Election Reflection

Race and sex stoke deep responses in the American psyche

Published in The Guardian, November 9, 2016

Patricia J. Williams
Many years ago the great oral historian Studs Terkel recounted a story told to him by a woman who’d been molested by a relative as a child. She’d tried to tell her mother but no one would believe her. Yet one day when she was shopping with her mother and aunt, they spotted a black man far away on the other side of the department store. The women gathered the girl close to them, worrying aloud about the unbridled lust that that man might harbour toward little white girls. The now-grown woman told Terkel that, even as a young child, she could see the craziness in that moment: they could not see or hear that she was being assaulted by a member of the family, but instead marshalled their sexualised anxiety against the distant figure of a black man obliviously going about his business.

I have been thinking about that story quite a bit in recent weeks, as I’ve pondered the phenomenon of Donald Trump’s peculiar appeal to … well, any demographic, but especially a particular stratum of conservative women. I’m particularly intrigued by women who worry aloud about his extreme nativism or misogyny or careless grasp of foreign affairs – yet who then say that what really drives their allegiance is “hatred” of the supposedly murderous and licentious Hillary Clinton. This is often expressed as a repulsion so strong that, like the little girl’s mother and aunt, they are willing to give Uncle Donald a pass in the face of multiple allegations of sexual assault, breathtaking racism, unprecedented crudity, cruelty, verbal incoherence and globalised, soul-searing mendacity.

While the intensity of vitriol directed at Clinton still mystifies me to a great extent, Terkel’s story reminds me that there is an affective dynamic to all politics, an emotional narrative that may make sense in an alternate universe from which I may be functionally excluded. Race and sex stoke deep autonomic responses in the American psyche. Trump began his political career more than 20 years ago by taking out a full-page ad in the New York Times, calling for the execution of five teenagers wrongly accused of raping and beating a young white stockbroker who became known as the Central Park Jogger. Although DNA evidence pinned the crime to another man, Trump has never backed down from his assertion that he was right.

Similarly, throughout the campaign, Trump has evoked old tropes of a ravaged America, endlessly at risk from Mexican rapists, African American thugs and Muslim terrorists. Indeed, with endorsements from the likes of the Ku Klux Klan and George Zimmerman, Trump has revitalised a narrative of warrior masculinity that dates back to DW Griffith’s film Birth of a Nation – the trope of strong, pugilistic white vigilantes fighting against corrupt, lying and libertine black invaders (literally black voters in that movie) – in order to protect the honour of frightened white women. It seems not insignificant that Trump has consistently appeared with a backdrop of attentive women, blonde women, beautiful women who smile and wave and whom he symbolically shelters from rapists and terrorists and the “very bad people” from “certain neighbourhoods”.

Like many of us Nasty Women of a certain age and weight, Clinton is not sheltered by such cowboy chivalry. In addition, her achievements as secretary of state were slandered or obliterated in ways underwritten by suggestions of race-mixing, combined with horrendous and ubiquitous caricatures of Barack Obama: the dangerously “alien” black man who stole the reins of power and, in a lustily miscegenous union with Clinton, supposedly “invented Islamic State”.

In this alternative universe, Trump holds great appeal to those who were only recently forced to remove the Confederate flag from government buildings, and, in a profoundly felt sense, have never conceded that the American civil war is over.

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State of Exception

Americans Are Finding New Ways to Join the Surveillance State | The Nation 08/11/2016 5:40 PM


T here are a few recent reports that are worth considering in our hackable brave new world. The first is from Georgetown University Law School’s Center on Privacy & Technology, titled “The Perpetual Line- Up: Unregulated Police Face Recognition in America.” It documents the growth of immense law-enforcement data banks—accumulated by the FBI and local, state, and federal police agencies—housing digital images of more than 117 million American citizens. These pictures are drawn from mug shots, driver’s licenses, passport photos, and the Internet. While facial-recognition technology is a genuinely useful tool in solving crime, the report highlights potential areas of infringement upon privacy, civil rights, and liberties, as well as a lack of transparency or public accountability. Indeed, unlike voice recordings, the collection of which is governed by the Wiretap Act, the gathering of visual images is pretty much unregulated.

