- Reflection Now! Critique and Solidarity in the Trump Era
Well before the US presidential election in November, liberal commentators on both foreign and domestic policy took every opportunity to point out just how disastrous a Trump presidency would be for American values and for the stability of the global economy and the international order. This was the explicit message of the Clinton campaign and of those who hailed her as the lesser of two evils;1 it was also the cry of those Republicans who openly denounced not only Trump’s behavior but also some of his policy proposals.2 At the same time, many in the foreign policy establishment intoned gravely that Trump was “beyond repair” and that his election would signal “a de facto withdrawal from the liberal world order.”3 In Robert Kagan’s words, if elected, Trump’s “ultimately self-destructive tendencies would play out on the biggest stage in the world, with consequences at home and abroad that one can barely begin to imagine.”4 In short, for liberals on both sides of the partisan divide, the choice was clear: “Clinton or barbarism.”5
As this brief introduction indicates, we define the term “liberal” capaciously to comprise adherents of a worldview that emphasizes liberty, individualism, formal equality, and the rule of law. Politically, this philosophy entails a commitment to sovereign autonomy and constitutional government, typically representative democracy. Economically, it includes a commitment to capitalism (which today means to neoliberal economic orthodoxies), individual responsibility, and unrestricted property rights. On the foreign policy front, liberals believe in a version of informal imperialism that understands America as the “indispensable nation” whose military hegemony is necessary for the maintenance of international peace, the protection of human rights, the stability of financial markets, and the smooth functioning of the world’s vastly integrated system of trade relationships.6 Despite internal variation, liberalism in this sense is a doctrine shared by establishment Democrats and Republicans alike, by mainstream parties throughout Europe, North America, and the Antipodes, and by much of the professional commentariat.
This article focuses primarily on American liberalism and on its characteristic practices of denial and deflection, practices which we maintain have fertilized the soil in which Trumpism has taken root. [End Page 68] We are well aware that some readers will criticize us for lumping Democrats and Republicans together in our analysis, thereby ignoring real and important differences between them—differences that have been animated (and called into question) during Trump’s first weeks in office. Yet we believe that the urgency of the current situation makes it vital to engage in an honest and uncompromising critique of liberalism and its complicity in creating that situation. No adequate critique of the present moment, and no effective political response to it, can ignore the proclivity of a self-satisfied and unreflective liberalism to coopt and undermine resistance by ignoring its own failures and re-asserting itself as the only reasonable and viable alternative to Trumpism. Our point is that critique of liberalism and opposition to Trump go hand in glove.
In a similar vein, Edward Said once insisted that engaging in historical and discursive reflection on ideological and cultural phenomena like Orientalism is not meant to vitiate the imperative to confront the profound material violence and injustice of imperialism’s legacy. The idea, he argued, was “not to separate one struggle from another,” but rather “to connect” these debates over history and social meaning to the reality of political struggle. This article is written in a such a spirit of connection. We maintain that constructing the kind of ongoing, heterogeneous solidarity necessary to counter the unrepentant white nationalism and proto-fascism—evident in the President’s ugly “wall politics,” his “Muslim Ban,” and his pointed attacks on the media and on the separation of powers—requires a vigorous critique of liberal deflection in the past and in the present, and requires that we marry this critique to effective resistance. This, we argue, is the essence of a politics of reflection.
Following Trump’s Electoral College triumph, liberal hand-wringing intensified, with much of the punditry struggling to make sense of an outcome...