The Contemporary Condition

Monday, December 5, 2016

The Election of Trump and the Constitution’s Original Sin

Thomas Dumm
Amherst College

The immediate post-election normalization of the fascist white-nationalist klepto-capitalist president-elect Donald Trump has caused quite a bit of head-spinning among attentive observers of corporate news media over the past month. Progressive websites especially have noted repeatedly and with increasing distress that the meaning of this unexpected turn of events is that it signals a new form of an old tendency in American politics. The “new” part is an open embrace of white nationalism and authoritarianism by the incoming administration. But there has been no focus on the incipient fascism at work here. Indeed, from the day after the election, commentators such as Joe Scarborough on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” have declared that the term “fascism” should be retired, as it isn’t productive. The idea seems to be that if he is elected president, by definition he can’t be a fascist.

Joe Scarborough is productive.
Readers of the Contemporary Condition have been treated to Bonnie Honig’s brilliant reading of this normalization process in her “Trump’s Upside Down” on November 14th. (Indeed, as I have been writing this post, I heard yet another reporter on MSNBC refer to “the white nationalist community.”) And there is no doubt that other contributors to CC have been prescient in reading Trump and the fascism he practices from early on in his campaign. (See my “Degraded Fascism, Nihilism, and Donald Trump” and “The End of Boehner” from the fall of 2015, and Bill Connolly and Steve Johnston’s numerous posts over the stretch of this election, dating from 2015.) I have greedily read numerous essays on such blog sites as The Huffington Post and Salon seeking confirmation of the fascism underlying what I have been reading, watching and listening to since the election, trying to fight the gas-lighting of cable news networks, which keep insisting that there is nothing to see here.

There is something else that has been normalized in this post-election period, largely because of a relative silence concerning it, that deserves deeper attention than it has so far received. That is the fact that in almost any representative democracy’s electoral system, Trump would have lost, and the Republican Party’s Congressional and Senate majorities would have been won by the Democratic Party. It has been noted repeatedly that Hillary Clinton received over two million more votes than did Donald Trump (as of this writing, 2.53 million more votes). Less widely noted is that, for the fourth consecutive election, more voters chose Democratic candidates for Congress and Senate than they did Republicans. In the past, such an outcome, in itself, even without the disastrous candidate who benefited from it, would have been treated as the most important part of the electoral story. But it hasn’t this time.

What’s going on? We all realize that the permanent and unchanging structure of the US Senate guarantees equal representation for all states in the senior body of Congress (the only provision in the Constitution that is not changeable is the guarantee of the permanent existence of the Senate – see Article V) and the gerrymandering of House districts has made the climb for Democrats to electoral success extraordinarily steep. But throughout the campaign, one of the false narratives in the national political media – hello Chuck Todd -- was that the Democrats enjoyed an Electoral College “lock.” Unnoticed, or unnoted, was that there was a systematic voter suppression campaign going on that focused on precisely the key states that eventually went to Trump. North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, and Michigan all had in place effective voter registration laws restricting minority voting. This suppression was enabled by the Supreme Court, which because of continued unequal representation in elections, has been chosen predominately by Republican presidents over recent decades. In other words, the very structure of political representation in the United States is quasi-apartheid in character. But we aren’t supposed to say such rude things.

This is the fifth time in American history that the winner of the popular vote has been denied the Electoral College win. In those five elections, it was the generally the Right that won. The conservative but reform-minded Democratic governor of New York Samuel Tilden’s loss in the notorious election of 1876 was a pyrrhic victory for the Republicans, as it resulted in the devil’s bargain that ended Reconstruction, a huge win for the Right. And the elections of George W. Bush and Donald Trump can be seen as twin triumphs of right-wing minorities. In the election of 1824, John Quincy Adams defeated the populist Andrew Jackson, though he lost the popular vote by what still is the largest percentage in American history, thus leading to the founding of the modern Democratic party. The election of William Henry Harrison over Grover Cleveland in 1888 could be interpreted as the right winning over the left, though the issues in that election didn’t line up in a sense we would recognize contemporarily.

