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Harbingers of A Riven Nation

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Soundings

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As I write, the nation has reached a perilous moment as it confronts a continuing pandemic and the widespread unemployment the coronavirus and COVID-19 have wrought, along with the unrest created by a string of incidents of police brutality against individuals of color.[1] Meanwhile, President Donald Trump has paid almost no public heed to the continuing death toll, now more than 108,000 Americans, from the COVID-19 public health emergency. In the past two weeks, he has instead accused an innocent critic of murder on the basis of no evidence whatsoever and criticized individuals wearing face masks to protect themselves and others from the coronavirus as practicing “political correctness.” Most recently, he orchestrated the clearing of a peaceful protest against racism taking place near the White House with flash bombs, rubber bullets and tear gas so he could undertake a photo opportunity at a church to decry violence that was not, in fact, occurring.[2]

In addition to these actions, all beyond the pale, when protests erupted following the murder of George Floyd, an African American, by a white Minneapolis police officer, Trump reused George Wallace’s infamous call, made during his 1968 presidential campaign following a summer of unrest in U.S. cities, and echoing the comments of Miami’s police chief at the time: “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”[3]

All of this has put me in mind of UCLA School of Law legal scholar Cheryl Harris’s analysis of whiteness as property and its link to the deeply pernicious understanding of liberty now animating many in the United States, and of the philosopher Hannah Arendt’s warnings concerning how countries fall into demagoguery and autocracy and worse and their citizens lose their freedom. Both of these scholars have offered important insights into how our nation came to confront its present moral and governance crisis.

I turn first to the decidedly desiccated understanding of freedom now embraced by the Republican Party and its implications for the possibilities of governance amidst diversity. In an article in the Harvard Law Review in 1993, Harris suggested the following:           

Because the ‘presumption of freedom [arose] from color [white]’ and the ‘black color of the race [raised] the presumption of slavery,’ whiteness became a shield from slavery, a highly volatile and unstable form of property. In the form adopted in the United States, slavery made human beings market-alienable and in so doing, subjected human life and personhood—that which is most valuable—to the ultimate devaluation. Because whites could not be enslaved or held as slaves, the racial line between white and Black was extremely critical; it became a line of protection and demarcation from the potential threat of commodification, and it determined the allocation of the benefits and burdens of this form of property. White identity and whiteness were sources of privilege and protection; their absence meant being the object of property.[4]

This is to say that whiteness became associated historically for many individuals with the right to control and to be free of control. For some Americans, the present imposition of restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic is intolerable because it violates their understanding of the social contract tied to their racial identity. They have, accordingly, lashed out at the entities—state and local governments and their leaders—that have imposed restrictions on what they view as their unlimited capacity to pursue their desires, however fleeting or capricious. This view of freedom cannot be disentangled from the racial hierarchy that spawned it, as it is progeny of the argument that being white means freedom to impose costs and control on others, especially non-whites, as a matter of right. More specifically, it likewise assumes that on that same basis whites may curtail the rights of non-whites and others who are perceived in any way to impede their pursuit of their personal predilections. Since COVID-19 has affected black and brown individuals disproportionately in the United States, that minority of Americans assailing their state legislatures with semi-automatic weapons in tow to “reopen” their states are effectively arguing that they stand ready to impose death on members of those groups particularly so as to be able to pursue their own preferences in an untrammeled fashion. Beneath that claim lies another that Trump has often sought to curry in his public remarks: the view that non-whites are somehow less than human or deserving of rights, especially when their enjoyment of those claims imposes any costs whatsoever on their white brethren. Small wonder, then, that Trump has so often described these groups in dehumanizing terms and refused to criticize the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017.[5]

As I have argued previously, in its efforts to mobilize the white population that shares this implicit understanding of liberty and of its racial identity, the GOP has coupled this set of beliefs with almost 50 years of tirades against governance and on behalf of an unfettered market in which that entity is presented as the guarantor of freedom. That assumption in turn leaves favored business elites wide ground to pursue their personal interests with diminished or no regard for the rights of those affected. It likewise disentangles the population from any sense of mutual obligation in favor of a conception of society as consisting of utterly atomized individuals, each desirous of personal interest and gain alone. That is, in this conception and in principle, each citizen stands alone against the vagaries of the globalized marketplace without the backdrop of political community as arbiter, regulator or comforter.[6]

