Today Donald Trump becomes the 45th President of the United States after acquiring the majority of promised electoral college votes. He becomes President despite his opponent Hillary Clinton achieving a three million majority of the popular vote, the Republican Party’s tactics of redistricting and blocking access to voting stations resulting in the disenfranchisement and erasure of possibly seven million votes, the complicit activity of James Comey’s misleading public announcement on Clinton’s emails, and the long-known but now admitted role of Russian intervention in the U.S. elections. This event marks a disaster in the truest sense of the term, not only for the people of the United States but also for everyone across the globe.
Disaster refers to a fallen star or planet. It’s a consequence usually read as an omen, a warning, something monstrous. The warning here is pretty clear: the flourishing of fascism and all its harbingers of hate in tow. It’s also a fallen star in what is symbolised in the collapsed agenda of President Obama, whose place in history is not only his being President of the United States but also the first designated black person to hold the office. It is a historical reality with which South Africans could identify, for instance, except that unlike the succession from President Nelson Mandela to President Thabo Mbeki, the USA has Donald Trump.
Trump’s succeeding Obama is in effect a representative of Jim Crow (USA apartheid from the 1890s to 1965) succeeding Reconstruction (1865 to late 1870s). We should recall the unfortunate message of D.W. Griffith’s blockbuster film Birth of a Nation (1915), which offered a portrait of American history in which the Ku Klux Klan ‘saved’ the nation through terrorising away a period of some racially diverse governing and efforts at equality.
This observation of a negative dialectical movement, of regression after moving forward, of contradictions being made manifest, is, however, only part of the story. The difficulty in explaining the present is that there are too many factors. The world has, in effect, been hit by a Blitzkrieg of forces ranging from reasserted plutocrats, failures of neoliberalism, continued fantasies of neoconservatism, misinformation overload, assaults on truth, evidence, and principles of verification, cyber-espionage, global racism, persisting wars, climate threats, and many more—crucially, all at once. Circumstances like those lead, inevitably, to the continued search for salvation in gods, where other forms of moral figures fail, whether loving or cruel.
Drawing upon the wisdom of past great thinkers could offer some insight, though, in the end, the problem humanity now faces is that of having to deal with a group of bullies having successfully gained control over the most powerful institutions through which humanity lives and dies.
Bullies don’t listen to reason; their only principle of verification is superior force. Thus, despite reflection, humanity’s only course of action is, unfortunately, to fight. At this point, it’s about beating them, for what can be assured is that, as the cabinet of incompetent and unscrupulous characters Trump is assembling reveals, they are not only exemplars of kakistocracy (rule of the worst or, colloquially, ‘shitty rule’) but also goals marked by cruelty, greed, and swift action.
My reference to a ‘dialectical’ element of what is unfolding isn’t accidental. The revelations of Russia’s involvement in the U.S. elections, and the extent to which Trump’s agents, complicity of which the FBI and Republican congressmen were aware and possibly directly involved, reveal an unusual circumstance. Though the Soviet Union lost the Cold War, right-wing obsession in the USA is such that an alliance with any right-wing for the sake of victory has placed the new U.S. regime in debt with former Soviet leaders. Russian hegemony is the undercurrent of what has unfolded. Add the kompromat (‘compromising material’) Russia has on Trump and, no doubt, the pro-Russian oilygarchy in Trump’s proposed administration, even if not formally stated, means the USA could very well be on its way, at least at the level of ultimate policy, to becoming a colony of Russia.
This Russia, of course, is of a special kind: a promise of global plutocracy.
These developments aren’t new for countries already struggling under the weight of such efforts from Russia and the United States. What is new is the realisation of something at work beyond the avowed sovereignty of these two former adversaries of the Cold War. Ultimately, the threat to this global plutocracy is democracy, which means the rise of familiar repressive activities.
The ascent of Trump is already marked by violations of nearly every norm of decency, of questionable legality, disenfranchisement of blacks in red states, and a promise of brutality witnessed in the violence unleashed against immigrants, people of colour (especially against women in these groups), and religious communities such as Jews, Muslims, and Hindus. The immediate future is clearly moribund.
