Most presidential election cycles are dispiriting for the Left. As the official campaign begins, however, the hangover of a Sanders-induced optimism has added to this despair.
America is about to choose a president from the two most unpopular politicians in modern history. The Democrats have chided the Left and the ‘Bernie or Bust’ crowd for still not being ‘with her’ in the existential struggle against fascism. But it is worth considering how liberalism’s anti-fascism covers a libidinal lack. That is, an inability to define or, in Lacanian terms, ‘enjoy’ their political identity but through this fascist threat. Liberals are clearly not principled anti-fascists, the geopolitical compromises are too numerous to count, and there is an obvious cynical PR/fundraising logic to the fascist threat: ‘Can you spare $5 to defeat fascism?’ However, liberals are emotionally invested in the idea that they are the ones who can beat back the scourge of fascism. They construct anti-fascism as a class project but self-identify as the class of elites and experts that fascism uses to obfuscate actual class struggle.
Trump’s fascism may lack the militancy of brown- and blackshirts organised against socialist forces but he masters its rhetorical indeterminacy. His acceptance howl at the Republican National Convention was interspersed with appeals to the working class, denunciations of corporate political influence, free-trade deals, and interventionist foreign policy in Iraq and Libya. With Trump opportunistically left-flanking Hillary on trade and militarism, the liberal media and political class has been oscillating between catching the vapours and declaring American liberalism an unbridled success. In the face of a volatile populist electorate the Democrats have chosen Reagan-esque optimism and the refrain that ‘America is already great’, the liberal equivalent of ‘Jeb!’
This inability of liberals to understand the necessity of antagonism in politics and Trump’s mastery of psycho-political warfare could cost Hillary Clinton this election. While Trump’s own combustibility is overshadowing the entire campaign, it is far too close for liberals to convincingly argue that they are a bulwark against fascism. The polls and the electorate have been extremely volatile; the great wonk oracle Nate Silver has gone from declaring Trump an impossibility for the nomination to having a 40 per cent chance in the general. If Clinton limps to the finish line, liberals will undoubtedly draw all the wrong conclusions about their anti-fascism and the vigor of technocratic centrist politics.
What has been remarkable about the liberal political commentariat’s reaction to Trump’s outrages and Bernie Sanders’ successes has been its collective nature. Sanders’ social-democratic candidacy elicited horror as the progressive parallel to the Trump movement in the liberal nerve centers of Vox, Politico and Slate. The uniformity of this reaction in the liberal media and millennial online journalism spheres has been most perplexing as the Sanders campaign was objectively an extraordinary story. Thomas Frank convincingly advances the notion in his new book that American liberals function as a class, not in objective economic terms but in the devotion of professionals to the meritocracy. These are the people whose hearts bleed for diversity in boardrooms and Hollywood blockbusters, who believe entrepreneurs should get student loan debt forgiveness and that equality will be achieved through inner city youths learning how to code or attending a free performance of Hamilton. In constructing progressive politics as the combination of affect and technocracy, as opposed to ideology, struggle and justice, the rebellion of the Sanders youth and the surging fascism of Trump both represent the grubby politics of street fighting.
The release by Wikileaks of the Democratic National Convention’s internal emails has been a devastating blow to the liberal notions of process, merit and consensus. It has triggered wild deflections within the commentariat and the political class, filling columns and airtime with Glenn Beck-style conspiracies involving fascists, Russians and socialist useful idiots. The emails demonstrate what was self-evident to any impartial observer of the Democratic primary process: that faced with an insurgent social democratic outsider, neoliberal party officials closed ranks and conspired to undermine Sanders’ campaign, relying on a pliant media to accomplish this task. For a party convinced of its own progressive bona fides and who spent the campaign scolding Sanders supporters as cranks or entitled ‘bros’ silencing women and people of colour, this is surely an intolerable hypocrisy. Yet in the face of this corruption, liberals cling to their sense of merit and technocratic, process-oriented superiority.
To understand how this contradiction is overcome we have turn to psychoanalysis and the notion of fetishist disavowal. Liberals know very well that their process is corrupt, that they are incapable of defeating fascism, but nevertheless ‘Putin!’ As Žižek puts it, fetishism shields us from trauma, so the hacker logic of the big reveal will not persuade liberals to abandon their position but find an agent who is responsible for our loss of enjoyment. If Trump ascends to the presidency or lays the groundwork for an even fouler creature in 2020, it won’t be because liberals have kneecapped themselves through their venality, lack of vision or mocking the youth as hopelessly naive, it will be the work of a network of corrupting agents. It is easier to assume that Trump is a foreign agent than confront the fact that he is squarely within the tradition of American politics and preying on the Democrats’ class treachery. This also nicely augments the Democrat blackmail that the left has to support Clinton to defeat not only fascism but also Putin’s evil empire.
The hysterical Russophobia that has gripped the Democrats, the policy establishment and the liberal media is a form of fetishist disavowal and a collective liberal nervous breakdown. American democracy is now said to be fundamentally under threat, not from any internal corruption but from Russian interference looking to install a puppet regime and subvert the polls in November. This affair has elicited the usual shrieking headlines from liberal HuffPo but the star of this oeuvre is Franklin Foer who, when he could not find a brown paper bag to breathe into, wrote a piece entitled ‘The DNC Hack is Watergate, but Worse’. Foer, whose analysis has been cited by the Clinton campaign, argues that the hack reveals nothing of any news value. Apparently the public should not be surprised about the DNC’s attempts to Jew-bait Bernie Sanders but be ‘appalled by the publication of this minutiae’ for the benefit of a foreign despot.