What does this brief excursus through electoral history suggest for us? In two of the past five elections -- though if one squints closely at the returns from Ohio in 2004, one might conclude that John Kerry was robbed of the electoral votes of that state, and could have become a minority Democratic president had electoral college justice prevailed – right-wing minorities have taken power against the wishes of those who cast the most votes, and did so against them. (Relevant details.) 

Most commentators, when criticizing the Electoral College, note two things – first, that by the Constitution’s use of the formula “number of representatives based on population plus two Senators in each state” there is a distortive effect which results in small states attaining inordinate power, compared to larger states (for example). Others note that since almost all states have adopted the winner-take-all formula, resulting in every electoral college vote going to the person who gets the most votes, large majorities in states such as New York and California, on the Democratic side, and Texas, for instance, on the Republican side, don’t have the same representative power that tiny majorities in swing states have.
"This map shows each state re-sized in proportion to the relative influence of the individual voters who live there. The numbers indicate the total delegates to the Electoral College from each state, and how many eligible voters a single delegate from each state represents." (source)
But for all of the discussion of the distortive effects of the Electoral College, none of our talking heads or even “responsible journalists,” go back to the origins of its existence, or if they do so, they deflect, that is, they don’t go into the sordid roots of the compromise that led to this system of representation. For instance, in the November 21, 2016 issue of the NY Times, “The Upshot” notes “the rural vote’s disproportionate slice of power,” that is a consequence of the Electoral College, but goes on to discuss Thomas Jefferson’s (highly romanticized) vision of yeoman farmers.

While commentators seem compelled to revert to the most innocuous narrative of what was an often savagely fought debate, the heart of the Connecticut Compromise, or the Great Compromise of 1787 as it came to be called, which led to the establishment of the Senate and the Electoral College, had to do far less with the elevation of yeoman farmers and much more to do with the brute political influence of the slaveholding delegations of the Southern states at the constitutional convention. Contemporary discussions of the question of this compromise largely focus on the difference between large states and small states and their suspicions of each other – and since Virginia was a large state, and North and South Carolina, for instance, while smaller states, were predicted at the time to be likely to grow to be large – the decision to create a Senate has been seen as a way of protecting small states’ sovereignty from being overwhelmed by the populations of the larger states.

But there were two sorts of large states in play. One sort was slave-holding, the other was not. Simply put, without the Connecticut Compromise, the southern states were planning to walk away from the convention, which would have led to the dissolution of the United States. The major part of the Connecticut Compromise, aside from the creation of the Senate, was the notorious 3/5ths compromise concerning how slaves were to be counted, which was to determine the population of states for purposes of representation using the “all other persons” clause. Hence the Constitution actually was making those Southern slaveholding states large for purposes of the census, expanding the power of whites on the very bodies of black slaves. Eventually, once cotton took hold as a major crop, this compromise would result in states like Mississippi and Louisiana practically doubling their representation on the basis of their slave population.

This electoral system once more has served the right -- as it (almost) always has, given its systemic bias -- and just when we democrats think we may have overcome its most pernicious effects, it comes back and bites us in the ass. Following his election even the ignoramus Trump suggested on Twitter that some sort of reform of the Electoral College to reflect the will of the majority might be in order. Of course, he advocated this until someone – Kelly Anne Conway? -- must have whispered in his ear that he won precisely because the Electoral College doesn’t reflect that will. So he reversed course, on Twitter again praising the genius of what he had called throughout the campaign a “rigged system.” It is no accident that “post-truth” was recently designated the word of the year for 2016.
This is the sordid compromise that has permanently haunted the Constitution of the United States, and the undemocratic system of representation that “we, the people” have been subjected to for over two centuries. It is rooted in the explicit and then the tacit acceptance of the hideous system of chattel slavery, and it has never succeeded in overcoming that original sin, operating as a drag on all attempts to attain simple justice. That is because the Constitution is, by design, unequal in its representational system. All of the Constitutional lawyers in the world can’t wash their hands of the stain of it. This constitution, effusively praised by its promoters, worshipped by so many as our secular religion, and apologized for by generations of lawyers over the course of two hundred some years, needs, more desperately than ever, to be scrapped.

