June 15, 2017
Socialism was to be a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, a consciousness-driven model of social transformation but without the processes that would allow it to validate its understandings against how the world really worked. Focused more on mobilization against an enemy than understanding itself and its society, the Communist Party and its state were both constituted through mechanisms they also made. The way in which they were made also prevented authorities from recognizing the real problems they faced.
I wrote that paragraph to describe Andreas Glaeser’s book on the political epistemics organizing the East German society communists ruled. One can understand Trump Rule better in light of that work, as well as of others illuminating communist rule.
It’s not only the pervasiveness of the lie. Do we need to trust authorities to act on our behalf and require no evidence that they do? Do we need to emulate the sycophancy of the leaders’ lieutenants in order to find our place in the new order? If we challenge authority, do we risk becoming an enemy? In this kind of order, it’s not the rule of law but the rule of loyalty that determines trustworthiness and truthfulness.
I have been waiting for President Trump to depart from this approximation of high communism, but in recent weeks he only moves closer to this system-destructive disposition. We can see that march in two steps, with one side-step giving me hope for system-recovery.
Loyalty and Law
Under communist rule, the Communist Party was the most sacred object in the system because it embodied a substantive rationality rooted in the assignation of virtually divine status to the Party. I explained this position in 1991 (p. 203):
The sacred status of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union derived from its position as the incarnation of the hierophantic October Revolution. Eastern European parties gained their initially sacred status by conference from that incarnation. This sacred status of the party means that loyalty to it becomes a higher principle than any other moral guidelines…The Komsomol slogan of ‘the party is our reason, honor and conscience’ means that individual conscience is completely estranged and embodied in the “mythical will of the organization” In 1968, Poland’s Communist Party even formally rejected the challenge made by Leszek Kolakowski and others that individual conscience should take precedence over party dictates for deciding morality.
Former FBI director James Comey’s public testimony to the Senate Intelligence committee last week moved the question of loyalty in America front and center. He claimed that Trump demanded personal loyalty to him, something Trump had done many times before in private business. But in the US, commissioned officers in the uniformed services and federal officials swear to defend to the Constitution, not pledge personal fealty to one’s supreme leader.
It is easy to see how President Trump could presume that loyalty to him and to the Constitution as one in the same, especially if he presumes to embody the nation itself in ways that the Party embodied socialism. When Attorney General Jeff Sessions and others invoke a custom that declares their conversations with the president beyond the bounds of Constitutional oversight (made without any invocation of presidential privilege), this signals, again, rule by a unitary figure rather than rule by a Constitution that recognizes three equal branches of government.
The sycophantic display by Trump’s Cabinet officials on June 12, thanking him for the opportunity to work with him, is another moment evidencing the importance of loyalty in Trump’s rule. Indeed, the differences among these performances make the point even clearer.
Mike Pence said,
It is just the greatest privilege of my life is to serve as the — as vice president to the President who’s keeping his word to the American people and assembling a team that’s bringing real change, real prosperity, real strength back to our nation.
By contrast, Jim Mattis said,
Mr. President, it’s an honor to represent the men and women of the Department of Defense. And we are grateful for the sacrifices our people are making in order to strengthen our military so our diplomats always negotiate from a position of strength. Thank you.
In a culture where loyalty is demanded, whether to the Party or to the Boss, critique is hard to come by, and sometimes hard to read. But experience in reading communist rule and resistance to it helps us appreciate what Secretary of Defense Mattis was doing in that moment.
Sidestep to opposition and critique.
Opposition and Critique
Of course there was no critique apparent in the Attorney General’s appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee on June 13. Jeff Sessions’ testimony was filled “with more emotion than specifics as he showcased his loyalty to Mr. Trump”. Senator Tom Cotton extended that effect by ridiculing the investigation into Russian collusion by asking the AG if he liked Jason Bourne and James Bond. That good humor, and Sessions’ notable emotional release in the exchange with this familiar, signaled the reproduction of a certain kind of political alliance. Their affinity was made even more clear in contrast to Senator Kamala Harris’s interrogation.
I am far from alone in marking the racial and gender dynamics of Trump’s mode of legitimation, but even if an observer of the Sessions hearing had never considered it before, the exchange between Harris and Sessions clarified. Her prosecutorial style was augmented by throwing shade in ways that make those claiming to be color blind nervous. It wasn’t just her rapid fire delivery and attempt to forestall his filibuster that unsettled him; it was her obvious challenge to the decorum of a Senate defined by white men of privilege.
It doesn’t take experience analyzing communist rule and resistance to it to see that. And while Senator Harris won many fans in that exchange, I fear that conflict does not undermine Trump, or Sessions. Racist and misogynist schema work to assign her as rude, and deserving of white patriarchal rebuke. It’s just not becoming to see a gentleman get all flustered. Part of Trump’s legitimation depends on that racialized and gendered conflict. Kimberle Crenshaw’s recent piece dispels any lingering illusions that white supremacy is not securely anchored in the distribution of American power and privilege, and that Trump doesn’t thrive because of it.
It’s worth debating whether the different modes of reproduction for white supremacy and patriarchy matter. At least I see a difference between those who feel like they must legitimate their power and privilege through the law, and those who trample it with their power and privilege. And thus I look for those who might challenge Trump’s abuse of presidential authority, especially when they are close to that authority. I can see some of that critical edge in Secretary of Defense Mattis’s words and reference because it resembles some of the resistance I have explored in communist ruled societies.
