The most disturbing trend of 2016 has been the progressive revelation of cruelty in American political life. As someone who has always believed in the kindness and generosity of Americans, I have found this extremely difficult to acknowledge. I’m not only thinking of the Trump campaign, which seems to have, as its unifying principle, the cruel and inhuman treatment of all those who have challenged the man, or who are even dissimilar to him, but also the confounding responses to people asking to be treated with dignity and respect. Consider, for example, the racist responses to the Black Lives Matter movement.
All this has made me think about something that I find deeply troubling, and that I’m coming to recognize as one of the enduring challenges of American politics: the degree to which happiness for some depends upon the cruel treatment of others. I don’t mean something like sadist pleasure, but rather how the possibility of a full, flourishing life is so often tied up in America with oppression, dehumanization, or, to speak more plainly, the cruel treatment of others. Economic advantage is achieved at the expense of the disadvantaged. The notions of self-respect held by the most powerful grant no respect to those unlike them. Security at home is bought at the cost of a merciless number of our citizens being kept in cages, and wars abroad without end.
Both in theory and in practice, happiness remains a central concern of politics, and in America its pursuit is a part of our creed, written into the Declaration of Independence. Yet contemporary political thought, at least of the liberal kind, generally treats collective happiness as a utopian goal, which has only ever been sought on earth through campaigns of cruelty against those who disagree with, or could not fit within, those images of utopia. The response of liberalism has been to banish the problem of happiness from public life, and relegate it to the private domain.
Judith Shklar has argued that one of the most important foundations of liberalism as a political doctrine is the fear of cruelty – specifically cruelty delivered by the state. To diminish this terrible potential, a division between the public and the private must be drawn. This limits the capacity of the public to treat individuals with cruelty, in the manner of the religious and legal punishments of the Middle Ages and Early Modern period. It also permits people to pursue happiness in whatever way they see fit in their own private lives.
Yet as has been made clear by theory and history, this solution is one that reproduces cruelty in ways that often go unacknowledged. The presumed safety afforded by the public/private distinction simply splits the potential spheres in which cruelty can be instantiated and blinds us to the collective cruelty that makes our private happiness possible. One of our more nefarious political tricks as Americans is our reflexive blindness to the cruelty that we visit upon others. In our narcissism, we often only see cruelty when it is inflicted upon those who are like us. This is not only a trick that we play upon ourselves in matters of identity. It is also how we treat “the least of these” under our neoliberal regime. It is often in the pursuit of private happiness that cruelty is inflicted, through social or economic indignity.
The entwined fates of cruelty and happiness under neoliberalism have recently been explored by Lauren Berlant in her book Cruel Optimism. In that text, Berlant shows how the images of “the good life” that have circulated in post-war America have been turned into immaterial fantasies in 21st century life, where the state has drifted away from providing for the welfare of the people, and opportunities for genuine flourishing have been isolated to only the wealthiest. Americans continue to believe in the dream of a happy private life, even while upward mobility, political and social equality, job security, and affordable housing evaporate. This deferment of happiness by neoliberalism transforms it into a cruel joke.
The Trump campaign might have made America a nastier place to live, but it did not make it cruel. Rather, the campaign has revealed the submerged cruelty of everyday American life, and how so many Americans rely upon it. While Trump has aggressively defended his cruelty against women, Latinos, African-Americans, and others in “private” life, he has told us as much about ourselves as about him. Think only of how Trump, whose pursuit of private happiness is shaped by disrespect towards women, publicly embodies a culture of sexual violence and misogyny that American men rely upon to stabilize their notion of self-worth. Consider how Trump’s manifest racism towards Latinos fits so neatly into the political discourse of a country that treats these fellow citizens and human beings as a beneficial source of cheap labor one day and as the object of racist animus another, with the change being a matter of political expediency. Imagine how Trump’s refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of America’s first African-American president continues the American tradition of denying to people of color the status of full citizenship, even though American prosperity itself is derived from the historical accumulation of wealth through the cruel exploitation of people of color through slavery and low-wage labor.
Finally, think of how Trump’s individual success is premised upon the rapacious accumulation of private wealth, which is sustained by scamming his customers (at Trump University, for example), and regularly not paying his contractors – or his taxes.
These are the types cruelties that have made it possible for some to be happy, at the expense of others. The status anxiety that seems to be instigating (primarily white) support for a Trump presidency should alert us to this fact.
No matter the result of this election, we will still have to consider, in one way or another, this clearly revealed relation between our happiness and our cruelty. It will be imperative to challenge the private happiness which sustains our American brand of cruelty, and seek to replace that with new ways to be happy together. At the very least, the ongoing public revelation of our cruelties grants us the opportunity to challenge them.