Monday, December 4, 2017

Historical Means

It is a nerve wracking experience to follow the daily news cycle as if the fate of the nation hangs in each development. Whenever a story breaks about graft, corruption, broken norms, expanding plutocracy, and alt-right proto-fascist empowerment, it feels like further confirmation that, yes, the republic is collapsing before our eyes. Alternatively, every revelation about the special prosecutor's investigation of Trump promises a desperate salvation, like the kindling of a beacon fire or some other ancient defense of the people. Give it just a few more weeks and Mueller will arrive leading the Riders of Rohan to help win the great battle of our time.

So it went at the end of last week, when ABC produced a stunning scoop that Mueller's flipping of General Flynn would produce testimony that Trump had directed Flynn to make contact with Russia during the campaign, a gigantic, potentially impeachable no-no. Markets fell as the End of Trump drew nigh! Then hours later ABC corrected the report to state that Trump had ordered Flynn to do this when he was president-elect, still potentially problematic but orders of magnitude less so than the original erroneous report. What followed from ABC was backpedaling and then, for me, the return of that feeling of visceral horror that the presidency remains in the hands of a lunatic narcissist for the foreseeable future.

Mueller is not the answer. I have to remind myself that I should stop investing hope in that investigation. It will produce whatever it produces and, should it be damning or even criminal, even then we must count on the miraculous odds that a GOP House and Senate would carry out impeachment proceedings.

Our national crisis runs far deeper than a campaign plot with Russia. It is not, however, altogether unprecedented or unfamiliar in American history. The nation has experienced plutocratic corruption and deep economic inequality before. It has experienced restrictive and unjust voting practices, white supremacist governments on the state and national level, and illegal anti-democratic conspiracies. It has experienced legally enforced segregation and nativism, as well as giant tribalist media outfits unmoored from real journalistic principles. It has experienced civil war.

In all of these cases, tremendous suffering was inflicted on the American people. In other words, we are right to be apprehensive of this moment. But we should also take note that these crises were not resolved by the arrival of a white knight. They were resolved by the people, years, sometimes decades later. Such a timeframe might induce despair, but the agency should give us courage and confidence.

Nothing more radical ever occurred in American history than the emancipation of slaves by proclamation in 1863 and by Constitutional Amendment in 1865. Few reversals were so tragic as the collapse of Reconstruction policies and the abandonment of freedpeople by 1877. W. E. B. DuBois wrote in his 1935 masterpiece Black Reconstruction, "The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery." Such a retreat, we must remember, was aided and abetted (if not caused outright) by Northern white voters buying into a false history of the Civil War and its meaning (fake news, of a 19th century sort) in which the significance of white reconciliation smothered the emancipationist legacy of the war. The people abandoned in political and intellectual terms the very cause for which they had sacrificed so much blood and treasure.

We must also remember how powerful the forces of white supremacy were in America after two hundred years of racial slavery. The startlingly swift and unlooked for abolishment of slavery could never have eradicated the structural forces underpinning slavery in those few short years. White supremacy was going to push back, with the weight of national history and national mythology on its side. In crude terms, we might interpret the rise of Jim Crow, tenant labor, lynchings, and the convict lease system as reversions to the historical mean, the reassertion in social, legal, and extralegal terms of white supremacy and control of black bodies.

It is tempting and saddening to believe that Obama's presidency will be our "brief moment in the sun." (Ta-Nehisi Coates certainly thinks so.) I'm not so certain. I find myself wondering if Trumpism is the manifestation of American political white hegemony in the throes of panic as it faces demographic and actuarial threats. If the resistance is sustained, if anti-Trumpers (of all political stripes) continue to organize, march, protest, register, run for office, and vote, we stand a fighting chance. Our own historical mean is more complicated than what it was in 1877. In the last century, the United States fought and won two World Wars and a Cold War in the name of democratic values. It enfranchised millions of women and non-white citizens through progressive activism. The American people have folded these triumphs of the liberal state into our national mythology. We may yet regress into a herronvolk republic or become a full-fledged authoritarian state, but if we don't it will be our history that will save us.

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