by Michael D. Kennedy
August 15, 2017
The drama of Trump Times threatens to consume us in fire and fury.
The President found the right words when threatening North Korea, but he put them in the wrong context. With his penchant for violence made worse by illiteracy in his own native tongue, Trump moves the country to hell in a handbasket while the apparently sane seek salvation in the wrong places.
We need recognize the times in which we live and articulate a vision that moves us beyond not just this present, but also that past which got us here.
We are in a time of unprecedented danger while living in a state of denial. Morality appears to be simply self-evident while it is in fact beyond too much public expression.
I spell out the dangers below, and on what we need focus in order to escape the brimstone.
…no Republicans, and I daresay few Democrats, are prepared to articulate openly what is the real danger facing us. We face civil war.
As a specialist in international affairs, I find America’s rudderless route in these turbulent times frightful. North Korea’s belligerence and our mixed messages are most evident, distressing both our allies and our great power rival in East Asia. Trump’s reckless statements destabilize even further an increasingly violent contest in Venezuela. The descent of Poland and Hungary into authoritarianisms aping Putin and Erdogan shake democratic anchors loose not only in Europe but also globally. We are told that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis might have a plan soon to address Afghanistan’s increasing insecurity, but it’s not here yet. And of course there’s more. But I am worried most about America, especially after this past weekend.
I am sorry to say that I was not surprised by James Fields Jr.’s act of racist terrorism in Charlottesville. I was not even surprised by Trump’s delay in saying something so profound as “racism is evil” (how it takes 48 hours to come up with that insight astounds). Nor was I surprised by Heather Heyer’s commitment and martyrdom. Our nation is filled with profoundly decent people like Ms. Heyer whose outrage at Trump’s policies and practices surge protest.
I was not even surprised when a few prominent members of the GOP spoke up immediately to denounce the evil that is white supremacy. Any Republican with half a brain has to know that it is not only America that Trump is dragging down, but also their own party.
I am also not surprised that no Republicans, and I daresay few Democrats, are prepared to articulate openly what is the real danger facing us. We face civil war.
To name this a civil war makes that confrontation more likely; to deny that there is one underway makes it more likely that the response to Trump and his fascist fans will be defined by those who envision their alternative with civility, and not justice, at its heart.
Postmodern Civil War
Of course this is not like the civil war of 1861-65, that conflict which defined America’s struggle not only to end slavery but also to realize modernity.
Should we then name this a postmodern civil war?
It feels wrong to affix the adjective. Postmodern implies the digital and fluid. This civil war in the time of Trump is no virtual game. It has already claimed innocent lives before the Charlottesville attack — Richard Collins III, Ricky John Best, and Taliesin Meche are among the best known and most recently killed before Ms. Heyer. Indisputably, they are victims of white supremacist terrorism.
That terrorism is in plain sight. Those terrorists no longer hide their identities (although naming and shaming them could cost them employment). But their naked racism and verbal bile make anyone with an ounce of decency recoil. Listen to this horrid man declare Trump insufficiently racist for allowing his daughter to marry a Jew. Perhaps Trump would find blame in this side with this personal offense.
Such violence can inspire direct action. It can move those now named antifa to meet that violence with their own because they do not see the state defending the vulnerable. With that action, they can evoke real civil warlike conditions, where violence of one side meets the violence of the other, just as we could see in the 1920s and 1930s in Europe, the time of their own heroic inspiration.
You can read today’s civil war with century old glasses, but if you do, you’ll miss the fine print that defines the terms of the contest beyond the fight on the street. The principal battle defining this postmodern civil war is not undertaken with weapons that kill, but with means that define the terms of legitimate violence.
Ideologies resonate across the centuries too. One side, with white self-delusion, believes America has been stained by the dilution of white power and privilege in America’s constitution, aided and abetted by a deep state filled with globalists like National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. The other side might also see that deep state at work, except acting on behalf of a racist capitalist system.
If these ideologies define the terms of the contest, we should label it civil war plain and simple and prepare for the race war the fascists seek.
The deeper civil war is not, however, defined by the same kind of ideological contest as that which moved the militant left to fight against fascists nearly a century ago. You can read today’s civil war with century old glasses, but if you do, you’ll miss the fine print that defines the terms of the contest beyond the fight on the street.
The principal battle defining this postmodern civil war is not undertaken with weapons that kill, but with means that define the terms of legitimate violence.
For some, this is a desperate struggle to restore a law and order organized around white power and privilege grounded in institutionalized racism. This legitimate violence is defined by escalating already world leading incarceration rates while giving police even more freedom to use whatever means necessary to establish their order while neglecting the health, education and general well-being of those must vulnerable in our society. Memorials to Confederate war heroes are potent symbols of that order to be defended.
For others, the very idea of legitimate violence is distant, for illegitimate violence defines their daily life not only with lives taken by murder and by prison, but with lives denied systemic pathways to dignity. Nonetheless the spirit of hope resides in the resistance to both systemic and gun-toting racism. Leaders like Pastor Traci Blackmon and Reverend Dr. William Barber inspire me. And many others.
Given the horrible conditions facing far too many folks of color in this country, we ought recognize that most militias are not mostly theirs, the NRA is not mostly theirs, that domestic terrorism is not mostly theirs. Those modes and expressions of non-state means of violence are overwhelmingly white. And, as this video suggests, they are begging for a real fight.
We should do all we can to deny them this realization of their self-fulfilling prophecy because this struggle against ignorant racists is not the only one we need wage.
There are not two simple sides in this looming civil war. There is that silent public including a few people of color but also all those white folks who denounce white supremacists but who prefer to live in a system defined by white privilege. This group desperately wishes to return to the qualities of US democracy in pre-Trump politics and practice, where civility defined decency but could ignore the injustices that defined the terms of life beyond privileged neighborhoods.
