This, Heinz Kohut suggests, represents the ego’s definitive triumph over the narcissistic self. It may also provide a measure of the distance psychologically between royal subjection and democratic citizenship.
Narcissism assumes pathological dimensions only when, to return to language introduced by Freud, the grandiose “ego-feeling” never shrinks as an adjustment to reality and instead persists into adulthood as an artificially inflated entity. Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel has explored connections between narcissism in adults and the regressive, ultimately destructive, impulses liberated by social movements and regimes sustained by a charismatic or messianic leader. She suggests that this type of leader promotes illusion. He draws on the authority of the omnipotent mother of earliest infancy, whose seductive siren song to the child is that he or she need not grow up. The personal ego may freely dissolve into the maternal matrix sustained by the encompassing aura of the group itself. Individuals need not identify with other individuals so much as they ought to identify with the group in its entirety. The megalomania induced by this transubstantiation of personal identities from discrete, self-contained unities into one vast, throbbing organism confers upon each individual the sense of possessing an omnipotent ego. Each now inhabits a “colossal body.” Within this narcissistic mental world, from which reality has been banished and in which there no longer exist any limits, the individual imagines he or she will no longer see through a glass darkly, but now will witness face to face the magic place where all wishes come true.

If we are to neuter Donald Trump and reorient our politics toward a specific, mappable reality of needs and goals, we must remind ourselves, continually, that Trump’s power rests in his ability to claim and hold our attention (consider the Medusa legend, with all of its gendered and sexualized meanings). It is precisely in those moments where he claims us that we lose ourselves, and experience the disorientation of the narcissistic fable.  Trump and his various Sith Lords (including, we may assume, Steve Bannon as Darth Sidious) have successfully spun their web using three specific techniques of disorientation that both absorb and reinforce politically the narcissist pathology: 1) normalization; 2) confusion; and 3) misdirection. Let’s examine each in turn.

  1. Normalization – Donald Trump has benefited not simply from the obliteration of behavioral norms and policy conventions by Tea Party white nationalists and the business-lobbying complex in the past eight years. He has personally normalized a paranoid, demonizing chaos of the mind that most closely resembles the Salem Witch Trial on a national scale, in which the dominant emotions are anger and contempt, a sadistic will to punish the weakest and most vulnerable among us on behalf of hyper-inflated fantasies of threat and menace.
  2. Confusion – By leveling “adult” (or “elite”) norms of professional conduct, Trump has also sanctified the roaring, rampant anti-intellectualism of Breitbart, Infowars, Rush Limbaugh and other Tea Party / white nationalist “patriots” that collapses knowledge into opinion, rant, screed, and worse. As others have noted, the effect is less to disprove evidence-based knowledge as it is to call into question the concept of knowledge altogether, and so destroying the epistemological ground of our capacity to act effectively (and collectively) in the world.
  3. Misdirection – Trump wants us to focus on him – on his tweets, his family, his finances, his improprieties, his boorishness, etc. – partly because he craves the attention, but not incidentally, because when our gaze is upon him, we are not paying attention to the flow of ideas and policies, and on the underlying machinery and political agenda of Tea Party.

Taken together, these techniques further enmesh us within the narcissistic  bubble, in which fantasy and and willed ignorance displace reality, disengaging us from norms of civility based on learned skills of empathy and intersubjectivity. The essence of their impact is to externalize, embody, and personalize evil (perhaps not a surprising outcome in a movement inspired by the revealed religion of a personal God). If an emotionally consistent thread runs through the guttural language of the movement conservatives, it is a relentless passion for naming names, creating demons, and outsourcing evil to specific individuals and targeted groups. Again, we have seen, in both the past and the present, where the personalization of evil can lead.

Our task, then, is to depersonalize our own conception of the challenge. One of the fatal mistakes of the Clinton campaign was to take the bait and turn the election into a referendum on the character of Donald Trump. Within the unmoored, unbounded political landscape of our time, it was perhaps inevitable that Trump supporters, and probably even Trump fence-sitters, would internalize attacks on Trump’s character as attacks on themselves. The term “deplorables” has now become a badge of honor for many of Trump’s most ardent citizen voices in flyover land. But of course these are the folks we want to reach, or at least to neutralize. And so we need to focus less on the personal failings, misdeeds, and excesses of Donald Trump and members of his misbegotten royal court. Instead, we must attend to the conditions that have produced this political metastasis. We need to cure the disease, not kill the patient. And so we must attack Trump’s positions, not his personality or his lifestyle. We must specifically and closely track the activities of Congress, because after eight fallow years, Trump has liberated a Republican-controlled legislature to undertake a Bacchanalian frenzy of lawmaking, the likes of which we probably haven’t seen in at least 50 years. We need to closely track the impact of court appointments and court decisions and directions of Constitutional lawmaking. We need to study and map and itemize the networks and assets and activities of movement conservatives

The national (and global) risks we face are deep and serious, with complex and layered causes, and we should not assume they will happily resolve themselves any time soon. We will need to play a long game, with a selfless and disciplined awareness of the stakes that allows us to transcend and see beyond the chaos in which Donald Trump himself seems to thrive and does not at all mind exploiting. But awareness of these underlying social and emotional dynamics can can help us to focus on the institutional foundations of reason, insight, and wisdom that are the source of our sanity as a democratic nation.

