A Lesson in Political Psychology, Research Time, 21/11/2016

Over the next few years in my different writing and art projects, one of the things I’ll do is try to understand the political phenomenon of Donald Trump.

I’ve been doing that on the blog for the last few weeks as I read some noteworthy radical democratic political theorists in the leadup and immediate aftermath of his election.

A traditionally realist depiction of President Trump,
in a contemporary fresco.
As my next big book Utopias comes together over the next few years, reckoning with the nationalist movement and whatever terrors his administration unleashes will provide the book’s context. So, aside from my general interest in global politics, I’m thinking through a lot of the most thoughtful accounts of what Trump means for human society.

One of those comes from Laurie Penny. Ever since reading her book Unspeakable Things a couple of years ago, I considered her a brilliant philosopher as well as an insightful and incisive journalist.

It’s weird in a lot of modern contexts to call someone who doesn’t work as a university academic a philosopher. But I think it’s increasingly necessary for philosophy as a tradition, given the pressures of academic institutions on creativity and social leadership beyond the community of university researchers.

Even in those circumstances, more and more university professors are too overburdened and underpaid to be leaders even in their community. Like too many people whose careers have been wrecked by casualization or automation, the sectors that are supposed to produce knowledge devote increasing amounts of energy to mere survival.

So it’s up to journalists and artists to understand and develop the concepts that bring us to such incredible danger and can save us. To understand nationalism and develop a path to liberation.

Penny’s article “Against Bargaining” is one example of the public, open-access, mass market philosophy that people who oppose racism, bigotry, nationalism, and autocracy need to read today. We need it to feed our minds and keep us sharp. To focus ourselves on the differences that make real differences, the basis of accurate, worthwhile action.

The only reason Nietzsche wasn't a democrat
was because in the 19th century, it worked as
a mass politics, a dangerous kind of social
movement. Today, democracy is about
grooming people to be the ideally best people,
the bravest and most proud. Democracy has
become literally true aristocracy.
After reading Unspeakable Things, I called Penny a Nietzschean, and “Against Bargaining” continues this theme in her work – Donald Trump’s ascent and all it represents (and unleashes) is the most violent explosion of social resentment I think I’ve seen in my lifetime.

Nietzsche wrote about resentment as a seething, creeping social force. It was the cultural attitude that uses hatred to turn weakness into strength. But this isn’t the emboldening hatred of rage at an oppressor. It’s the petty small-mindedness of slimy disgust at anyone who dares to present themselves as your equal.

That’s one context of the attitude of resentment. It’s resentment triumphant, the decadent society of 19th century Europe, Europe at the heart of empire. Imperialism that was popularly justified by a morality of white supremacist racism.

The idea refuses to die. At least in some contexts. Homogeneously white affluent communities within spitting distance of more economically and ethnically mixed districts is one context. Places where no one knows enough non-white people to move their thoughts beyond stereotype and fear.

That petty attitude is also, at an individual level, the perspective of the abuser. He blames you for the violence he inflicts and you accept his narrative. Look at how many nice liberal journalists have written thinkpieces on how multiculturalism and identity politics caused President Trump.

You know what multiculturalism is? It’s living in a mixed community – walking down the street and passing by couples and families of as many possible ethnic and gender combinations as you can get out of a randomizer.

You know what identity politics is? It’s the assertion that your life and cultural heritage has value, especially if that life and heritage has been devalued and abused for generations.

It’s my fault that I’m being hurt because I stood up for myself and demanded that I not be hurt. If I’m compliant, then I won’t be hurt. I’ll be silent. I’ll be good.

To be good out of fear of an authority’s punishment isn’t goodness. It’s fear. The psychology of the abuse victim is to mask the outcome of overpowering fear as moral virtue.

In the face of hard years of violence from the
state and the mob, we'll need to find the
strength to smile.
Here, the psychological has become political. The most dedicated foot soldiers of Trumpism are the online trolls – abusers and harassers who are entertained by provoking more emotionally vulnerable people into mental distress. And who believe their own bullshit when they defend their violent actions as the exercise of their rights to free speech.

A movement of people who’ve learned to take pleasure in the psychological pain of others have taken their own will to violence to a mass-scale group phenomenon. Hence Penny’s astute observation – that the vulnerable people who are taking Trump’s ascent best have been those who have already overcome abuse.

People who’ve already worked through the self-cannibalizing philosophy of blaming yourself for the violence you suffer. We are facing today a political movement that literally wants to bludgeon dissent and difference into silence and invisibility. They see disagreement and ethnic, religious, or sexual difference as obnoxiousness.

Maybe you could call it getting uppity.

It’s our duty not to believe them and remember that rights to freedom aren’t meant to defend your attempts at violence. It’s to defend your attempt to be.

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