Interestingly enough, the fact that the Republicans now control 33 states at this point puts them one state short of being able to call for a Constitutional convention. Perhaps they will, but it is not likely, given how well the current system suits their purposes. But this is the traditional blackmail of the Constitution. Those who dominate always get to threaten something worse. (The only time their bluff was called, there was a Civil War, and even a Civil War was a two steps forward, one step back sort of deal.) Accept this constitution, they seem to say, or we will replace it with something even worse. Accept this Constitution, or we will shoot this dog.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Reality TV Trumps Politics

Lynne Joyrich,
Professor and Chair, Department of Modern Culture and Media, Brown University

Since the early morning of November 9, 2016, when, against almost all expectations and seemingly all logic, Donald Trump was declared the winner of the U.S. presidential election, it has been repeatedly said that the media "failed" the American public.[i] It is true that the great majority of news reporters and political analysts did not predict this result, and thus the more than 71 million television viewers who witnessed Trump's surprising win had good reason to be stunned and shocked.

As not only a television studies scholar but an avid television viewer, I was among those stunned viewers—but while, in a sense, I was shocked, I was not surprised. That is because this election was not at all operating within the logic of previous ones or with what we typically think of as political discourse: a discourse presumably centered on platforms, policy, and arguments for how to achieve certain goals. Instead, it operated fully through a media logic—through, precisely, the "reality televisualization" of political formations[ii]

In that sense, then, the media did not "fail." Rather, the media fully succeeded in producing a particular effect, even if those working in the media didn't quite realize this (and perhaps still haven't). This was not a simple instrumental effect (as in a "hypodermic needle" model of media impact). Instead, it is a kind of televisual epistemology and a televisual affect intertwined, a meshing of modes of thinking and modes of feeling, which has become the "medium" in which our politics now exist (with "medium" here not only referring to a media technology but also used in the scientific sense of the substance in which something lives and is "cultured" and even gesturing toward the occult reference to emanating and auratic sensations and communications).

Within this medium logic of reality televisualization, arguments and proofs don't matter, policy positions and reasoned discourse don't matter, a sense of division between truth and fantasy, real and unreal, and action and appearance doesn't matter. What matters for a candidate is what matters for a "contestant" on reality TV: constructing oneself as a strongly profiled persona—a kind of branded, celebrified image ("Winner!")—while also communicating clearly defined personae for one's opponents ("Lyin' Ted" or "Crooked Hillary"). What works in this reality TV formation, in other words, is the production and enactment of a particular type of personality: a media personality or brand that is able to "survive" on the island or avoid getting "fired," one that can "make it work," to come back and perform the next night instead of getting voted off. This is precisely the staple reality televisual personality, who shows that he or she is able to manage risks and rewards, to balance alliances and betrayals, to "lip-sync for your life," to act out in ways that read as both strategic and authentic—or, as Trump himself put it: to engage in "truthful hyperbole."[iii] By presenting just such a persona, Trump established himself as "the idol," "the voice," "the sole survivor," making it to the end of the "amazing race,"[iv] and garnering votes from an audience used to being asked to make its choice. 

This particular kind of construction of media personality is what, in performance and star studies, is called "personification."[v] Personification involves projecting a persona (both performing the self and "realizing" the performance) in which subject and role, private person and public image, ordinary individual and extraordinary representative become, paradoxically, both equated and equivocated: each acts as alibi for the another or maybe, more accurately, as mutual guarantees (like a product guarantee). The reality television celebrity can thus stand, all at once, for him/herself as subject, for the brand image, and for all the people invited to identify with and "feel" that brand; the persona becomes effective and affective (marked as authentic despite, or even because of, the artifice of invention) through the attachments that connect the personality to his/her public.