This lack of regulation—and public ignorance of such systems’ existence—means that police departments are able to use facial recognition to identify and track law- abiding citizens as well as criminal suspects. Many police departments are able to run “continuous, real- time scans of people walking by a surveillance camera”—without warrant, reasonable suspicion, or any other limitation. The report found that of 52 agencies polled, only one prohibits officers from “using face recognition to track individuals engaging in political, religious, or other protected free speech.” In addition, facial-recognition technologies are manufactured by private companies using proprietary algorithms generally classified as intellectual property or trade secrets. Hence, few measures exist for ensuring accuracy through public oversight, regular maintenance, or published operating standards.


In addition, the potential for error—particularly racially based error—seems built into the machine. The Seattle Police Department even claims that its system “does not see race.” The Pennsylvania Justice Network’s system, on the other hand, comes with a manual whose only user options are: “Generic Male, Generic Female, Asian Male, Asian Female, Caucasian Male, Caucasian Female or Middle Eastern Male.” Another study suggests that darker faces may significantly reduce accuracy because of badly calibrated color contrast.

If this is not of sufficient concern, add in that there is a hidden but quite lucrative market in mining cell-phone customers’ data: It was recently revealed, for example, that AT&T has been secretly selling information like call time, duration, and location to state and local police departments since at least 2008. It doesn’t take much to imagine how other data from one’s credit cards, Siri, Facebook profile, reading habits, political preferences, entertainment choices, and residential-security cameras might be compiled to create profiles that define citizens as effectively as a new-age caste system.


If even that kind of surreptitious tracking seems not to trouble many Americans, perhaps it may take a more ominous cast when understood as a broad phenomenon in the global context. For example, the Chinese government has been building a comprehensive data bank that would rank all “natural persons, legal persons and other organizations” by adding up “social credits” accumulated in economic and social activities. China hopes to have a population-wide system of measurement up and running by the year 2020, giving “complete rein to mechanisms to encourage keeping trust and punish breaking trust.”

China’s plan purports to rank not merely government, business, or educational enterprises, but a full range of personal virtues, including traffic violations, attention to fire safety, one’s role as student, and the general “online behavior of netizens.” The report suggests online blacklists for nonconformity, with “exposure” as punishment, “rewards for reporting individuals,” with “credit reward alliances across multiple departments and regions, ensur[ing] that those keeping trust receive benefit in all respects, and those breaking trust meet with difficulty at every step.”


Similarly, New Zealand has invited teams of citizens to help monitor its network of CCTV surveillance cameras. “People really don’t realise they are being watched,” said one such volunteer. “That may sound nasty, but I’ve always believed if you have nothing to hide you have no problem with surveillance if it keeps everyone safe.”

Such casual faith in the panopticon assumes a degree of beneficent goodwill among the hidden overseers. It assumes reliable mechanisms of due process and appeal before the undisclosed algorithm calculates one’s threat level and deploys a disciplinary drone. It assumes close social bonds between the viewed and the viewer, and no deep, disenfranchising divisions between citizen and soldier.

Yet here we stand, at a moment when divisions in the United States have rarely been starker. Some look at our president and are certain he is “alien”; others think it “obvious” that Hillary Clinton should be jailed summarily. Recently, Stewart Rhodes, president of Oath Keepers, a militia comprising of former law- enforcement officers, asked his membership to seek out voter fraud by engaging in “incognito intelligence.” His “call to action” included instruction on how to “blend in with the crowd…That may mean wearing a Bob Marley… or ‘Che’ Guevara tee-shirt.”


