Tear gas drifting in front of the Parthenon again, the police in the polis: the Greek black lives matter solidarity protest that marched on the US embassy in Athens was my pick for most inspiring image of the week, with a lot of competition.
They tried to burn it down too, which was naughty of them, but the main takeaway was the particular type of act of solidarity this represented. Global leftists have marched against US racism for decades, but hitherto this has always had a degree of reproving an empire that sought to lecture the world on human rights, and bomb on that pretext.
The protests that have occurred across the world have a different character. They’re not only about joining local racism to its American manifestation, but doing so at the same level. This is not America, the empire, to which we dissent as a way of asserting our independence from its self-conception.
This is America the fucked-up basket case, a place which has fallen so far from a basic level of dealing with this stuff as to form a funhouse mirror version of modernity, in which all features are reflected back as a grotesque.
God knows we can’t even begin to claim anything better, but what the world is talking back to America about is not the mere fact of racism, but any lingering pretension that its racism is simply an aberration from its otherwise solid liberal foundations.
The reverse is the case. The alter-function of America’s liberal constitutional order has now come to the fore. The manner in which its claim to be the repository of universal values has served as a cover for particular interests — in this case, above all, of whiteness — has now, by being exposed, been rendered powerless.
Indeed, that may serve to be Trump’s most significant effect on the republic and the world. Practically every president prior has known, even if only in their bones, that they are the custodian of a mystique — America as the realisation of human possibility, the last best hope — and that their power depends on its maintenance and projection.
Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis was a globalisation of that — and if any moment marks the end of the end of history, it’s the coinciding of the global uprising that has been under way since last year with a pandemic that required the state to dictate a basic reconstruction of social life.
Trump’s extraordinary historical role has been to refute that mystique, in word and action. He did it during the 2016 campaign, which was why he could simultaneously say the unsayable — that America bombs and invades other countries — while also advocating that, if the US must be there, it should take their oil. He implicitly advocated a multipolar world, while praising the 1910 US Philippines occupation, which left hundreds of thousands dead. And so on.
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This culminated in his walk to a church nearby the White House, ahead of dispersed protesters, to hold up a Bible and declare an intent to come down hard on protests. The proximate cause was addressing the mockery of his move to the White House bunker during the mass push against the White House itself last week (an extraordinary thing to write), but it felt more like a restaging of a fictional event, Jed Bartlet’s “walk to Congress'” in The West Wing.
Redolent because Trump is the anti-Bartlet. His real presidency utterly situates The West Wing‘s liberal fantasy of what America actually is as a history that never happened, nor could happen. The show was a pious hope that the Democrats and the country might learn from the Clinton squalor. They did, but the Obama presidency wasn’t it.
Trump’s accession situated Bartlet’s philosopher-king as the precursor to Trump’s idiot-savant, a man who knows not what he does, but does it anyway. America’s id, and not theirs, but the West’s too, as led by the US for 80 years.
Without mystique, power is just suppression, for as long as that can be exercised. Months of lockdown, combined with a police killing that not only reprised earlier killings, but enacted the protest meme arising — “I can’t breathe” — as a taunt of history, almost a dare. How could it not be responded to, at the level it has been?
The militarised US police are a parallel executive power, which did not exist when the constitution was drafted. They exist nowhere within it, and thus everywhere within US society. Because constitutionally invisible, they fill every pore, every gap. In this uprising their anomalous power has been exposed to a degree which has endangered its smooth operation more than ever before, showing that the true chronicler of the US “real” is not Howard Zinn, but James Ellroy, cartographer of the country’s innumerable intersections of violence and desire.
Hence, I think, the ostensibly curious non-appearance of the militias, the tricorn hat and AR-15 crew, in the strip mall carpark, the Cinnabon patriots.
They weren’t part of the real, so their only appearance was a fantasy protest against consented-to lockdowns. We called a civil war and they didn’t (yet) show up. Not carbines, but carbs, the right to wobbly arms.
To their tedious cosplay, we counterpose the hundreds of thousands, millions, coming out against armoured vehicles and riot shields, rubber bullets and real ones, with nothing but their bodies. In a country with 300 million guns, what should be marvelled at is the collective restraint of the protesters, borne not of timidity, but determination to keep the world’s eyes on the prize.
What America and the world has rebelled against this week is the remnant proposition that we would have to conduct these struggles, these debates for unquestionable goals — equality of safety and life — through the medium of an ageing empire’s fantasies. Something would have happened whoever was president, but Trump’s demythologising insurgency has given it historical moment.
From Athens to Wilcannia, Chicago to Chicago, the empire has fallen away from within itself. The possibilities are more dangerous than they have hitherto been, but at least possibility has become possible.
What do you make of America, Trump and the protests? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say column.