A focus on this enhanced persona yields, in other words, a kind of tribal individualism and an individualist tribalism. The loaded term "tribal" comes from reality television itself (where it has been used to divide contestants into and designate teams, with which we, as viewers, are encouraged to affiliate, much like by claiming ourselves on, say, "Team Bethenny" or "Team Kelly" [Real Housewives of New York], "Team Ronnie or Team Situation" [Jersey Shore], Team Jon or Team Kate [Jon & Kate Plus 8]). But the notion of a "tribal individualism"/"individualist tribalism" also perfectly describes Trump's populist nationalism, in which perceived individual success binds his affiliated group together rather than separating them (even with the enormous "real" differences between Trump and his constituents). This is a televisual logic, as television is located at exactly the borders of public and private, individual and social, sameness and strangeness, the everyday and the exceptional, the popular and the particular, the banal and the noteworthy, the fantastic and the real.[vi]

Given Trump's remarkable televisual instincts in manipulating those categories and the media persona he created for himself, his success was not that surprising from a Television Studies perspective. Deciding how to respond to the election is harder. Should those who oppose Trump simply and equally move toward reality televisualization? Should we give up on other modes of political discourse, on critical thinking, and on civic engagement, instead only to operate via the processes of branded and celebrified entertainment? This is not a trend we should embrace, and yet we need to realize that politics aren't operating according to old logics any more. We thus need to engage with media epistemologies and affects, with what Walter Benjamin called "aura" (here, the kind of media-produced aura that he linked to commodity and celebrity culture).[vii] While we certainly can't cede political debate, we can no longer just make arguments. We need also to make felt connections—even ones that may start off feeling forced or "fake" (like, arguably, all reality TV does) but that become, through our involvement itself, a new kind of "real" (real affinity, real participation). In that way, we might at least begin to produce a different kind of "mediation"— an intercession and intervention—in our media-defined politics and culture.


[i] As just some examples, see Eric Boehlert, "The Media Failed Americans This Election Season," The Huffington Post (November 7, 2016); Rachel Oldroyd, "Donald Trump and the media's 'epic fail,'" The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (November 9, 2016); Matthew Ingram, "Donald Trump: Why the Media Failed to Predict a Trump Victory," Fortune (November 9, 2016); Steve Chapman, "Trump and the media 'failure,'" Chicago Tribune (November 11, 2016); Brian Stelter, "How the Media Failed During the Election" CNN (November 13, 2016); Michael Massing, "How the media failed—again," Los Angeles Times‎ (November 18, 2016); Jeffrey M. McCall, "News media failed the public in 2016 election," The Banner-Graphic (November 17, 2016); and Shellie Karabell, "How and Why the Media Failed the Public," Forbes (November 20, 2016).

[ii] This is a logic that his been building in influence since the presidency of John F. Kennedy (often called the first "television president"), through Ronald Reagan (who, of course, was a film and television actor before becoming president), up to the media-savvy Barack Obama, and now beyond. And, of course, it is not just television that is influential. While my focus in this piece is on the relation between politics and TV, to account fully for the impact of the media on this election and on political discourse more broadly, one would certainly also need to analyze the key role played by digital and social media (in everything from the prevalence of "viral" "fake news" on social media sites to Trump's own use of Twitter) as these converged with television in producing a particular media/political formation.

[iii] "The final key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people's fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That's why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It's an innocent form of exaggeration—and a very effective form of promotion." Donald Trump and Tony Schwartz, Trump: The Art of the Deal (New York: Random House, 1987), p. 58. The fact (as claimed by Schwartz) that the notion of "truthful hyperbole" was developed by Tony Schwartz, not Trump himself, only furthers my argument about the mediatized construction of a persona in which the opposition between "artifice" and "authenticity" no longer holds. See Janet Mayer, "Donald Trump's Ghostwriter Tells All," The New Yorker, July 25, 2016, .

[iv] Reality shows referenced above include Survivor, The Apprentice, Project Runway, American Idol, RuPaul's Drag Race, The Voice, and The Amazing Race, among many other similarly structured programs.

[v] I take this term from Barry King, who differentiates between the work of a "star" and the work of an "actor" on the basis of what he calls "personification" vs. "impersonation." See Barry King, "Stardom as an Occupation," in The Hollywood Film Industry, ed. Paul Kerr (London: Routledge, 1986): 154-84 and Barry King,"Articulating Stardom," in Stardom: Industry of Desire, ed. Christine Gledhill (London: Routledge, 1991), 167–82.