Having “nothing to hide” only gets you so far when there is no way to contest the judgments of a hidden gaze. “We don’t want the bad guys to know that we’re out there,” declared Rhodes. “We want them to worry about whether or not they’re being watched.” This appropriation of surveillance authority creates a pervasive us versus them mentality, eradicating the boundary between liberty and license. So here we are, fellow citizens—at a moment when libertarianism’s distaste for oversight intersects with technological totalism. We flow seamlessly, helplessly, into sweeping currents of the quietly totalitarian. •


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“Will American Politics Survive Trump?” Canadian Public Broadcasting, The Sunday Edition with Michael Enright, November 6, 2016




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The Nation Magazine,  OCTOBER 5, 2016

When Hillary Clinton was nominated at the Democratic National Convention, the party celebrated with a video of a glass ceiling being shattered, only to reveal Clinton emerging triumphantly from the shards.

Although her achievement is moving to me, a woman of a certain age, it is unclear how many younger Americans appreciate the profound—and rapid—revolution underwriting this moment. In an interview in New York magazine last spring, Clinton recalled an encounter she’d had many years ago, when she took the LSAT. A young man said to her, “If you get into law school and I don’t, and I have to go to Vietnam and get killed, it’s your fault.” The interview inspired a comment in which the writer complained: “I don’t believe for one second her story about the LSAT…. This is more of her play for sympathy and victimization.”

This is a bitter election, and there are those who will never believe that the sun is in the sky if Hillary Clinton says so. But I attended law school only a few years after she did, and her story is certainly exemplary of what my female classmates and I were told. And it’s more or less what Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her eight other female classmates encountered in 1956, when Erwin Griswold, the dean of Harvard Law School, demanded to know how each of them justified taking the space of a presumably more productive man.

When I graduated from law school,  women composed only 8 percent of my class of approximately 500. Those numbers improved rapidly during the activism of the 1980s. Today, women make up approximately 50 percent of the students at most American law schools. Yet many do not know that Hillary Clinton, Sandra Day O’Connor, and other icons of today’s legal landscape came of age in a time—again, not so very long ago—when most law schools struggled to find toilets that women could use. (Barbara Underwood, one of Yale Law School’s early female faculty members, was told to use the janitor’s closet.) We forget that the moral panic about bathroom access for transgender people has a direct precedent in the affective disgust that greeted the first generation of women—particularly pregnant women—who tried to use the toilets in formerly all-male bastions.

This amnesia about women’s history doesn’t mean that we have “overcome.” Indeed, such forgetfulness disguises the ways in which Clinton and other American women are still being subjected to debilitating disparagement and concrete limitations. President Obama’s election was so monumental and so unprecedented that it erased history in some quarters, particularly among the major media outlets who sold it as an unqualified feel-good story, and among well-educated, left-leaning whites, for whom he was something of a relief—“articulate and bright and clean,” as then-Senator Joe Biden once put it.

But that loss of the long view 
wasn’t shared by most African Americans, who anticipated and greatly feared a backlash, never having forgotten the post–Civil War reversals that quashed the electoral triumphs of the Reconstruction era and ushered in Jim Crow. Consider the trajectory of the so-called “Obama effect”: Gun sales jumped 90 percent in the month after the 2008 election, apparently thanks to right-leaning whites who thought that a black president effectively meant that a race war was upon us. That fear has been a constant ever since, intersecting with a form of backlash some have called the “Ferguson effect,” most recently invoked by Trump when he declared that the U.S. has “race riots on our streets on a monthly basis.”

Similarly, we must be on our guard against a “Hillary effect”—
a powerful resurgence of sexism. Trump has become its current mouthpiece, placing Clinton’s iconic attainments on behalf of women’s and children’s rights on the same level as accusations that her going to the bathroom is “disgusting”; that she “got schlonged” by Obama during the last election; and that “if Hillary Clinton can’t satisfy her husband, what makes her think she can satisfy America?” (this last from a Trump fan’s tweet, shared by the candidate). After all, Trump has gone on record saying that he thinks women need to be treated “like shit,” and then lives precisely by that credo.


In his latest and most baffling attack, Trump has accused Clinton of marital infidelity. In his untethered opinion, “I don’t even think she’s loyal to Bill.” It’s like the unfunny version of Restoration-era comedy: accusing your opponent of having cuckolded and emasculated her husband and—somewhat confusingly in this context—of being too masculine to be feminine.

