Donald Trump and “solidarity”

The Washington Post has made a handy tool that allows you to do word searches for every presidential inaugural address. Trump’s use of the phrase “American carnage” has garnered the most attention, for a foreboding pessimism, out of place in a genre given to platitudes and triumphalism. Trump’s address was the first to use the word “carnage,” unsurprisingly. Also not a surprise: Trump was also the first to use the word “sad,” when he lamented that the U.S. has “subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military.”

But Trump’s speech was not all gloom and doom: the most, well, sad linguistic fact of his inaugural address is that no president has ever said the word “solidarity” until Trump. He said, “we must speak our minds openly, debate our disagreements honestly, but always pursue solidarity. When America is united, America is totally unstoppable.” Neither Grant, who might have used the word to describe the struggle against the Confederacy, nor Franklin Roosevelt, who might have appropriated it from the labor movement, ever used the word itself. Of course, the word has been sullied for presidential politics by its longstanding association with labor and socialism. But are Trump and his speechwriters reclaiming it for themselves?

Not successfully, one hopes. “Solidarity,” of course, doesn’t mean what Trump thinks it means. I’d define it this way: as struggle across lines of filial identity like language, nationality, or race, through which one seeks mutual (and not just common) advantage against shared enemies. Trump knows about summoning enemies. His rallies seemed to offer something that the image below, from the English socialist illustrator Walter Crane, also captures: solidarity as a feeling, of delight, of unity, or fraternity and sorority, of rage. What Trump doesn’t know anything about is the sacrifice solidarity also demands. It requires one to give up some loyalty in the service of some other, ultimately greater one,

Walter Crane, “International Solidarity of Labour,” 1897

as in socialist internationalism’s disavowal of the nationalism, the dominant motif of Trump’s inaugural address, or anti-colonial revolutionaries’ alliances across boundary lines of nationality, religion, or language. It also requires the tactical flexibility to unite with people politically unlike oneself.

Marx and Engels’ elegant formulation makes a pair: first the enemy, and then the redemptive victory against it. “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains,” the Manifesto reads. “They have a world to win.” For all its militarism and its phantom enemies, Trump’s campaign and his new presidency also offered a redemptive version of unity, one which his opponent’s campaign–“I’m With Her” was the slogan, you will recall–never managed. Trump makes a good enemy–but we will need a vision of solidarity to beat his in fact and in feeling.

Keywords for the Age of Austerity 28: Alternative

Don’t be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck. You’re saying it’s a falsehood…Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that.

–Kellyanne Conway, Meet the Press, January 22, 2017

What, then, remains to be argued? Is it that slavery is not divine; that God did not establish it; that our doctors of divinity are mistaken? …Who can reason on such a proposition? They that can, may; I cannot. The time for such argument is past.

–Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

Yesterday on Meet the Press, Kellyanne Conway invoked “alternative facts” in defense of a Trump spokesman’s plainly false and easily disproved claim that the President’s inauguration was the largest in history. Meanwhile, the “alt-right” enjoys its triumphs in the wake of the Inauguration of a bigoted oligarch friendly to their core passions: white nationalism, hostility to immigrants, and unbridled capitalism. “Alternative” is having a little moment.

The “alt” abbreviation might have its origins in the Internet culture of the late 1980s, when “alt.” was used by members of usenet forums to group enthusiasts of marginal subcultures into discussion forums–a medium which was itself a marginal subculture. Like “alternative” in general, “alt.” quickly became a brand, as terms like alt-country (sometimes spelled and alt-metal proliferated, first as insurgent challenges to a mainstream style, and then a mere version of the same. And thus “alt.,” once rebellious and weird, became defanged and innocuous. It could also be a euphemism: terms like “alt-ac” (alt-academic) have remade scholarly unemployment into just another opportunity.

By the time I was a teenager in the 1990s, “alternative” was a fully dirty word, a corporate brand for popular music that hid behind certain emblems of rebellion (Doc Martens, flannels, etc). “Alternative” was particularly distasteful because it was fake—the unpredictable militancy of punk churned into the branded posturing of “alternative.”

The far right’s current investment in “alternative” is partly euphemistic, partly a brand name, and partly an appropriation of another successful style. First coined by Richard Spencer, the now well-known racist intellectual,“alt-right” is a euphemism and a successful brand name for white nationalism. The term also appropriates multiculturalist identity politics by setting up “white” as simply an alternative embattled racial identity, entitled to the same privileges and rights to separation that, he claims, now belong only to “minority” groups. In an article published by Spencer’s Radix journal, he and another white-supremacist, F. Roger Devlin, summed up the alt-right’s views on race  by first disavowing racial supremacy. (Or so they claim: they concede that Africans may, in fact, be great sprinters.) Devlin and Spenser go on, citing as empirical “fact” an evolutionary preference for racial separation:

It it is almost exclusively White people who are being asked today not to prefer their own race to others. Blacks, Mexicans, Jews, and others are allowed—indeed, encouraged—to form exclusive organizations and pursue their particular interests. Only Whites are denounced as “racist” if they do this.

