Donald Trump will lose, assuredly. Joe Biden will win, decisively. I haven’t been so sure of election results since 2016.
That, of course, is the problem. And the problem is grave.
In 2016, we were worried about what Trump’s victory might mean. Now we know that things have become much worse than most of us ever imagined, and not only for us in the United States. Trump has been a revolutionary—he has turned the world upside down. And, to paraphrase the hippie novelist Richard Fariña, many of us have been down so long it looks like up. Trump and Trumpism have been normalized.
That which would have scandalized is now routine. Trump regularly attacks the media and health authorities for truthful reporting and analysis on his campaign stops. He continues to declare the previously unimaginable and it is hardly noticed. Trump has not only consistently praised dictators and his great relationship with them; he denigrates democrats on the world stage, and even leads “lock her up chants” against Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, a recent target of homegrown terrorism. And the courts have already been packed, with Trump appointees poised to skew the election in his direction.
We are outraged. We can’t take it anymore. We sane Americans will vote in overwhelming numbers, I hope and believe, leading to a decisive defeat of Trump and his Republican enablers. Yet, I fear that we will not have properly understood the dimensions of the mess that we’re in, and the profound difficulty we will have in cleaning it up. It is with this in mind that I understand recent discussions of the Democracy Seminar, considering, “post-truth,” populism and application of memory in comparative historical perspective.
Trump’s relationship to truth and truth tellers is even less faithful than he has been his relationship to his three wives. He lies with breathtaking ease. He ignores expertise and scientific findings. He makes things up that conveniently fit his interests and prejudices. Birtherism was the bedrock of Trumpism. Yet, he’s not exceptional. Worldwide, post-truth authoritarians rule: from Bolsonaro to Erdoğan to Putin. The kind of fantastic stories Trump tells about himself and others very much can be found elsewhere, often with deadly consequences.
Elzbieta Matynia and I had an intriguing discussion with Malkhaz Toria and Mykola Balaban on exactly this point during the Democracy Seminar’s webinar Narrating Conflicts in Post-Truth Era, Facing Revisionist Russia: Ukraine and Georgia in comparative perspective. Our discussion addressed the instrumentalization of the historical past and populist claims to historical truth. Toria, from Georgia, and Balaban, from Ukraine, discussed their research on and experience with Vladimir Putin’s populist justifications of the historical reasons for the “Russian-Georgian War” in August of 2008, the Russian-Ukrainian conflicts in Donbas and Luhansk regions, and the annexation of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea by Russia. They have researched how Georgia and Ukrainian historians responded to Putin’s fabricated historical narratives and systematic lies, and we discussed the political consequences. It’s a matter of interpretation, but also of factual truth. Balaban, in an earlier contribution to our seminar, “The Face of Post Truth Politics,” presented a view from the trenches of Eastern Ukraine, recalling his experience as a soldier reading on his iPad an interview of Putin during which he categorically denied Russian involvement in the war, as distinctively Russian missiles exploded overhead.
In the shadow of such deception, figuring out how to proceed is a matter of war and peace in Russia’s “near abroad.” In the U.S., with Trump supporters believing his accounts of the course of the pandemic, and others very unsure about what to believe (most specifically about vaccines), the post-truth challenge is a matter of personal life and death, and public health; this on top of the lies and deeply problematic narratives on race and racism, social inequality, governance and the peaceful transfer of power.
I wonder: how do people come to believe such stuff? Populist appeal and mobilization is no doubt a part of the explanation, the topic of our webinar on Nadia Urbinati’s new book, Me, the People: How Populism Transforms Democracy (2019).
Urbinati, myself and a panel from Brazil: Wendel Antunes Cintra, Debora Rezende de Almeida, Daniel Tourinho Peres and Alessandro Pinzani, considered Urbinati’s key proposition that populism is a specific kind of political representation that is both inherent to and erodes democracy. Populism, in Urbinati’s account, is an internal pathology of the democratic regime, but a pathology that does not mean the necessarily the death of democracy. It is a strategy for power. The discussion focused on South America, Europe, and North America. We discussed populism emerging as a consequence of the distance between the political elite and the concerns of “the people.”
Leaders and the people connect without and even against established intermediary institutions and practices. The populist appeal works because “the people” feel excluded and the populist leader rules in their name. We discussed how this comes to be, what its dangers are and how the dangers might be overcome. A focus of the discussion was on how social injustices perceived as consequences of “neo-liberalism” set the stage for the present populist moment, both of the left and the right. Pinzani and I suggested that also involved was the move to keep the socially marginalized in their place and to fortify structures of injustice, the xenophobic quality of right-wing populism. Clearly both elements must be addressed “after Trump,” and his global fellow travelers.
But how can we learn from each other now, as we seem to be experiencing similar problems worldwide? And, is it possible for us to learn from past experiences? The contributors to our special forum on the uses and disadvantages of historical comparisons address these questions. The focus of the forum was on history, but the issues raised concern contemporary comparisons as well. The forum was Marci Shore’s idea and she organized it. It is her deliberate response to the atrocities on the Mexican–U.S. border. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called the detention centers for asylum seekers concentration camps, leading to condemnation not only from Republican politicians, but also from the U.S. Holocaust Museum. In response, a group of distinguished scholars, including Shore, published an open letter to the Director of the museum, Sara Bloomfield, asking for a retraction of the museum’s statement on the inappropriateness of historical analogies to the Holocaust ( the museum “unequivocally rejects efforts to create analogies between the Holocaust and other events, whether historical or contemporary.”)
In response, our forum “engages authors and artists—from very different places and writing in very different genres—in an ongoing conversation on “the uses and disadvantages of historical comparisons for life”. The idea initially arose in response to the American administration’s southern border policy of taking children away from their parents: might this not be a moment to revisit testimonies by Holocaust survivors describing parent-child separation? The result of that revisiting is a short documentary film, The Last Time I Saw Them, which serves as a point of departure. The forum’s purpose is not to polemicize the use of the word “fascism” or “concentration camps.” Its purpose is rather to provoke a discussion that could be an Aufhebung (sublation) of the ‘is Trumpism fascism?’ debate. See here for the complete table of contents of the forum.
It’s noteworthy that artists are well represented in the forum. I don’t think this is an accident, as I tried to demonstrate a while back in my essay “To Write Poetry After the Holocaust is not Barbaric.” Art questions, opens up reflection, makes it possible to approach the difficult and the bewildering, and I believe it will be of special importance in the coming years.
The gravity of our situation is not only that Trump might still win, despite all the evidence that suggests otherwise. We face grave challenges after Trump, given what he has already done to America and the rest of the world, and how difficult it is for us to learn from the past and establish the grounds for democracy and social justice. I think this should be a central theme of the Democracy Seminar in the coming year.
This piece was published first in the Democracy Seminar Newsletter of October 22, 2020. You can receive the Newsletter every other Thursday directly in your inbox by subscribing.