Trump’s scattershot broadsides—against women, men, cheaters, haters, Mexicans, Muslims, and crying babies—are crosshatched in ways that make pushback a challenge for many traditional pundits and advocacy groups. Trump possesses a singular ability to mix the poisonous waters of the culture wars into colorful new hybrids of exotic demonization. His words rain down like cluster bombs, exploding in so many pieces and directions that one scarcely knows how to assess the damage. His concept of civic worth is so exclusive that he enfranchises, privileges, and anoints no one but himself. “I alone,” he declared during the Republican National Convention, speaking as though he were an emperor. If there is hope to be found in this dismally divided insult-swamp upon whose edge America trembles, it may lie in this: Never have so many been so united in their marginalization.

Still: nothing about this moment can be taken for granted. Glass ceilings, once broken, can be boarded back up. The very brief history of women and minorities on the national stage makes manifest the urgent necessity of reinvigorating the very notion of politics itself. Defending human, civil, and other democratic rights is an unending struggle. Only the most generous coalition of human and civil-rights activism will succeed in the project of creating a world we might one day describe as “post-racial,” “post-gender,” and (I pray!) “post-Trump.”




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Trump L’Oeil

I was wending my way through the parking lot of a big-box store not long ago. A large, smoke-belching, unmuffled truck with the kind of mammoth tires one sees at demolition derbies hurtled into the lot and careened into a parking space some yards away. The sides of the truck were plastered with enormous political advertisements. “Make America Great Again,” the Trump banners read. (As the cloth furled and snapped and fluttered in the wind, however, it was “RUMP” and “RUM” whose guidance promised a return to gloryland.) The whole effect was bigger and more eye-catching than a float in a parade. The sight of it! The sound! Whether in approval or disapprobation, the entire geography of the parking lot reacted as one. Heads swiveled, eyes widened, mouths gaped.

The driver lumbered from his cab, sporting a long white beard stretching nearly to his navel. “What’re you staring at?” he snarled at a thunderstruck man of seemingly Asian phenotype, who was frozen in the act of unloading his groceries.

In many ways, this encounter was itself a pantomime of Donald Trump’s candidacy: unusual hair, dramatic arrival in clouds of smoke, spectacular parking job smack-dab on center stage—and then, with all eyes captured, the peevishly threatening demand not to be looked at so closely. Trump is the gilded monster truck of political ambition.

The scenario was also an enactment of Trump’s favorite precept: giving the finger to “political correctness” in the name of freedom of expression. I have the right to belch smoke in your face, call you a rapist or a murderer, and spatter you with mud. Now what’re you gonna do about it—cry like a baby? Freedom of expression is reduced to an arbitrary insistence upon one-way communication, a barked order. Making America “great again,” by this measure, is a command, not a hope. Get that crying baby out of the tent; move out of the way already.

This epitomizes one of the most tiresome assumptions that are insinuated into debates about freedom of expression: My right to call you a stupid monkey means that you have to shut up about it. If you don’t, you’re violating my free-speech rights.

This assumption—the belief that communication flows in one direction only, that it is the role of some to speak and others only to listen—is a paradox that stifles rather than encourages debate. “Get ’em outta here!” is literally the Trumpian cliché, tossed impatiently at any hint of dissent. This much is bad enough in a comic-book villain. But in an aspiring state actor, we must seriously consider the repercussions should he, as president, be endowed with the actual, not academic, executive power to censor.

Perhaps one reason Trump has been able to get away with being so absurdly vague, vulgar, and uninformed is that he has positioned himself squarely as a culture warrior, not as a politician. The culture wars aren’t about the specifics of foreign policy or climate change or budget concerns. They are waged as performative skirmishes—symbolic, visual, and visceral. In one corner are the send-ups of campus eggheads supposedly surrendering Western civilization to the people who “don’t belong”: women with “fat faces” bleeding from their “wherever,” unruly affirmative-action minorities, LGBTQ victimologists, job-stealing Asians, and a mushily defined remainder of soft equivocators and kale-eating “liberals.” In the other corner are the tough guys, the red-meat-eaters, real men who live in a “real world” of no rules but ruthlessness: plain-speaking, strong-jawed, put-up-or-shut-up cowboy entrepreneurs, unafraid to get their hands a little dirty in the service of building beautiful walls around the beautiful empire, the beautiful castle, and their bevy of beautiful ladies in skintight dresses.