Let the Great Undoing Commence: The End of American Exceptionalism

The pig-lipsticking began within hours. Let’s give Trump a chance. Obama said it. That’s fine. He’s the President. His job as First Parent is to make the best of a miserable, pathetic situation (when they go lower, we go higher). But we also have Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times and Yamhill, Oregon (always Yamhill, Oregon, yes, we get it, you’re from Yamhill, Oregon!), who reassures us that we are not Weimar Germany and who “hopes” that Trump, the child, will allow “adults” to run foreign policy. And we have those well-known political philosophers Charles Barkley, Doc Rivers, and Mark Cuban. They too want to give Trump a chance. Along with the good folks of Harlem, who like that Trump is “real” but do not believe he will do “the really crazy things like deporting everybody.” But who mostly don’t care anyway, since “My president is Jesus.”

As former University of Washington athletic director, Barbara Hedges would say, and as President Obama surely wishes he did say, “Hope is not a strategy.” European Jews hoped their way to the gas chamber. I truly do understand the confusion. No one knows what the fuck is going on. And so it is tempting to resort to bromides that go down easy and soothe the soul. After all, the children may be listening. Yes. Maybe it is okay if Trump is “real.” But “real” in a good way. Not “really” real. And of course we do need to give ourselves several weeks to grieve, to simply sit within and absorb this new sense of unrealness (as Obama has instructed us to do). But we take this Trump-chance-giving too far and too seriously at our own peril. We barked and brayed about the existential threat Trump posed as a presidential candidate. Why would this threat diminish now that he is actually going to be president? Is Trump as president no less unqualified and no less a sleaze than he was as candidate? Are our words no less transactional and disposable than his? Sheesh.

What we are really saying when we urge each other to give Donald Trump a chance is that we need to give America a chance. We must to continue to trust in the strength of our democratic institutions and the vitality of our spirit as a nation. We must trust our belief that we are the exceptional nation. The belief in American exceptionalism extends beyond the actual arrival of European settlers to the American strand, of course. But in the past century, this idea has taken on more specific, if divergent meanings. In The Liberal Tradition in America, published some 60 years ago, Louis Hartz argued that the United States is exceptional because it is the product of unique and favorable historical and geographic circumstances that have insulated and sheltered its populations from the tectonic forces of class and creed that shaped the European experience.

The Liberal Tradition in American remained the canonical statement on American exceptionalism until the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan (along with speechwriters such as Peggy Noonan) subtly reframed the argument, mostly by repurposing the Puritan vision of the City on a Hill. According to Reagan, America is an exceptional nation because our (Western, Judeo-Christian) circumstances, beliefs, traditions, and institutions make us better than other nations lacking this privileged foundation and divinely authored spirit. Particularly since 9/11, conservative advocacy organizations such as the Heritage Foundation have evangelized this somewhat more mystical (and certainly more smug) understanding of American exceptionalism. Infusing it, however, with a dark, brooding, menacing, paranoid, and toxic energy – the energy that has powered Donald Trump and his Breitbart crew to the presidency.

Congressional Democrats, we learn, may try a bit of jujitsu. Take Trump at his word regarding his commitment to infrastructure, family leave, and trade policies that have always been Democratic Party staples and Republican Party anathema. See if they can re-energize their working class, industrial belt constituents. Try to drive a wedge between Trump and Congressional Republicans. And force Trump to show his true colors, sooner rather than later. This seems fair and appropriate – a politically legitimate “chance”. Which, if successful, will at least partially, minimally redeem a political system that has exposed itself as hideously mean-spirited, incompetent, and self-serving.

But I will not be holding my breath. We kid ourselves. IT cannot happen here. War. Genocide. State failure. Economic collapse. Civil strife. Boorish descent to the Hobbesian state of nature. Except IT has happened here. The American exceptionalism prophets never had it right. Louis Hartz carefully elided the nation’s traumatic experiences with racial conquest and civil war in order to sustain his consensus vision (for contemporary perspectives, see this NY Review article). Ronald Reagan entirely ignored the deepest and most enduring meaning of John Winthrop’s lovely and profound City on a Hill sermon, A Model of Christian Charity. If we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.

Here is the source of my fear. Louis Hartz plumbed his personal demons to write The Liberal Tradition in America. Reagan was simply not terribly bright. But the scorched earth politics that have consumed our nation since 9/11 have unleashed very smart, well-organized, technologically savvy, and preposterously well-funded tribal movements in this country (for lack of a better term, let’s use the umbrella of the Tea Party to characterize them) that have outmaneuvered ordinary, well-meaning liberals (the ones who now call for us to give Trump “a chance”) at nearly every turn in the past 15 years. Demographic shifts aside (for the moment), the coalescence of these groups in the recent election represents a pure will to power that is so difficult to define, pin down, understand, and address because its raison d’etre has nothing to do with interests, logic, and reason. Not just in 2016, but since 2001, the Democratic Party has been fighting the wrong war. Trump remains a freak of nature, but those who have attached themselves to him – the Steve Bannon’s and Roger Ailes’s of the world – are cynical, instrumental, and ruthless. They are cunning, not wise. Arrogant, not humble. Their currency is fear. And they have no respect or affinity for the truth.

One definition of an exceptional nation is that it is somehow prelapsarian and has no experience with or true knowledge of evil. Well, if that blessed state were ever ours in the United States, it is no longer. Even for the Shire-like inhabitants of Yamhill, Oregon. Those who would like ways to consider how thinkers and actors in less sheltered times and places addressed the irruption of evil into their world, and the undoing of all they imagined to be enduring, might start (but not end) with Albert Camus and Hannah Arendt. And we must not forget J.R.R. Tolkien, who, as we learned in a recent NY Times essay, found Mordor in the trenches of the Western Front during World War I, and wrote The Lord of the Rings as an allegory of “power exerted for domination.” But The Lord of the Rings also instructs us in the dialectics of power, and the capacity of “small” people, in dark times, to find within themselves hidden caverns of strength, resourcefulness, wisdom, and love that evil can subdue but not destroy. This is a strategy, in our dark times, to which hope can attach itself.