Of course that resistance was patently evident on February 19, 2017, when Jim Mattis declared, in distinction to Trump’s implication that they are the enemy of America, that he has no issues with the press. It might even be apparent when, after being asked about the London terror attack, the General declared on the Singapore tarmac before his June 5 departure, “I like to learn about something before I talk”. In a fashion reminiscent of those among and beyond communist authorities trying to find independent voice, one has to read between the lines to find critique. I found that clearly evident in Mattis’s Memorial Day remarks.
On May 29 at Arlington National Cemetery, Mattis quoted Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. to say of soldiers, “having known great things they are content with silence”. Intellectual that Mattis is, I wondered whether he chose that line to make a particularly pointed reference to President Trump, his succeeding speechmaker, who declares everything he does to be the greatest. But there is more. When you read the broader speech by Holmes that Mattis references, one of the most eloquent of American jurists celebrates honor (not all of which in today’s cultural sensibilities is virtuous). In that account, there is no obvious place for a man with Trump’s values and practices.
Here, in the most typical of intellectual dissident fashion, Mattis makes his critique of Trump loud and clear for those who can read, and write, more than a tweet. At least I heard that, and I trust I am not alone, even if Trump can’t see it. But it is important for those in the opposition to be able to see it.
We need to recognize that not all those around Trump accept Trump’s departures from the best of America. We need to escape the trap Trump and his like-minded set for those who can see the world only in terms of friends and enemies. In that contest, Trump reproduces the conditions of his own rule.
Reason and Conspiracy
Trump’s inability to acknowledge mistakes suggest an even greater resemblance to the Communist Party with its insistence on infallibility; in both, the source of all problems rests in the work of enemies.
Even on the day after the Alexandria attack on Republicans practicing baseball, and after Trump himself declared the importance of unity in America, he damn-tweeted those investigating the possibility of an obstruction of justice: “You are witnessing the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history – led by some very bad and conflicted people! #MAGA”.
With the hashtag referencing Make America Great Again, it is clear that democratic difference pursued through the rule of law has no place in Trump’s Great America, especially when he is the object of that legal question. By turning legal inquiries into struggles with enemies, Trump and his like-minded friends are turning America evermore into a condition that resembles Glaeser’s East Germany.
East Germany fell because the secret police and their communist authorities understood their system in ways that became ever more disconnected from reality. The only kinds of threats they could recognize came from the capitalist class enemy without, and those that enemy organized within the German Democratic Republic. Witch Hunt = Capitalist Sedition. Those GDR authorities could only see problems through the friend/enemy lens, and could not understand the real social origins of civil society and its various commitments to environmentalism, peace, and democracy. They could only see contest as the result of conspiracy with an enemy. Sound familiar?
If I were Trump’s advisor, if I were Steve Bannon, I would recommend they read Glaeser and ask whether they wish to repeat what happened in the GDR. It may be that finding enemies elsewhere, and stoking conflict by embedding real tragedies into self-serving narratives, will appeal to their like-minded, and help to generate the conflict that preserves their rule. But that disposition destroys their ability to recognize what is really going on, while destroying the system over which the Electoral College gave them authority.
Of course I could be missing the real Real.
Many of Trump’s supporters, and perhaps the President himself, views the Deep State as the real Real. With that lens, appeals to constitutionalism, professionalism, and the rule of law in the characterization of the Special Counsel’s work look to be a sham, and an attack on the greatest ever personification of the American people. For a huge number of Trump supporters, and perhaps for Trump himself, the ultimate enemy is this Deep State manifest in its professional intelligence community mobilized to query whether he has obstructed justice. To the Trumpian sensibility, the law has become a weapon of war wielded by their enemies.
This, then, is the deep problem: when the real goes beyond the empirically demonstrable, as capitalist sedition did in communist East Germany, no amount of reason and evidentiary argument can supplant the question of who is with us, and who is against us. It’s not just that the rule of loyalty replaces the rule of law. It replaces the rule of reason with the rule of conspiracy.
Institutional Resilience or Ignorance of History
I am struck by those like Norm Eisen who believe that US institutions are sufficiently resilient to withstand Trump’s constitutional ignorance and congenital misrepresentations. Most students of communist rule also thought that system resistant to transformation. I was more focused on the conditions of transformation than most, and after the fact, I tried to explain the peacefulness and rapidity of its transformation. But I was continually surprised over the course of 1989-91, and shocked and disgusted by the succeeding destruction of the Wars of Yugoslav Succession.
Of course communist rule was much more fragile than the system of power and privilege organizing the USA. With our decentralization of power relations and our political and legal systems for the resolution of difference in relatively peaceful fashion, we should not anticipate anything like the radical transformation communist rule experienced.
However, we are headed in the very direction that made the Soviet Union and its near abroad collapse. When truth becomes a weapon and when loyalty to a person or a group trumps the law, we lose the capacity to adjudicate differences and to believe that the system is potentially redeemable. Loyalty to a remedial Constitution above any individual or group enables justice to be a future toward which we peaceably strive.
Kamala Harris is a hero for now, and she will be, or others like her will be, our president in the future if hope can remain part of our constitution. Outright opposition is critical. But we also need those apparently with Trump to find their conscience to step up to defend the Constitution.
Of course if Mattis and others sidestep Trump’s loyalty dance, they will become his enemy. But it’s only if we can combine their maneuver with the resistance Harris exemplifies that we might transcend Trump’s political epistemics and preserve the Constitution that enables our peaceable progress as a nation.
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.