For more than 20 years—thanks in no small part to the outsize influence of Trump surrogates and influential fear-mongers like Roger Ailes, Ralph Reed, Andrew Breitbart, Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, and Steve Bannon—the two sides have hardened. There is no middle ground.

The arrival of a female candidate has seen a turn to scorched-earth tactics. “Girly-men!” said Arnold Schwarzenegger of his Democratic rivals back in 2004. It led to a stream of similarly misogynistic Republican invective, effectively setting the stage for Trump’s performative attacks on Hillary Clinton. He doesn’t even have to put it in words at this point, because she has been reduced at every turn to a physically unhealthy yet nut-crackingly strong, pantsuit-wearing, man-hating closet lesbian, a castrating shrewish fish-without-a-bicycle.

There are no words that Hillary can ever speak to change this caricature. Endless invocation of the First Amendment notwithstanding, these constructions play less upon the right to speak than upon how things are said. Thus, Trump’s talent for passionate spectacle vaulted him through the initial debates, largely because he wasn’t really debating. Instead, he’s been signifying in a wordless contest of manners, mores, images, accent, etiquette, and idiom.

Once we’ve been lured onto this emotionally charged field of rational bypass, words stop working.

And though we have plenty of words to describe the “coddling” of college students who seek “safe spaces” in campus settings, we have fewer popular terms to describe Trump’s bid to make the entire United States a walled-off “safe space” from global exchange. We hear a lot about who is “silencing” whom whenever those effervescent Code Pink ladies pop up, faithful as flamenco-pink-wigged whack-a-moles, to be dragged from Trump rallies. Much less is spoken about the chilling effect of campus open-carry laws in classrooms where the expressive power of the First Amendment and the Second seem to have become perilously confused.

So… what’re you staring at?

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Standing Contested Ground

published in The Nation Magazine, August 15, 2016

He looked dangerous. He looked like a suspect. He looked like he was reaching for a weapon. The officer feared for his life.  This familiar litany was recited on the news more than once over the course of this vexed summer—a time weighted with foreboding, anxiety, and grief. We are all afraid of something: terrorism, random outlaws with PTSD, ominous political forces. As a result, gun sales have soared. Paradoxically, rising gun sales mean that it’s increasingly reasonable to suspect that someone pulled over by police to the side of the road will have one. Writes Ted Shaw, director of the Center for Civil Rights at the University of North Carolina, “in a society that worships gun culture and advocates the right to carry weapons, it cannot be that the fact that an individual has a gun automatically justifies shooting him.”

Yet it’s also true that the history of the right to bear arms is shaped by exclusionary privilege based on race and gender. It is almost exclusively white men who may “reasonably” carry firearms to protests outside Target or political conventions. It is almost exclusively white men who do not need to retreat from domestic disputes while on ground deemed “theirs.” Nonwhites and women, however, are much less likely to be able to walk through the world with assault rifles (or toy guns, or the shadow of anything that might resemble a gun) and not be mowed down for that reason alone—either by police or the idealized citizen-savior.

Harvard professor Caroline Light has traced the history of our romance with legalized vigilantism. She dates it to the Reconstruction era, “when post-war political and economic turmoil and the enfranchisement of African American men fed late-19th-century gender panic, and the legal terrain shifted to characterize a man’s ‘castle’ and the dependents residing therein as an extension of the white masculine self.” Light (whose excellent new book Stand Your Ground: A History of America’s Love Affair With Lethal Self-Defense is forthcoming from Beacon Press next spring) asserts that current policies, including defunding basic public services, have led to a situation in which “the state’s retreat from the protection of its citizens creates a perceived need for (do-it-your)self-defense.” The supposedly race-neutral idea of “reasonable threat” actually encourages a “lethal response to black intrusions into spaces considered white.”

