I was a person living in a society already strung out on cruelty, and what Trump’s election showed me is that many of the people living in that society thought the solution to its problems was more cruelty.
On Tuesday, November 8, 2016, sometime between 8 and 10PM, I actually blurted out the words: “I wish I were dead.”
A short-sighted reaction, yes, and I’m sorry for it. But you can see where I was coming from. I was a person living in a society already strung out on cruelty, and what Trump’s election showed me is that many of the people living in that society thought the solution to its problems was more cruelty. That people could remain so terrified of immigrants, after deporting three million of them, as to elect the candidate who promised to treat them even worse. That a country could play chicken with its children’s future, dumping enough CO2 into the atmosphere to ensure a century of superstorms, and then think, “Let’s also put oil tycoons in the State Department.” That millions of people could fear a kneeling black man more than they feared a militarized police force that kills the unarmed, even children, with absolute impunity. That everything I cared about was living on borrowed time.
In other words: what Trump’s election showed me was a bunch of stuff I already knew. A Christian, after all, is obligated to take a fairly dim view of human nature and power. I have always believed that teleological progress within history is a self-flattering myth, that civilization is an improv game kept alive by vision, wit, and nerve. The Right understands this which is why they have been winning U.S. politics for, give or take, the entirety of my life on this planet. (Even the “liberal” Clinton and Obama years featured upward redistributions of wealth far beyond Nixon’s reach.) Rather than treating history as a good-faith negotiation between Washington Post subscribers, the Right proposes big visions, makes massive demands, and shapes reality rather than adjusting to it. That’s how you dominate a scene. The only problem I have with the Right, in fact, is that the scene they’ve created sucks.
Thankfully, in the year since Trump’s election, I learned something else I really hadn’t fully known before: that there are a lot of other people who understand this too, and they’re trying to make a better world. 2017 was a year of retrenchment, relearning and reading, as I found where these people were in my town, and began the messy process of teaching myself to be useful to them. In 2018, as that process continues, here are some books that will continue to help me orient my thinking and doing.
Let’s start with Racecraft by Karen Elise Fields and Barbara J. Fields (Verso, reprint 2014). Western democracies are destroying themselves in part because they are all built on contradictions: ideals of freedom and human rights on the one hand, exploitation and arbitrary abuse on the other. “Race” is a story we tell ourselves to resolve this contradiction. (Prisoners aren’t working for 15 cents an hour because we’re not really a democracy; they’re doing so because black people don’t finish high school.) That’s the main message I get from the Fields sisters’ work, but I’m putting it too bluntly to get across the actual experience of reading this book, which is intensely pleasurable in the manner of the essays of James Baldwin or Marilynne Robinson or Mary McCarthy. The authors’ ability to argue, explain, surprise and clarify makes it literature as well as scholarship.
I feel the same way about Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy (The New Press, 2017), and I would have said so at great length in a review of some kind, if the author weren’t among my dearest friends. But this is a listicle, not a book review, so I can just go ahead and be honest: the story Cottom tells here is a microcosm of all cultural life under late capitalism. And she tells it beautifully.
That cultural life feels inescapable. (In recent years, we’ve heard many variations on Frederic Jameson’s famous remark that it is easier for us to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.) So the reader is shocked by Peter Frase’s blithe assertion, early in Four Futures (Verso, 2016), that “One thing we can be sure of is that capitalism will end.” By the end of this short sharp book, he convinces the reader that he’s right, and that some of our likely alternatives are even pretty livable, if we get to work. Climate change can make despair feel not only unavoidable, but moral, as though it’s a sin to hope when a million Puerto Ricans don’t have electricity. Frase reminds us that the future comes, whether we hope for it or not; might as well try to make it good. And he does so while engaging equally with scholarship and with science fiction and art, something that more intellectuals should do.
Speaking of art, Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right (Zero Books, 2017) is a badly written book that contains one beautiful, bracing idea. Nagle overloads every noun phrase and folds extra clauses into the sentence like someone stuffing yet another pair of pants into a full suitcase. Her slapdash prose leaves some of her main claims ambiguous: you don’t know when she’s linking two things together in a causal relationship and when she’s just comparing them. But nobody interested in the intersection of politics and the arts should miss her chapter on transgression in art, which traces a clear line from the Marquis deSade through futurism, surrealism, modernism, the shock performance art of the seventies, to the alt-right. Here she echoes, perhaps unknowingly, Modris Ekstein’s Rites of Spring (Vintage Canada, 2012), which showed that many of the avant-garde artists who get credit for “predicting” the chaos and murder of the twentieth century were actually helping to create it. How would an aesthetics of kindness and moral decency look different?
For the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart – a bowtied cultural conservative who would probably hate every other writer on this list – beauty and goodness have always been linked in the person of Christ; and the peace and justice for which the Left at its best works are prefigured in the unity-with-diversity of the Triune God. As I have tried this year to lead a more politically engaged life, I have constantly been tempted by utilitarian ways of thinking – the desire to turn everything into a tool or a weapon in the struggle. (Such thinking is at least as much a part of the Left’s history as “hope” or “justice.”) Hart’s The Hidden and the Manifest (Eerdmans, 2017), particularly its opening essay, helped me remember that my life, and the lives around me, are not tools but unearned gifts. It is because I believe this that I want to see a society structured by generosity and gratitude, not tit-for-tat score-keeping and control.