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.

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