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David Leonhardt’s widely-discussed column from earlier this month laying out the case against Trump crystallizes a certain way of thinking about a path forward for this troubled republic. Leonhardt is certainly not alone in taking this line; he merely drives it home more forcefully than others. The gist is that Donald J. Trump embodies everything that’s threatening to this essentially good and benign nation. According to this view, expelling the 45th president—driving him from office by any means necessary—opens the way to our national salvation.
This way of thinking is wrong and profoundly dangerous. It’s akin to thinking that if we can only silence the likes of Steve King, we will have disposed of the problem of white supremacy.
Those who take this approach have fallen into what I call “The Antichrist Trap.” This obviously needs some explaining.
The kind of ethical monotheism that at least some of us grew up with was all about critical introspection: Let those who claim to be without sin cast the first stone; let us have the decency not to go on about the imperfections of others while ignoring what is badly twisted in ourselves.
This was and is a sober religion. Realistic about our craving for self-justification and our pitiful susceptibility to the Tempter’s wiles (as it were). This realistic vision lives in tension with a very different religious framing, one that actually flows from the urge for self-justification and that’s often born of despair. This other framing places the locus of evil not in ourselves but elsewhere: in the corrupt heart of the evil oppressor.
In the apocalyptic framing, we will be rid of oppression once we rid ourselves of the oppressor.
Apocalyptic literature arises from the trauma of a people convinced of their own goodness (“chosen” is one way of putting this) who chafe under the sway of alien evildoers. The texts they create promise ultimate deliverance, sometimes accompanied by spectacular special effects (stars falling, grapes of wrath being trampled, etc.). According to the apocalyptic frame, a new dispensation will arise with peace and joy and security for all, once the Beast of Babylon has been slain.
Although the dump-Trump-to-make-it-right forces would undoubtedly object to being labeled dispensationalist (or to having any religious category applied to them), it’s hard not to notice how their overall procedure partakes of the same naiveté.
Far too many of our self-anointed progressive saviors speak as though Trump’s overthrow will make everything good again; they speak and act as though the normal functioning of American democracy (and here many reference the Clinton or Obama years) will be capable of producing a sufficient quantum of public justice.
Are they right? A bargain-priced plastic surgeon might want to convince us that removing a large carbuncle will render our face entirely beautiful, but can that kind of pitch really be trusted?
Here’s a thought experiment. Suppose that Trump is driven out in 2020 and that a Democrat in the mold of Bill Clinton or Barack Obama takes over at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Will all of the abominations associated with a centuries-deep structural racism disappear along with Trump? Will the evaporation of the middle class and the extreme concentration of wealth and power at the top be reversed with a business-friendly Democrat steering the ship of state? Will big money politics be driven from the temple of democracy with, say, Cory Booker installed as our chief executive?
Sober-minded people don’t believe in magical outcomes. Yet a large part of the progressive community acts as though its work will be done if we can only just turn the page on Trump. These apocalyptic believers are only too happy to “resist” the manifest evils of Trumpism, but they are constitutionally averse to confronting the less obvious evils afflicting a nation that was founded on the violence of white settler colonialism and whose economy continues to express the features of what Rev. James Lawson accurately calls plantation capitalism.
Here it’s crucially important to distinguish between a minority of committed anti-Trump actors who do not labor under the illusion that all will be well with Trump gone and the far greater number of liberal Democratic “resisters” whose resistance is only skin deep and who are drawn to apocalyptic framing because of the way it absolves them from having to confront the uglier realities of a system that can, after all, be very good to educated elites of all political persuasions.
We can see this distinction play out among possible candidates for the Democratic nomination. Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown are both avowed foes of the neoliberal project: free trade, deregulation, de-unionization, privatization. Both understand that concentrated wealth at the top is never innocent—that it’s extracted from workers and the poor. Both understand the scandalous reality of debt peonage in America. And although both could and should be much more explicit about the crucial role played by white supremacy in propping up this system, they do say that they want to attack the structures that underpin plantation capitalism. There’s no question that both want to break the hammerlock of corporate wealth in national politics.
These positions will clearly handicap Warren and Brown in the all-important money primary that’s already unfolding. I take no satisfaction from predicting that corporate power inside the Democratic tent will prevent either of these people from being nominated, let alone elected. I likewise do not rejoice to predict that the vast majority of white liberals within the Democratic fold will be pleased to accept a candidate who is fully approved and substantially funded by our corporate overlords, especially if the proceedings exhibit the requisite gloss of diversity.
To cite a relevant historical analogy, the Whig Party may have died in the 1850s, but melioristic whiggery did not thereby cease to function as this country’s default operational politics. Whiggery came back with a vengeance when Radical Reconstruction was rejected as far too threatening to the really important business of white people making money within a reunified United States. Jeff Davis was gone; chattel slavery was gone; and that was plenty good enough for the white liberals of that era.
Will this kind of ineffectual business-friendly whiggery be our default politics again, once we put an end to the scourge of Trumpism (a phenomenon that does, in fact, echo many Lost Cause themes)?
I fear that it will.
It goes without saying that Trump represents a clear and present danger. No one is disputing that. No one is disputing the urgency of his removal. But there’s an equal and perhaps greater danger lurking within the surge of liberal self-righteousness.
To the corporate-friendly liberals: Get rid of the Anti-Christ, and the sooner the better. But don’t imagine that doing so will make you the Christ.