Alternative on the far right is meant to suggest “tolerance,” a moral and political relativism that the right in other contexts would denounce. There is no alternative, Margaret Thatcher famously said, insisting on a singular, universal history and future. In embracing the rhetoric of endless alternatives, the alt-right says, in effect, It’s just my opinion, don’t I have a right to it? My race isn’t superior to yours, it’s just fundamentally different. It’s important that the “alt-right” defines itself negatively (as an alternative to something), thereby evading any solid ground and shifting their position depending on the circumstance.

Spenser has elsewhere described his politics as “white identity politics.” This is what’s “alt” about the “alt-right,” Christopher Caldwell wrote in the New York Times: its appropriation of a relativist multiculturalism vocabulary for an agonistic politics of racism. But treating the alt-right as the novelty they claim to be overlooks the fact that “alternative,” as it has since the 1990s, remains fundamentally a bullshit term. “Alternative,” from the alt-right to “alternative facts,” is a mass-market rebranding of an older, somewhat more marginal bigotry. So the use of “alternative” aims to populate the flabby middle ground of liberal political discourse with enough doubt and noise to obscure and deflect the very deliberate militancy of the far right.

So, on to “alternative facts,” the dishonesty of which is obvious. Conway’s chiding of Chuck Todd on Meet the Press—“don’t be so dramatic, Chuck”—was an attempt to occupy the space of anodyne reasonableness that Spenser and his “National Policy Institute” also strive for. This has been also been a rhetorical space held down as well as anyone by Meet the Press itself, with its “on the one hand, on the other” style of inside-the-Beltway equivalence. On the one hand, says Conway, the crowds in 2009 were large. Others insist they were larger. Who can ultimately say?

Obviously, the answer has to be “any honest person.” But this is unfortunately besides the point. Like Spenser, Conway and her boss are militants who see politics as a battle, and who use “dialogue”and facts only for rhetorical effect—hence Trump’s radical-sounding inaugural address, which was devoid of the usual platitudes about national unity and cooperation. Conway, like Spenser, counts shrewdly on the openings that a liberal political sphere, generally hostile to open conflict, leaves open. The phrase “alternative facts” may be stupid, and it may be clumsy, but it may also accomplish its desired effect, which is discrediting the news media as a partisan institution it purports to be–and therefore discrediting from the beginning any criticisms it might make of Trump. As Masha Gessen wrote recently in the New York Times, “arguing about facts is, in fact, the ultimate distraction.”

As Merriam-Webster points out, there are no alternatives to facts that aren’t lies: facts are supposed to be the solid ground, upon which no dishonest “alternative” can rest. “Alternative,” the way the right uses it, is intended to broaden the space of acceptable politics by insisting that no politics, or facts, are condemnable. Spenser’s essays are peppered with endless statistics about Black criminality: for the reasons Douglass says above, it’s insulting to argue with them. It’s also fruitless to argue with Trumpism’s “alternative facts” (not that one shouldn’t try): the crowd at Obama’s inauguration was obviously larger, the sky plainly bluer. But Trump and his people clearly understand that the only fact that practically matters is who is winning.

Alternative facts can’t be debated; they can only be defeated. To put it another, blunter way: you can either debate Richard Spenser’s alternative facts, or you can do the following. Only one of these options can silence him.

Syllabus: Riot and Rebellion in U.S. Literature

A class I’m teaching:

Senior Seminar: Riot and Rebellion in American Literary History

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of July 1967—an event still alternately called a “riot” or a “rebellion,” with very different meanings implied by each word—this class will explore urban uprisings in American literature. The class is bookended by literary and cultural responses to Detroit 1967, but in between we’ll explore the draft riots of the Civil War era, which includes the 1863 Detroit riot, the Haymarket “riot” of 1886, the “Red Summer” of 1919, the Watts uprising of 1965, and the Ferguson and Baltimore riots of recent years.