[vi] The various implications of TV operating at these intersections has been the focus of much of my work. See, for example, Lynne Joyrich, "Epistemology of the Console," Queer TV: Theories, Histories, Politics, ed. Glyn Davis and Gary Needham (New York: Routledge, 2009), 15-47; Lynne Joyrich, "The Magic of Television: Thinking Through Magical Realism in Recent TV," Transformative Works and Culture 3 (2009),; Lynne Joyrich, "Queer Television Studies: Currents, Flows, and (Main)Streams," Cinema Journal 53.2 (Winter 2014), 133-139; and Lynne Joyrich, "Tubular Vision: The Ins and Outs of Television Studies," New Media, Old Media: A History and Theory Reader, second edition, ed. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Anna Watkins Fisher, and Thomas Keenan (New York: Routledge, 2015), 649-664.

[vii] Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," translated by Harry Zohn from the 1935 essay, in Illuminations,
 ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 217-51.Harry Zohn from the 1935 essay, in Illuminations,
 ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 217-51.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Fascism at the Door

Adam Culver, Makerere University

Studying the fascist exercise of power, therefore, is not simply a matter of laying out the dictator’s will… It means examining the never-ending tensions within fascist regimes among the leader, his party, the state, and traditional holders of social, economic, political, or cultural power. This reality has produced an influential interpretation of fascist governance as “polyocracy,” or rule by multiple relatively autonomous power centers, in unending rivalry and tension with each other. In polyocracy the famous “leadership principle” cascades down through the social and political pyramid, creating a host of petty Führers and Duces in a state of Hobbesian war of all against all.

—Robert Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism (126-7)

Last Friday afternoon (Nov.11th), still reeling from the outcome of the election, I did what many of my friends and colleagues did in the days following the election: I went to class and had a somber conversation with my students about Donald Trump and the rise of white nationalism, xenophobia, and authoritarian populism in the United States. The tone and tenor of the conversation were shaped by a mixture of desperation and defiance as my students grappled with the various causal factors at work in Trump’s electoral victory—economic displacement, misogyny, alienation, xenophobia, nihilism, and, yes, racism—and how to best respond to these reactive forces. In what ways have white liberals been complicit in the ascendance of Trumpism? How should we respond to public acts of intimidation, harassment, and violence directed at those who have been vilified by Trump and his accomplices? How can those of us who are not yet under immediate threat support and stand in solidarity with the increasingly large number of those who are? What kinds of work must white people undertake to challenge racism and hatred in their own families and communities? How might we begin imagining alternative futures and forging new solidarities? 

These questions are of course extremely difficult, as was our conversation, which necessarily forced us to confront much we would rather avoid. Although they probably already knew as much, I warned my students that things are likely to get much worse and that they must resist the temptation to normalize Trump, oppose appeals for accommodation, and refuse to seek common ground with white supremacy in the misguided belief that in doing so they might mitigate the evil it represents. We spoke about the importance of community involvement, collective action (including protest), and political advocacy. Above all I urged them to love each other, to read, to organize, and to continue making art. I believe fascism is at the door, but I left the room that day fortified with what Du Bois once called “a hope not hopeless but unhopeful.” My students seem determined to confront the fascist lurking both within and without, and to do so with passion, resolve, and courage—not because success on a macro-political level is likely to follow but because this is the only way of remaining human, of being able to live with themselves and find one another in the dark times that await. 

Contrary to my normal practice, I did not prepare much material for class that day. For me, at least, the speed and magnitude of events, combined with the visceral revulsion I experience every time I hear or see Trump speak, has made these days disorienting, inducing a kind of vertigo as I try to keep track of events without being pulled apart by them. Besides, I knew that once we began talking, whatever notes I had prepared would not receive even a moment’s glance. But sometime during the early morning hours of Friday I happened to recall an old handout—“The Anatomy of Fascism,” which I had prepared nearly a decade prior as a TA for Race and Racism in Comparative Perspective—and decided to use it again. I pulled up the file, made one change—adding the United States to the list of countries where fascist movements had come to power—and printed enough copies for my students. 

The handout is relatively simple and straightforward; drawing from Robert Paxton’s The Anatomy of Fascism, it outlines 7 key characteristics of fascist regimes and rule:

1) Mobilization of segments of working class populations not affiliated with organized labor unions or political parties. Militarization of daily life and valorization of violence.