That world of the past no longer exists. For this public wishing to close their eyes to the choice that they must make, loyalties are fragile and made even more difficult when the choices are unclear. We need to work to make clear what those choices are.
We need a transformational solidarity that helps folks see the difference between our ideals and our reality, between the justice of laws and the justice of love, between the memory of pre-Trump decency and the reality of its institutional racism and its cascading class inequalities.
That can be very hard to do when the fascists are in your face. Even Paul Ryan must be squirming to find his spine when he can’t name the person (Trump) to whom his tweet declaring white supremacy repulsive is addressed. That would be nice if he could step up and be a big and brave boy and invoke the racist’s name. But that is not the deeper problem even while it captures our attention.
We need recognize that this postmodern civil war is about defining the terms of a future that enables us not only to escape the dangers of this Trump moment but also the conditions that brought us here. A return to the past is not an option, although for many of those not on the front lines of this postmodern civil war it looks like utopia.
We need a transformational solidarity that helps folks see the difference between our ideals and our reality, between the justice of laws and the justice of love, between the memory of pre-Trump decency and the reality of its institutional racism and its cascading class inequalities. It takes at least double consciousness to see beyond a past fake-normal towards a future less than perfect, but one to which we need commit in order to get through this shit. And we need that awareness now, for Trump and his fascist fans are ready to spring the trap.
Those who preside over the recurrent whiteness that enables resurgent white fury and fire work hard to moralize about the evils of fascism. If they also can point to antifa violence, they can denounce extremism generally. In so doing, they can make the evils of American institutionalized racism look normal and defame those who say Black Lives Matter. They can then declare Blue Lives Matter more.
Respectable politics today is about keeping fascism rhetorically at a distance, while not pursuing the policies and practices that disable injustices.
And that is just what Trump did in his scripted (better!) speech, by declaring Heather Heyer to be tragically killed, while stating Virginia state troopers Jay Cullen and Berke Bates to “exemplify the very best of America”.
This is the postmodern language trap into which we are put. Of course we need lament the loss of every innocent life, but we cannot declare those citizens killed in the line of justice seeking to be somehow less heroic than those who die, perhaps by accident, in the line of official duty.
At the same time, one can also see that Trump himself was trapped.
Enough forces in this country recognize the dangers of fascism, and Trump was forced to declare the KKK and Nazis illegitimate on Monday. He delayed long enough to let those white supremacist Trump supporters know he doesn’t really mean it, and that he just had to say it to keep respectable. That’s the key.
Respectable politics today is about keeping fascism rhetorically at a distance, while not pursuing the policies and practices that disable injustices. Here you need not be a white supremacist or fascist to align yourself with their hard edge. In fact, they can be quite useful; denouncing fascism might be the best defense of an institutionalized racism preserving white privilege.
We need, therefore, to ask whether our politics of resistance keep attention fixed on the politics of the street or on the transformation of systemic injustice. By focusing so much on fascists, we can very easily see a utopian America reorganized around the common ground of Morning Joe decency and debate ala Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski. With their condemnation, notably with Scarborough’s resignation from the Republican Party, their America could look like salvation. But that would mean losing the postmodern civil war, even when the Reverend Al Sharpton joins the show.
When Donny Deutsch performed his outrage and demanded that everyone present on Tuesday declare Trump racist after his Charlottesville debacle, Sharpton held back. No, it’s too simple, Sharpton declared, to say he’s racist, for that is what then shapes the debate. Sharpton insisted we keep our focus on the policies, on the practices, that make racism more than an individual’s disposition, and rather a problem of the system. Donny was so gracious as to agree to disagree. Privilege rears as it was clear that Donny did not get the point. Whiteness thrives when we focus on individual moralities and word choices in order to distract us from systemic injustices.
We need stand for justice. In this postmodern civil war, we need keep systemic injustice in view, and not just the fascists at bay.
Were I the producer, I would have followed Sharpton with Sherrilynn Ifill whose authority resounds when it comes to policy and practice, notably around education, political participation, and criminal and economic justice. When asked in such programs to talk about Trump’s words, she continually returns to his policies and practices, calling on him to disband his “so-called election integrity commission… drop the Muslim ban.. reverse his tweet on the military transgender ban, the claim that LGBT individuals are not covered by civil rights laws…” and more. Words and symbols matter, but policies and practices are the things that count in the end.
I’m no producer, but that’s a signal of the struggle we need to undertake in order to keep this postmodern civil war battle in transformational gear, and not allow this vehicle of change to go into civilly speaking right wing reverse.
And that is what will happen if the politics of the streets and tweets define the terms of this postmodern civil war. We can’t allow Trump’s conduct to define the strategy for change. His antics are a great way to direct our attention to this extremist and racist right, which needs to be defeated. But we need end their threat while empowering those most threatened by their actions. And that means those who worry about more than offended sensibilities.
We need keep Sharpton and Ifill in mind more than Joe and Mika when we think about the celebrity terms of the struggle so that justice becomes part of the American story in a way that it has never been. Violent confrontations of vile fascists on the street might feel righteous, but it feeds their frenzy, and makes it look like extremism is what we stand against.
That’s wrong. We need stand for justice.
In this postmodern civil war, we need keep systemic injustice in view, and not just the fascists at bay.
Michael D. Kennedy (@Prof_Kennedy) is professor of sociology and international and public affairs at Brown University. Throughout his career, Kennedy has addressed East European social movements, national identifications, and systemic change. For the last 15 years, he also has worked in the sociology of public knowledge, global transformations, and cultural politics, focusing most recently on social movements, universities, and solidarity within and across nations. His book, Globalizing Knowledge: Intellectuals, Universities and Publics in Transformation, is available at Stanford University Press.