Required Readings:

Charles Chesnutt, The Marrow of Tradition

John Hersey, The Algiers Motel Incident 

Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth 

Walter Mosley, Little Scarlet

Course Schedule

Jan. 10: Claude McKay, “If We Must Die,” Juliana Spahr, “Turnt,” Margaret Danner, “Garnishing the Aviary,” Langston Hughes, “Beaumont to Detroit: 1943,” Dudley Randall, “Ballad of Birmingham,” Bill McGraw, “Riot or rebellion? The debate over what to call the 1967 disorder continues”

Listen: Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Other America,” Stanford University, Apr. 14, 1967;  John Lee Hooker, “The Motor City is Burning,” and the cover by the MC5, The Clash, “White Riot”

To watch in class: Gangs of New York (excerpt on the 1863 draft riots)

Jan. 17: Read: Gwendolyn Brooks, Riot (Broadside Press, 1969), Kerner Commission, pp. 1-13, Philip Levine, “They Feed They Lion,” Marvin Jackmon, “Burn, Baby, Burn”

Listen: The Trammps, “Disco Inferno,” Gil Scott-Heron, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” Marvin Gaye, “What’s Goin’ On,” The Rolling Stones, “Street Fighting Man,” The Damned, “Smash It Up”

Jan 20: Writing exercise 1 due on Blackboard: keyword analysis

NB: Mon., Jan 23 is the last day to drop classes with tuition reimbursement.

Jan. 24: John Hersey, Algiers Motel Incident, pp.7-37, 63-142, 157-204

Listen: The Impressions, “The Young Mod’s Forgotten Story”

Jan. 31: John Hershey, The Algiers Motel Incident , 219-293, 304-326, 345-352, 379-385, 392-394

Listen: Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, “I Care About Detroit,” Ice Cube, “We Had To Tear This Mothafucka Up”

NB: Classes dropped by Feb. 5 will not appear on your transcript.

Feb. 7: Broadside/Lotus/Third World Press: Selected poems by Dudley Randall, Carolyn Rodgers, and Naomi Lane Madgett, Melba Boyd, Roses and Revolutions, Chapter 1

Listen: Sly and the Family Stone, “There’s a Riot Goin’ On,” The Bar-Kays, “Son of Shaft” (from the Wattstax film)

Feb. 9: Writing exercise 2 due on Blackboard: unpacking simile, metaphor, and symbol

Feb. 14: Frantz Fanon, “On Violence,” Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Barack Obama, Ferguson, and the Evidence of Things Unsaid,” Jonathan Chait, “Obama, Ferguson, and the Torments of Liberalism,” George Cicciarello-Maher, “Riots Work,” Salon, Brittney Cooper, “America’s New Racial Low Point,” Salon, Dudley Randall, “Sniper”

Listen: Run The Jewels, “Thieves”

Feb. 21: Walter Mosley, Little Scarlet

Listen: Junior Murvin, “Police and Thieves,” The Clash, “Police and Thieves”

Feb. 28: José Martí, “A Terrible Drama,” William Dean Howells, “Clemency for the Anarchists,” Caleb Crain, “The Terror Last Time,” The New Yorker, Lucy Parsons, “I Am An Anarchist”

Listen: Hazel Dickens, “Rebel Girl” (lyrics by Joe Hill), Bikini Kill, “Suck My Left One”

Mar. 7: Meet at the Burton Collection, Detroit Public Library

Read: A Thrilling Narrative From the Lips of the Sufferers of the Late Detroit Riot, Glenn Hendler, “Feeling Like a State: Writing the 1863 New York City Draft Riots”

Listen: Ice Cube, “When Will They Shoot?”

Mar. 9: Writing exercise #2 due: 1-page critical summary of an archival image or text 

Mar. 14: No class-spring break

Mar. 21: Charles Chesnutt, The Marrow of Tradition; material from the Norton critical edition: “1898 Wilmington Riot Commission Findings,” “Hell Jolted Loose,” Negro Rule Ended, Washington Post (Nov. 11, 1898)

Mar. 28: Chesnutt, The Marrow of Tradition; “Sheet Music from the 1890s,” “Dusky Dinah: Cake-Walk and Patrol,” “Way Down South: Characteristic March, Cake-Walk and Two-Step”

Apr. 4: Watch: Zoot Suit

Read: Catherine Ramírez, “Saying “Nothin'”: Pachucas and the Languages of Resistance”

Apr. 11: Suzanne Smith, Dancing in the Street, “’The Happening’: Detroit, 1967”; Scott Saul, “What You See Is What You Get”: Wattstax, Richard Pryor, and the Secret History of the Black Aesthetic (focus on section 3, “As Real as Real Can Get,” and watch the accompanying clip

Listen: Martha and the Vandellas, “Dancing in the Street”

Thesis workshop part 1

Apr. 18: Watch: Finally Got the News

Thesis workshop part 2