2) The development of parallel institutions and organizations that engage in activities of state, particularly paramilitary and police services. The creation of the ‘dual state.’

3) Coalitions between conservative, far right and in several cases, center right political parties and tendencies.

4) Forcible removal of sources of political opposition, particularly amongst left and far left tendencies, and eventually liberal/centrist political tendencies and parties.

5) Central role of ideology as an instrument of rule and mass mobilization. The aesthetization of violence. See, for example, the films of Leni Riefenstahl, such as Olympia and Triumph of the Will

6) Calls for the “renewal” of society, which often entails identifying an “enemy within” (e.g. the Jew, the Muslim, the immigrant, the non-Aryan, the black, and other marginalized populations). The enemy within is often further marginalized, in concert with a program of expulsion, liquidation and terrorism. Renewal often involves a project of racial/ethnic cleansing, attached to a romantic nostalgia for a supposedly pure past. Renewal also often attached to a program of imperial expansion.

7) A love-hate relationship to capitalism and industrialization. Creation of an agrarian myth while emphasizing industrial production. See, for example, Werner Sombart’s The Jews and Modern Capitalism (1911)

Reading through this list with my students, it did not take long for us to conclude that almost all of these characteristics are either already in evidence (e.g., promises of national renewal, identification of internal enemies, the valorization of violence, etc.) or discernable on the not-too-distant horizon (as seems to be the case, for example, with the forcible removal of sources of political opposition, calls for which now extend beyond the vitriolic chants of “lock her up”). The essential kernel of Trumpism is its promise to reassert the supremacy of a white, Christian identity at the spiritual-political center of the nation, and much of its affective force and appeal derives from the ferocity with which it promotes an all-too-fragile whiteness through the denigration of various racialized others. Indeed, Trump’s electoral victory was followed by a dramatic increase in incidents of racist and xenophobic harassment and intimidation across the country—the Southern Poverty Law Center collected 437 reports of such incidents between Wednesday November 9th, the day after the election, and the morning of Monday, November 14th. Such incidents are likely to increase and intensify as the affective flows that connect Trump and his supporters reverberate with other exclusionary social formations and practices in a generalized spirit of bellicosity and will to revenge against vulnerable and marginalized constituencies who are blamed for depriving white Americans of “their historic role to ‘make America great again.’”

To date, Trumpism has demonstrated a commitment to propagating the exclusionary nationalism, militarism, white supremacy, romantic nostalgia for a mythic past, and contempt for constitutional democracy that are the hallmarks of fascist movements past and present. Until it assumes power in January, however, we cannot be sure if it will pursue other characteristic features and practices of fascist rule, particularly the creation of “parallel institutions” and the “dual state” (see #2 above). But the early signs do not look good. The existence of a pro-Trump faction within the FBI is deeply disconcerting, as are key developments in Trump’s presidential transition—especially the appointment of Steve Bannon as Trump’s chief strategist and senior counselor. Bannon is an anti-Semitic, Islamaphobic, misogynistic, white nationalist, bigot who presided over the alt-right white supremacist online cesspool Breitbart News before taking a leave from the company in August to become the C.E.O. of Trump’s presidential campaign. Bannon’s selection further indicates (as if more evidence were needed) that a virulent white supremacist ideology will play a central role in shaping Trump’s presidency. But it also indicates that Trump may seek to exercise power through a set of semi-formalized arrangements with characteristics that are analogous to the parallel institutions and dual-state structures that have been crucial to many a fascist regime and totalitarian state. The conjunction of these spiritual, ideological, and political elements and their coronation in a Trump presidency signals that fascism is at the door. 