Recently, an officer from the North Miami Police Department shot and wounded Charles Kinsey, a black therapist trying to help a severely autistic patient who had wandered away from a mental-health center and into traffic. Pictures taken by passersby showed that neither the patient nor Kinsey was armed. Indeed, Kinsey had identified himself, explained the situation, and was lying on the ground with his hands in the air when the police shot him. Such a twitchy hair-trigger response reminded me that the North Miami Police Department had been chastised just last year for using African-American mug shots for target practice. Is it unreasonable to wonder if such “practice” trains the eye toward what to fear and whom to kill?

Against this already charged backdrop, a judge recently extended Florida’s “stand your ground” law to protect police officers. The case at issue involved the death of Jermaine McBean, a 33-year-old black man who was shot three times after being spotted walking on a busy street carrying what turned out to be an unloaded Airsoft rifle. A judge dismissed all charges against Broward County Sheriff’s Deputy Peter Peraza, based on his assertion that he had no duty to retreat because he believed that McBean was trying to kill or seriously harm him.

But “stand your ground” laws are a subspecies of self- defense. The idea is that “ground” is jurisprudentially defined as a space from which one has the reasonable expectation of excluding others—i.e., one’s property. What makes the idea of standing one’s ground so troubling is precisely the question of whose ground it is anyway—yours or mine? What, indeed, of “our” ground? Law-enforcement officers, after all, are charged with a duty to serve and protect public, collective geographies, not just “their” ground.

“Stand your ground” laws have extended the older defense of one’s “castle” beyond the walls of one’s home to one’s subjectively determined comfort zone—which, in effect, allows a public street to be turned into conceptually private space. However problematic this may be in citizen encounters, judging police by this measure would represent a seismic shift in accountability. It is a cornerstone of our legal system— and of international law—that police, as state actors, respond to objective standards, not fleeting emotions. Our expectation is that they will be well-trained in techniques of defusing confrontation, and that they will deploy force only as a last resort.

If the mere experience of fear justifies violence anyplace, anytime, we have set a dangerous precedent regardless of race, gender, or occupation—but especially in the case of police. As Nakia Jones, a black police officer in Ohio, stated in an impassioned video on YouTube, we must also look at the tension between the call of duty—which is one of public service, even self- sacrifice—and the unmoored fears harbored by those who don’t know anyone in the neighborhoods they’re assigned to patrol. There are at least some who, in the absence of training, experience, self-restraint, and proper support, may fill that void with assumptions and panic—who would place self-protection so far ahead of the duty to protect the community that they succumb much too easily to an ethic of “Shoot first, ask questions later.”

Nikki Giovanni’s poem “Allowables” has gone viral of late, and perhaps it bears repeating as a counter-litany in these times of edgy stand-off: I killed a spider / Not a murderous brown recluse / Not even a black widow /And if the truth were told this / Was only a small / Sort of papery spider / Who should have run / When I picked up the book / But she didn’t / And she scared me / And I smashed her / I don’t think / I’m allowed / To kill something / Because I am / Frightened.

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Royal Flush

By Patricia J. Williams

published in The Nation Magazine, JUNE 27, 2016

Donald Trump’s 70th birthday was June 14. One of its stranger celebrations took place in New Delhi, India, where members of the far-right Hindu Sena party made offerings of cake to a life-sized poster of the billionaire, praising him as the anti-Islamic messiah. “Trump has said Muslims should be banned from entering America. Everyone should support that,” said their organization’s president, Vishnu Gupta. “Trump is about to become the king of the world.”

Most media response rightly focused on Hindu Sena’s application of Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric to India’s boundary disputes with largely-Muslim Pakistan. But I was intrigued by how much easier it is to imagine Trump as king rather than as “presidential.” Trump certainly surrounds himself with more filigreed trappings than Louis the XIV. And with followers lauding his purity solely because he’s rich, he has magically succeeded in branding himself as America’s official golden calf. Perhaps it’s not a surprising leap that he would somehow be able to pass as Hindu Sena’s sacred cow as well. But I think that Donald Trump’s peculiar combination of crude yet imperial appeal is rooted in his personal appropriation of powers that legally belong to the state. He speaks not of government of or by the people, but only of “my” people.

