Well, it is the eve. Any commentary on the imminent US election is best done from one of the states. Luckily I’m in one — that being post-operative inflammation. So if the following reflections are a little more disorganised than usual, that’s probably appropriate to the event itself.
The American state has lost its capacity to reproduce power in a stable manner over the course of eight years. The 2012 election, looked at in retrospect, was as formal and bounded as a game of chess, with some voter suppression and gerrymander that now seems trivial.
The US has been here before; the civil war was a collapse of that sort. After that the black vote was suppressed for 90 years and several elections — 1884, probably 1960 and 1968, arguably 2000 — were stolen. The mechanics of such were known to urban dwellers, a mystery to others. The rate of vote theft, ballot stuffing, etc, was held to even out over time.
But then came the post-World War II liberal period, and the gradual expansion of ethical demands by an increasingly educated and liberated population. Jim Crow voter suppression was largely addressed by the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the whole system was cleaned up somewhat after the 1968 election in which mass protests made the system wobble a little.
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It was in response to the abolition of open corruption that the era of secret corruption began, with the Nixon era, the Committee for the Re-election of the President (CREEP), and Watergate.
It was the beginning of the right’s abandonment of a commitment to even the limited degree of legitimacy that was hitherto honoured to some degree. That may have gone underground for a while after Nixon’s resignation but it returned with the 1988 election, and Republican strategist Lee Atwater’s brutal, racist campaign for George HW Bush against the hapless Michael Dukakis.
The willingness of the Republicans to summon up fear and division in such a fundamental way marked a change in the right’s relationship to the US as a global power.
As the Cold War was coming to an end, and the liberal, progressive worldview started to become dominant, the right became the insurgency, retreated from any notion of abstract norms to a constellation of pure power.
The “never Trumpers” such as David Frum, who see a radical breach between the George W Bush administration and Trump, are deluding themselves. It was with the Dubya administration that everything — foreign policy, the war in Iraq, “wrecking crew” social policy — became the projection of political power.
The coalition that was the right — “old” (i.e. non-tech) capital, regional white elites, evangelical Christians — defined itself only by its alliance against an ever-growing progressivism.
Once the simultaneous rise of social media and the smartphone radically changed the character of social interaction, progressivism fused with “new” capital and became the default setting of contemporary social life.
The particular form of American elections — the primary — opened the possibility for Trump to stage an insurgency within the insurgency. The Republicans could have excluded Trump as a candidate but they dared not. By drawing Trump in as leader the tension between pure power and institutional legitimation collapsed on the right.
Crashing down with it came the American state’s ability to project the mystique of governance that would restrain the passions of its citizens.
That tension has been present since the founding. The constitution is, on the one hand, the instituting rules of a republic held to be based on natural rights given by God. But that supernatural grounding must be maintained by ritual — the ancestor worship of presidents, the shamanic ritual of constitutional interpretation by the Supreme Court — lest its human origins be too visible.
It’s striking how disconcerted the “founding fathers” were by what they had wrought. Jefferson, Washington and John Adams, all deists rather than Christians, were obsessed by the unravelling of their own faith by the very act of creating a republic based on reason alone. They worried even more that this was a process that would overtake the republic, leaving it ungrounded.
For Adams, this was reason enough to maintain an anti-democratic elite leadership via a conscious reinforcement of the mystique. If the public believed there was something behind the curtain, continuity and consensus could be preserved.
The one dissenter was Jefferson, who was half-convinced that the constitution should be torn up and rewritten, and who had a half-acknowledged belief that irrationality was necessary to an order based on reason, whiff of anarchism (it blew away after the Haiti uprising of 1803 when it became clear that blacks could do it too).
He would see the sorts of energies exhibited by both the pro-Trump militias and Antifa as healthy political expressions, and lethal violence as far from the worst thing that could happen to a republic. That attitude is encoded in the founding documents, the shadow cast by their appeal to reason.
So Trump’s call to the dark side — to thuggish politics of pure will — comes from within Americans as much as from without. The populist revolt of “the deplorables” fuses with the internal coup by the Trump clique, the Steve Bannon occultists and the corrupted republican establishment.
The electoral process could stand an attack at one level but it is now being attacked at every level, from vote prevention to fake legal challenges.
Increasingly it forces the left into a conservative position, defending the given order, sapping it of energy and audacity. Since that means defending an order based on mystique — witness the discursive masturbatory fantasy of The West Wing, for example — it further divides progressives from the excluded and exiled groups that could once be counted in the Democratic corner.
For such groups everything is now mystique, where the world was once comprehensible: the economy has no locality to it; value and wealth accumulate independent of work; chains and franchises have turned the US into a giant no-place; mass culture is made by the knowledge class for the knowledge class; cultural identity has been transformed into a series of moral tests; and the thing-ness of the world has become a series of impenetrable “black boxes” understood only by the people who design them.
Politics, science, world-process — all the mystiques are fusing into one grand discourse of the other, their masters’ voice. In Europe this sends people hurtling back to nativist nationalism. That option is not open in the US. Much of the rust belt is descended from European immigrants whom Anglo-nativists despised – constitutionalism has been captured by the left, and so all that remains is a counter mystique, i.e. conspiracy theory.
As with Trump’s assaults on legitimacy, such malarky quickly hits a maximum. Hence the autonomous spread of the QAnon conspiracy, which combines sprawling complexity with vastness, with the abhorrence of paedophilia, with the redemptive promise of defeat, deliverance, and the world restored. Endless concrete associations — this event with that person with this photo, with that coincidence — are marshalled against the master’s voice of abstraction, science, the autonomous algorithm.
Both sides– reason v conspiracy — offer complementary forms of secular gnosticism, the claim to a secret knowledge that places one among the elect. Progressives wonder at the persistence and spread of conspiratorial thinking. But if reason has been turned against you, if its main effect is to undermine your lifeworld, what is rational about committing to “reason”?
If conspiracy thinking allows you to regroup and resist, being irrational is a reasoned act, even if not thought of in those explicit terms by the people making that sort of swerve.
Given that situation, I suspect Trump will be harder to dislodge than the polls suggest. If I were to have a punt, I’d say that he’ll lose Wisconsin, North Carolina, the second district of Nebraska (the state and Maine split their electoral college votes), and Arizona, a new red-to-blue entry. He’ll retain Florida, Ohio, Iowa, Georgia, Texas (!) and Maine second district. He won’t get Minnesota.
That would leave him with 269, a deadheat, if he retained Michigan and Pennsylvania. I think Michigan is gone for him, and Pennsylvania is knife-edge, but give it to him.
Which would give Trump 253 to Biden’s 285, and a blizzard of lawsuits. If it went that way the key way it would fall into Trump’s lap would be a failure by the Dems to recapture North Carolina. That would damn their choice of Biden — that they didn’t offer someone worth voting for, sufficient to build a progressive coalition and overcome the residual loyalty of Trump’s deplorables elsewhere.
But, as I say, a punt. We shall know eventually — unless the tanks ride into DC on Thursday our time and the election is retroactively cancelled.
How strange it is when history happens, or threatens to, and the past and future stand ready to break, all commanding words and phrases, the power of mystique, ready to become a language no one any longer speaks.