For her part, and as she reflected on the horrors of the Holocaust particularly, Hannah Arendt, in the Origins of Totalitarianism, cautioned friends of freedom to watch for a number of signs of demagogues and fascists seeking to undermine freedom and human rights.[7] I here highlight four of those warnings. First, she observed that enemies of freedom will always exploit refugees and immigrants as “others” who can be dehumanized and blamed for all manner of ills. In keeping with this argument, Trump, for example, has routinely demonized these groups and labeled them as enemies, “rapists and murderers” in the nation’s midst.[8] For Arendt, a state’s failure to protect refugees constitutes the first step in its willingness to deny rights to an array of targeted groups. Since human rights arise from state sovereignty in our international system, she contended, to lose that support implied an expulsion from humanity, a complete dehumanization. And has Harris demonstrated, dehumanization in the U.S. context historically meant not only loss of freedom, but also the ultimate abuse of complete commodification of those so treated. Interestingly, the GOP combination of neoliberalism and embrace of racialized hierarchy has already in principle created this dual-barreled condition for millions of the nation’s minority citizens, even if it is never formally acknowledged.

Arendt also warned of a second challenge to democratic governance and freedom closely linked to a people’s willingness to deprive some in their midst of their human and civil rights. As she put it, “For the nation-state cannot exist once its principle of equality before the law has broken down. … Laws that are not equal for all revert to rights and privileges, something contradictory to the very nature of nation-states.”[9] Once this has occurred, anti-democratic leaders thereafter exercise prerogative concerning who will enjoy such “privileges” and when. In that spirit, Trump has lately taken to calling for harsh and long prison sentences for any who protest the continuing systemic injustice practiced by police against African Americans and other minorities in this country, even though the right to protest is protected by the First Amendment.[10] That provision calls for freedom of  speech, peaceable assembly and “petition of the Government for a redress of grievances.”[11]

Arendt cautioned, too, that a corollary of the breakdown of the rule of law and equal rights occurs when leaders target specific groups for “necessary or natural” elimination. Chillingly, GOP leaders have offered just such arguments in recent weeks concerning the necessary “sacrifice” of senior citizens, minorities and others to the “imperative” to reopen the economy in the face of the pandemic. Arendt’s warning is the more prophetic in light of that ugly aa

It is quite conceivable, and even within the realm of practical political possibilities, that one fine day a highly organised and mechanised humanity will conclude quite democratically — namely by majority decision — that for humanity as a whole it would be better to liquidate certain parts thereof.[12]

Finally, Arendt contended that widespread popular embrace of hatred and cruelty are sure signs of countries falling from freedom. In such situations and in the name of power, a share of elites typically leads, as Trump and the Republican Party have led, efforts to erode values of honesty, decency, kindness and empathy in favor of a degraded discourse of coarseness, mercilessness and venality. This crude ignorance was accepted by many in the 1930s and 1940s, Arendt noted, because

… it seemed revolutionary to admit cruelty, disregard of human values. and general amorality, because this at least destroyed the duplicity upon which the existing society seemed to rest. What a temptation to flaunt extreme attitudes in the hypocritical twilight of double moral standards, to wear publicly the mask of cruelty if everybody was patently inconsiderate.[13]

These examples suggest that the harbingers of freedom’s degradation and the potential of autocracy are well known. That they are now being pressed by a share of our nation’s leaders is no longer arguable. Self-governance cannot exist without respect for human dignity, particularly amidst diversity, and it surely will not endure without persistent reinforcement by our nation’s leaders. What Trump and the GOP offer instead are hatred and immoral callousness, designed, especially, to dehumanize specific groups, even as accepting that course demeans and diminishes the freedom of all who support it, and so long as the GOP remains in power, even those who do not. The dystopian and falsely polarized vision of society Trump and his party now advance is devoid of social succor because it is empty of the shared responsibility for governance and of a conception of mutuality and empathy, the glue that binds all democratic societies. Instead, in the Republican Party view, all Americans are expected to support elites who profit by their misery and, as they do so, to tear and claw at designated others in pursuit of such material possibilities as may be placed before them, or to engage in diversions aimed at blaming innocent targeted groups for their perceived woes. There is no society, no dignity, no comity in this vision, only supercilious horror.

The evidence of Trump and his party’s complete moral collapse and of the utter bankruptcy of their vision of society is now overwhelming. Theirs is not leadership, nor is it in any sense the pursuit of the common good for the American people, including their most ardent supporters. This government cannot be allowed to stand if self-governance is to stand. More deeply, this Party’s broken vision of society as an elite-driven Hobbesian carnival of bestiality cannot be allowed to continue if human rights and self-governance are to endure as more than vacuous platitudes.