Take just one well-worn example: “The people, my people, are so smart…they say I have the most loyal people, did you ever see that? Where I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK? It’s like incredible…” Delivered as a brief, apparently careless throwaway, this soliloquy was nevertheless a masterpiece of well-practiced theatrical force, a “shot” taken gesturally as well as verbally. It’s worth having a close look at the video. If you pause it at just the moment when he says the word “shoot,” you’ll see that for a second or two, his entire body language changes—drawing himself up to full height and looking directly into the camera with sudden, bracing dead-seriousness. (Indeed, he adopts the exact posture of Uncle Sam in James Montgomery Flagg’s 1917 US Army recruitment poster. It is almost impossible to see as accidental—right down to the color scheme—impossible to look at without hallucinating the familiar caption “I want you”….)

Trump then cocks his thumb, points his forefinger, and air-fires.

The next instant he’s back to the dance, the boasting jabs and jutting jaw, shoulders slanted, eyes off to the side, head lolling to all four winds. A roar of amusement rolls through the audience like a thunderstorm.

But in that one freeze-framed flash of his taking aim, his cocked body—that moment unleavened by jocular performativity—there is the tyrant’s invitation to join the army of “my people,” or else. His direct eye contact with the camera makes clear that he talking to you. In that quiver-pulsed moment of dark equivocation, you are invited down one of two paths: either that of the dumb sucker who goes limp and paralytic, the easy mark, a deer in the headlights of an unforgiving fate; or else leap aside, to his side, the good side, riding Trump’s triumphalist surf. The candidate’s rhetoric invites us into a world of magical realism, where a self-anointed good guy like Donald Trump can ride back in time to perform miracles: He would’ve cut short the carnage in Orlando, prevented 9/11, San Bernardino, and countless trade deals. He abides in a warrior world of redemptive vigilantism, where frightened psyches thrum to the drama of the OK Corral, now positioned squarely in the middle of Fifth Avenue. And Trump will be the savior of his people.

L’état, c’est moi.

In L’Eloge Historique du Roi Louis XIV, the great poet and tragedian Jean Racine wrote of the king’s power: “There is a continuous series of miraculous deeds that he himself initiates, that he completes, deeds as clear, as intelligible when they are carried out as they are impenetrable before they are carried out.”

In an ordered society, the state consigns to itself a monopoly of power over bodies and, in a well-ordered society, is held accountable for judicious exercise of that power through regulatory constraints like due process, habeas corpus, and civil-rights laws. In traditional models of European monarchy, by contrast, the king was anointed, in a way that combined both absolute physical as well as spiritual—or messianic—power. This is the most important distinction between power accorded to systems of governance such as ours and the rule of kings. The restrained ideal of civil society is the direct, unpanicked polar opposite of “you’re fired” efficiency or “off with your head” fiat.

Nicholas Mirzoeff, in his very lucid media manual, How to See the World, writes that the corruptible humanity of royal individuals was disguised, shielded, enrobed in “the concept known as the body of the king, which we can call majesty. Majesty does not sleep, get ill, or become old. It is visualized, not seen.” This implied immortality of the embodied state is of course why the accession of monarchs was—still is—hailed with, “The king is dead, long live the king!”

“Long live Donald Trump,” shouted members of Hindu Sena, whose brand of fundamentalist nationalism has been linked for years to lethal riots against Muslims.

Donald Trump invokes “people” with every breath. But that invocation never encompasses the complex humanity of the people he marks as “his” (as in: “Oh, look at my African American over there…”). There is little acknowledgment that it is citizens themselves who hold power to govern. In his reductions of democracy to lone-wolf appropriation, his campaign has been one long pantomime of a corporate takeover: l’état, c’est Trump. Vive le moi. That “efficiency-of-me” bodes poorly for polity, for fairness, for justice, for us.

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