Fighting back requires understanding, at least, the gravity and dynamics of our historical situation. Social scientists will continue exploring their accounts. Political thinkers, especially those of the philosophical variety, however, have some immediate resources from which to draw. Friedrich Nietzsche’s thoughts on the Last Man and Ortega Y Gasset’s on Mass Man come to mind.
According to Nietzsche, the Last Man is a manifestation of nihilism during a period of social decay. Afraid of taking responsibility for values and the difficult work of building excellence, he retreats to the sickness of ressentiment, wherein he despises anyone who makes him feel ‘small’. Vices of hate, envy, jealousy, bigotry, and resentment prevail. In today’s parlance, the Last Man is a ‘hater’.
The goal of the Last Man is to drag everyone ‘down’ to his level. Nietzsche contrasts the Last Man with the Übermensch (overman). This man is over himself. He is sufficiently secure to embrace life, including the growth and flourishing of others. He is definitely not a Trump supporter. Many Trump supporters aren’t concerned with Trump’s lies, his arrogance, intellectual laziness, lack of knowledge, and the clear evidence that he will screw many of them over. They simply enjoy the havoc he is wreaking upon those they hate.
There is a rising tide of Last Men across the globe, whether in countries such as South Africa, where the Last Man may appear in black face, or across India, where he is brown, and across Europe. Their support has pretty much the same basis. Their accomplishments are the consternation and other immediate forms of distress they create among those whom their supporters hate.
Ortega Y Gasset was a Spanish philosopher and statesman who warned against the tide that led to fascism in Spain by 1939. He diagnosed the problem as a revolt of ‘mass man’. Such a man desires access without performance. Built upon ressentiment, as Nietzsche diagnosed, mass man valorises a form of hyperdemocracy in which equality falls sway to sameness. It is paradoxically an appeal to a conception of democracy that is ultimately against democracy.
Anti-democratic democracy is, Gasset argued, against minorities. We see this in the racism of Trumpism and so many turns to right across the globe. The danger extends also to unfolding anti-intellectualism. A healthy society needs people with skills, with expertise and the passion necessary to dedicate energy to serious problems. Anyone developing such is by definition a minority since those skills and dispositions are not attributes belonging to everyone. A war against not only racial, ethnic, and religious minorities but also skilled minorities, people of expertise, epistemic minorities, means, today, a war against difference. It’s also a war against intelligence, against those who may raise the bar and set a high standard. Mass man, in short, valorises inexperience.
The specific historical conditions vary in many countries. In the USA, a major consideration is a war against Obama, a president who raised the bar considerably high. Many successes, such as taking the nation out of financial ruin (the worst since the 1930s), transforming health care to include patient protection, setting up climate control treaties, and resuscitating the housing market are each re-read by his critics (on the right and the left), as supposed failures. The Obama administration was not perfect, but we should remember it never pretended to be anything other than neoliberal. It protected capitalism, even to the point of adopting a Republican version of affordable healthcare—namely, a private-dominated instead of public universal program. Similar criticisms could be made from the left against nearly all of his achievements except for the symbolic power of the highest office represented by a man of color. A country such as South Africa has much to say on that achievement.
What is bizarre is the historical erasure of the circumstances that created the global crises nine years ago. Eight years of neoconservatism, where George W. Bush had Republican control over all branches of government, led to an erosion of civil liberties, a looting of the government coffers, and stupid foreign policy decisions resulting in global economic instability and worldwide insecurity. An even more radical brand of that neoconservatism is now entrusted to succeed what saved the country and much of the globe from the problems that political ideology produced.
To make matters worse, history has clear cases of what moving from right to far right to ultra right which ultimately means: fascism. History is also replete with what fascism brings. Premised on frustration, fascism is an attempt to avoid the future through an effort to reenact a glorified and imagined past. ‘Make America great again’ not only raises the inevitable question—for whom?—but is also sufficiently vague and ripe for the picking of any agent of resentment. This mantra, echoed across Africa, Southern Asia, and Europe, should occasion much pause.