This claim may perhaps sound implausible to those who simply don’t (or can’t) believe that Trump really means what he says when he calls Mexicans rapists, promises to build a Wall between the U.S. and Mexico, proposes temporarily banning all Muslims from entering the country, pledges to forcibly expel millions of undocumented immigrants, advocates ending birth-right citizenship, threatens to have his political opponents imprisoned, rejects the need for a free press and the right to protest, and so on. But we have no reason whatsoever to presume that these do not represent his political intentions, whatever his personal views may be. Americans (and not just Americans) have been perhaps too well trained in a school of political cynicism that says: all politicians lie and so we shouldn’t take what they say too seriously. “But campaigns offer a surprisingly accurate preview of Presidencies,” and I am not aware of many historical examples of autocratic populists becoming more democratic and tolerant of dissent after coming to power. The point is not that Trump will actually build a Big Wall—even many of his supporters doubt that he will do so—but rather that Trump will continue to harness a white supremacist ideal to dangerous ends. 

Nor would it be wise to place our faith in America’s political institutions to successfully neutralize Trump’s authoritarian tendencies. Yes, democratic institutions in the U.S. are stronger and have deeper roots than in countries like the Poland, Turkey, and Russia where autocratic leaders have centralized power and systematically undermined or dismantled constitutional rights and democratic institutions. But most congressional Republicans have already shown that they are not up to task of “checking” President Trump, as witnessed by their response to the Bannon appointment, which was met with little more than a collective shrug. (A recent article in Slate captures the danger quite well: “Republicans Rolled Over for Steve Bannon. They’ll Roll Over When He Comes for You, Too”). On the whole, congressional Republicans and party leaders seem perfectly willing to accept the appointment of a white nationalist who peddles in anti-Semitic, misogynistic, and Islamaphobic rhetoric as Trump’s top adviser so long as Trump plays nice. One shudders to think what else they will be willing to accept once their legislative agenda is on the line. In any case, this points to a perhaps more fundamental issue at hand, which “is that many of these institutions are enshrined in political culture rather than in law, and all of them—including the ones enshrined in law—depend on the good faith of all actors to fulfill their purpose and uphold the Constitution.” Democracy is far more fragile than many Americans believe, and we should not let the longevity of democratic institutions and the unbroken tradition of the peaceful transfer of power in this country delude us into thinking that our institutions alone will safeguard our liberty. On the contrary, we will need to defend our democratic institutions against the onslaughts and abuses of power that are likely to come their way. 

Trump’s selection of Bannon, who recently boasted of turning Breitbart Media into the platform for the alt-right white supremacist movement, as his chief strategist and senior advisor is one of the latest and most troubling indicators that Trump’s presidency will be anything but ordinary. Indeed, a man who only a few years ago described himself as a “Leninist” whose goal was to “destroy the state” and “bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment,” now finds himself at the center of the state-apparatus, jockeying with the establishment for power! In 2014 Bannon boasted of a “global tea party movement,” by which he means a global populist-nationalist movement, and lauded Great Britain’s UKIP and France’s National Front for being at its forefront. Given his essential role in championing an “anti-establishment” ethno-nationalist chauvinism, it is unsurprising that his selection was met by unanimous praise from leading voices on the far-right, including Rocky Suhayda, chairman of the American Nazi Party, and David Duke, who enthusiastically praised Trump’s decision as “excellent” and suggested that Bannon might occupy the most important position in the White House staff: “You have an individual, Mr. Bannon, who's basically creating the ideological aspects of where we're going. And ideology ultimately is the most important aspect of any government.” Let that sink in for a moment… 

“The elevation of Bannon to a powerful position in the White House is an epochal event in American politics, one that has been condemned by the N.A.A.C.P., the A.D.L., and many Democratic leaders, including Harry Reid,” who through his spokesman warned that Bannon’s appointment “signals that White Supremacists will be represented at the highest levels in Trump’s White House.” And yet if you glanced at a major newspaper on Monday morning after Sunday’s announcement, chances are you would not get the impression that there is a serious crisis in the republic. The joint selection of Bannon as the president’s top advisor and Reince Priebus, chairman of the RNC and consummate Washington Insider, as Trump’s chief of staff, was initially depicted as an ordinary political event by many media outlets. Priebus was portrayed as “a reassuring presence to establishment Republicans,” while a whole host of euphemisms were deployed to describe Bannon—“ally” and “loyalist” (USA Today), “outsider” (Washington Post, Wall Street Journal), and “firebrand” (New York Times, which at least at least also identified him as an “extremist”). Such evasions contribute to the normalization of white supremacist ideology and foster an environment in which Trump can continue to appoint extremists to important position of power in the White House, a process that has continued apace as I write this with the selections of Sessions, Pompeo, and Flynn.