This turn in American politics has demonstrated once more the validity of Arendt’s insight that targeted hatred to secure power is inimical to a free people, and more importantly, to the ties that otherwise must bind them in their common project. Once the current cancer of a regnant ideology built on fear to mobilize hate for social, political and economic power has been addressed, the nation will confront a deeper challenge, which Arendt illustrated with the example of German antisemitism:

Antisemitism (not merely the hatred of Jews), imperialism (not merely conquest), totalitarianism (not merely dictatorship)-one after the other, one more brutally than the other, have demonstrated that human dignity needs a new guarantee which can be found only in a new political principle, in a new law on earth, whose validity this time must comprehend the whole of humanity.[14]

Democracy cannot withstand the sustained assault the Trump administration and GOP are daily pressing against the principle that all human lives must be dignified. Their attack must not and cannot be permitted to continue, lest it result in the loss of that which is most precious about the American project, a free people’s right to govern itself collectively.

Notes

[1] “U.S. Jobless Claims Pass 40 Million: Live Business Updates,” The New York Times, May 28, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/28/business/unemployment-stock-market-coronavirus.html, Accessed May 31, 2020; Edmondson, Catie, “Lawmakers Begin Bi-Partisan Push to Cut off Police Access to Military-Style Gear,” The New York Times, June 1, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/01/us/politics/police-military-gear.html, Accessed June 1, 2020.

[2] Baker, Peter. “Trump Tweets and Golfs but Makes No Mention of Virus’s Toll,” The New York Times, May 24, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/24/us/politics/trump-coronavirus-death-toll.html, Accessed June 1, 2020; Baker, Peter and Maggie Astor. “Trump Pushes A Conspiracy Theory That Falsely Accuses a TV Host of Murder,” The New York Times, May 28, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/26/us/politics/klausutis-letter-jack-dorsey.html, Accessed May 28, 2020; Scherer, Michael, “Trump’s Mockery of Wearing Masks Divides Republicans,” The Washington Post,  May 27, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trumps-mockery-of-wearing-masks-divides-republicans/2020/05/26/2c2bdc02-9f61-11ea-81bb-c2f70f01034b_story.html, Accessed June 2, 2020; National Public Radio, “Peaceful Protesters Tear Gassed To Clear Way for Trump Church Photo-Op,” https://www.npr.org/2020/06/01/867532070/trumps-unannounced-church-visit-angers-church-officials, June 1, 2020, Accessed June 1, 2020.

[3] Rosenwald, Michael. “‘When the looting starts, the shooting starts,’ Trump quotes Miami Police Chief’s notorious 1967 warning,” The Washington Post, May 29, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2020/05/29/when-the-looting-starts-the-shooting-starts-trump-walter-headley/, Accessed May 29, 2020; Yeung, Jessie, Steve George, Nick Thompson, Melissa Macaya, Meg Wagner, Mike Hayes and Daniella Diaz, “June 1 George Floyd Protest News,” June 2, 2020, CNN News, https://www.cnn.com/us/live-news/george-floyd-protests-06-01-20/index.html, Accessed June 2, 2020. 

[4] Harris, Cheryl. “Whiteness as Property,” Harvard Law Review, 106 (1707), pp. 1720-1721.

[5] Scherer, Michael and Alex Altman. “Bigots Get a Boost from the Bully Pulpit After Charlottesville,”  Time Magazine, August 17, 2017, https://time.com/4904281/bigots-boosted-by-the-bully-pulpit-charlottesville/, Accessed June 3, 2020.

[6] Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005, pp. 80-81.

[7] Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishers, 1976.

[8] Scott, Eugene. “Trump’s most insulting—and violent—language is often reserved for immigrants,” The Washington Post, October 2, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/10/02/trumps-most-insulting-violent-language-is-often-reserved-immigrants/, Accessed June 3, 2020.

[9] Arendt, Origins, p.290.

[10] Rogers, Katie, Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman. “As Trump Calls Protesters ‘Terrorists,’ Tear Gas Clears a Path for his Walk to a Church,” The New York Times, June 1, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/01/us/politics/trump-governors.html, Accessed June 1, 2020. 

[11] The Constitution of the United States, https://constitutioncenter.org/media/files/constitution.pdf, Accessed June 4, 2020. 

[12] Arendt, Origins, p. 299.

[13] Arendt, Origins, p. 334.

[14] Arendt, Origins, p. IX.

Publication Date

June 8, 2020

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