The historic record on fascism is clear: It’s better at tearing down than building things. Lacking any principle of verification, it is impervious to facts such as this: Every moment of fascism has collapsed from the reality of its unsustainability. Promises of a thousand years of glory often collapsed in under a decade.
Neo-fascism, however, takes advantage of its own shaky foundations through twisting reality to the point of no recourse to irony. As with many past isms—such as postracialism, postcolonialism, postsexism, where the ‘post’ only refers to the illegitimacy of the term while continuing its practice—fascism announces itself as against a claimed fascism from those whom it seeks to oppress. Anti-political correctness, for example, is a fight against an imagined powerful enemy by those who are in fact systemically advantaged. In short, it’s victimizers’ imagined victimization. There are some crass examples of those who simply call themselves new fascists, but in the main, the tendency to treat the claim of fascism or neo-fascism as hyperbolic facilitates the flourishing of fascist elements.
A flourishing element is neo-imperial. The philosopher psychiatrist Frantz Fanon understood well how imperialism and fascism were related. He observed that Nietzsche’s Last Man (sick values) is also indicative of what could be called the Last Nation (sick value of nation-state nationalism). The Last Nation imagines itself as that on which reality depends. Its failure to dominate the world means for its people one thing: the end of the world. Though this is clearly manifested in the United States, it takes hold of people in other countries in the form of nation-state nationalism. The slippery slope into racism emerges as the ressentiment of the Last Man takes state form.
One of the characteristics of the Last Man is that he is also a little man. A little man is not a matter of physical size. It’s also not a matter of his lack of financial or social capital. A little man is so because of his lack of imagination, insecurity, stupidity, resentment—in short, because of the displeasing truths of what he is. Such a man thus seeks a better image of himself in pleasing falsehoods. He imagines himself great. He invests in fetishes in the hopes of his expected, presumed destined, greatness. This delusion is why he is willing to support a plutocrat. He clings to the possibility of becoming one, and he would rather block many people from achieving such if he, too, must fail.
The little man rationalises his choices via the assumption that the wealthy will make more people wealthy, when history has made it pretty clear that they don’t actually produce wealth but instead accumulate it. In the financial upheavals from the Bush administration, a small fragment of the wealthy simply got wealthier off of what so many lost. That pattern continues among the wealthiest people across the world. Their actions are not premised on nation or state loyalty, for such people pretty much live in the same ‘country’ wherever they go; it is a place that is everywhere by the standard of living afforded them everywhere. Think of the expensive bottle of water in the same highest number of stars hotel or private beach or mountaintop in which past claims of sovereignty are, ultimately, irrelevant.
We now face a radicalised return of neoconservative policies along with violent, neo-fascist elements. Economic loss and brutality are knocking at the door. Some thoughts from another philosopher who lived courageously through similar times are, unfortunately, again worthy of reflection.
At the end of World War II, Karl Jaspers offered some wisdom to his fellow Germans, though in truth, it was to all humanity. Take heed of political responsibility, he argued. Everyone—the guilty and the innocent, the defiant and the complicit—pays for the deeds of a cruel government. Leaders whose policies are so atrocious that they forfeit their people’s right to mercy in the event of being vanquished bring such upon those under their jurisdiction.
This is one of the tragedies of political responsibility. It is not the President of the United States or the highest leader of any other state who will pay if the country has to be vanquished as a threat to humankind. It is the people—all the people, even, tragically, the undocumented, the incarcerated, the disenfranchised, the marginalised, everyone—who will bear that burden.
Jane Anna Gordon and I offered a reflection on disasters several years ago under the title Of Divine Warning: Reading Disasters in the Modern Age. We had hoped we were wrong when we wrote of the disappointment of electing hoped-for gods and moral figures that inevitably prove to be politicians, and the dangers of anti-politics that would follow. Our concern led to a meditation on ruin. Yet, we reminded our readers, being in a position to reflect on such means there may still be the good fortune of time. No one knows the future whose emergence depends on everyone’s deeds. To which kind of future, we should each ask ourselves across the world today, are our deeds committed?
Standing still is a historical luxury no one can afford.