The New York Times has been running daily front-page articles around Trump’s ties to Russia and the efforts of Russian military intelligence to intervene in the US elections. In the middle of the DNC Trump stole the headlines with a comically flippant, and I dare say brilliant, remark: ‘Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 [Clinton] emails that are missing.’ The Times credulously reported that Trump was ‘urging a foreign adversary to conduct cyber-espionage’.
The psychodrama of the 2016 election is pitting the tortured liberal class against the spectre that haunts them. When liberals expose themselves as wracked by Trump’s vulgarity and concerned about ‘the discourse’, he is all too happy to feed these anxieties. Trump is nothing if not a master of politics as libidinal warfare. While many of his obscenities are well documented, I am partial to the time he taunted Bill O’Reilly live on-air with Melania and Eric in the week that O’Reilly lost a custody battle.
But what of the substance of the espionage claims? So far the basis for claiming Russia is behind the hack rests on cybersecurity experts contracted by the DNC – Crowdstrike and FireEye. Yasha Levine, a journalist on the national security tech beat and author of the forthcoming Surveillance Valley, wrote to me that these ‘independent’ experts are a ‘direct extension of the US National Security State’. One of these firms is bankrolled by the CIA’s venture capital fund, In-Q-Tel, and all are filled with former NatSec agents who pine for their old lover/enemy. In these circles, Russia corresponds perfectly to the liberal paranoid imaginary. Levine describes the policy establishment as quite capable of Trump-style xenophobia ‘building since the Bush years … [that] the Russians are evil, they are not to be trusted, they are slippery and devious and are capable of anything.’
While tracing hacks to specific national and political actors or lulzy cypherpunks is a notoriously difficult exercise, the New York Times has reported, if misleadingly, that anonymous federal law officials are certain of Russian involvement. The FBI and CIA have refused to publically join this narrative and have acknowledged there is no evidence of a Russian plot to install Trump. If the NSA has proof of a Russian-directed hack, admitting to this publicly risks revealing how deeply the US has penetrated Russia’s networks. In other words, we are talking about a routine incident of cyber espionage at worst. Yes, Trump is of a certain ‘type’ and one imagines that he could get on well with Putin, Berlusconi or even Erdogan, but this does not reveal anything deeper. Julian Assange is prone to the ‘enemy of my enemy’ logic which sees nominal leftists elevate Putin into a quasi anti-imperialist. But this does not a security asset make.
Hillary Clinton’s general election pivot is also instructive of a deeper collective anxiety within the liberal, professional and political class. The Clinton campaign has been tying itself in knots to reach out to the ‘good’ Republicans; that is, people who think 47 per cent of the population are deadbeats, revere Charles Murray’s vile race science and are neocon architects of the Iraq War aghast at Trump’s fascism. To chase the good Republican unicorn, the DNC convention was turned into an RNC convention with generals, military families, a September 11 night, and supporters shouting down the peace movement with chants of ‘U-S-A’. This move has been effective in consolidating Clinton’s support from the likes of George Will, Meg Whitman and Michael Bloomberg, but it is not likely to win her many actual Republican voters. People rightfully hate these experts and welfare cases who have been nurtured in the fail-proof environment of Washington, where resumes and pedigree ensure no one will ever be held accountable for their egregious mistakes.
The liberal anti-fascism of Clinton has achieved a remarkable class solidarity, not through genuine worker and populist platform that would undercut Trump, but a solidarity of experts and the policy establishment terrified for their jobs. Trump might be right for the wrong reasons but it is incredibly instructive that he elicits horror in not being reflexively committed to NATO’s Article 5, supporting the nationalist/fascist alliance in Ukraine, or lauding Putin’s efforts in Syria. The responsible policy in this case is supposed to be Clinton’s ‘no-fly zone’ over Syria and refocusing the war on Assad, a brazen escalation of tensions with Russia.
What is truly the greatest horror of Trump’s fascism is that he will not employ the best and brightest in his administration. Trump was very clear about this in his first major foreign policy speech: ‘We have to have new people … because many of the old people frankly don’t know what they’re doing … [They] have perfect resumes but very little to brag about except responsibility for a long history of failed policies.’ To the Thomas Friedmanns of the world, such rhetoric is a call for brownshirts to evict people of merit from their homes in Georgetown, Vienna and Bethesda, and consign them to fly over country as penance.
The problem with the liberal stand against fascism is that it is not an actual politics but a symptom of a libidinal deadlock. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are not two sides of the same coin but libidinally necessary for one another. The horror of Trump manages to create the ultimate liberal fantasy of post-partisanship, consensus and respect for the discourse. We are actually seeing a class solidarity of Washington careerists, policy wonks, the national security state and the media. This open solidarity of the experts and elite is precisely what animates the fascist imaginary of the puppet masters undermining the American people’s natural order. Both obfuscate actual class antagonism, and until liberalism can antagonistically define itself with a genuine left conscience it will continue to be wracked by the fascist nightmare. For now, it appears that liberals would rather fight on behalf of the good Republicans than defeat fascism in a way that undermines their own fantasies.