In previous administrations, all presidential staff, including all political advisors, reported to the chief of staff. But this will no longer be the case: according to Trump’s transition team, Priebus and Bannon will be “equal partners,” an unusual arrangement almost certain to create “rival centers of power in the Trump White House.” This could very well have serious implications for how Trump exercises power from the White House/Trump Tower. Bannon will report directly to the president and presumably oversee a set of operations that function in parallel to the structures overseen by Priebus, with each managing and cultivating very different Trumpism constituencies. Will Priebus be a moderating force capable of limiting the influence of Bannon’s white nationalist ideology on Trump’s presidency? Perhaps. But it is already clear that one of Priebus’s duties will be to defend and provide ideological cover for Bannon, as he has been doing this past week. Moreover, every fascist regime has its Priebuses—i.e., traditional conservative politicians who try to preserve parts of the status quo and limit the dynamism of the fascist movement, but who usually get swept up in its currents themselves. Fascism always depends on “traditional leaders to open the gate,” Paxton explains, and thus presupposes “some degree, at least, of obligatory power sharing with the preexisting conservative establishment… Consequently, we have never known an ideologically pure fascist regime” (119). Within fascist regimes, conservatives urge a more cautious approach and advocate for more traditional forms of authoritarianism, while “fascists pull forward toward dynamic, leveling, populist dictatorship…” (120). Often this tension is resolved when party zealots “bypass the conservative power bases with ‘parallel structures’” (120-121). Something analogous to this seems to be underway in the organization of Trump’s White House staff. 

Paxton suggests that we can begin to grasp the basic dynamics at work in the creation of parallel institutions in fascist regimes by drawing upon Ernst Fraenkel’s description of Nazi Germany as a “dual state” containing a “normative state” based on constitutional authority, the rule of law, and the traditional civil service, which competed for power with a “prerogative state” formed by the party’s parallel organizations.

According to Fraenkel’s model of Nazi governance, the “normative” segment of a fascist regime continued to apply the law according to due process, and officials in that sector were recruited and promoted according to bureaucratic norms of competence and seniority. In the “prerogative” sector, by contrast, no rules applied except the whim of the ruler, the gratification of party militants, and the supposed “destiny” of the Volk, the razza, or other “chosen people.” The normative state and the prerogative state coexisted in conflict-ridden but more or less workmanlike cooperation, giving the regime its bizarre mixture of legalism and arbitrary violence. (121)

For Paxton the dual state image is incomplete because it is not sufficiently attuned to the importance of conflict between the fascist leader (Trump) and his party (the alt-right white supremacist movement), and it does not account for “elements outside the state” that “also participate in the tug-of-war for power within fascist regimes” (122). We might also add that it does not attend to the components of a fascist personality or to the spiritual dimensions of fascist assemblages

But Fraenkel’s account was also a “fruitful one” (121), one that helps us see how fascist regimes seek to manage the tensions between extremism and conservatism—promoting exclusionary sentiments and far-right policies while preserving public order and the allegiance of their conservative allies—through the duplication of traditional power centers by parallel party organizations and how the struggle for power between the ‘normative’ and ‘prerogative’ segments within each fascist regime conditions its character and their effects. This is what makes the establishment in the White House/Trump Tower of a duplicate power center dedicated to advancing the agenda of the alt-right white supremacy so dangerous. The National Review recently wished to remind its readers that “Steve Bannon is not Josef Goebbels.” Fine, but he doesn’t have to be: Steve Bannon is terrifying enough as himself. 

The greatest political danger a Trump presidency represents is therefore not the rollback of Obama’s legacy and the progressive policy agenda—though this is certainly something to struggle fiercely against. The greatest danger involves the reorganization of state power itself—regime change. We must do everything in our power to oppose not only the fascist policies of a Trump presidency but also the emergence of a fascist regime itself. Such an outcome may seem outlandish to some, but we live in outlandish times.