The Worse Angels of Our Nature

Susan McWilliams over at The Nation has penned one of the best pieces on Donald J. Trump and Trumpism that I have seen in quite some time. Possibly ever.

McWilliams said that Hunter S. Thompson, in his essay (and later book) on The Hell’s Angels, saw the kind of culture among disaffected white people that would become the wave Trump rode into the White House.

For Thompson, the Angels weren’t important because they heralded a new movement of cultural hedonism, but because they were the advance guard for a new kind of right-wing politics. As Thompson presciently wrote in the Nation piece he later expanded on in Hell’s Angels, that kind of politics is “nearly impossible to deal with” using reason or empathy or awareness-raising or any of the other favorite tools of the left.

[Thompson’s book] Hell’s Angels concludes when the Angels ally with the John Birch Society and write to President Lyndon Johnson to offer their services to fight communism, much to the befuddlement of the anti-Vietnam elites who assumed the Angels were on the side of “counterculture.” The Angels and their retaliatory militarism were, Thompson warned, the harbingers of a darker time to come. That time has arrived.

These are people who are unwilling to play nice because there’s no point for them to do so. They’ve already lost, and they know it.

Thompson’s Angels were mostly working-class white men who felt, not incorrectly, that they had been relegated to the sewer of American society. Their unswerving loyalty to the nation— the Angels had started as a World War II veterans group—had not paid them any rewards or won them any enduring public respect. The manual-labor skills that they had learned and cultivated were in declining demand. Though most had made it through high school, they did not have the more advanced levels of training that might lead to economic or professional security. “Their lack of education,” Thompson wrote, “rendered them completely useless in a highly technical economy.” Looking at the American future, they saw no place for themselves in it.

In other words, the Angels felt like “strangers in their own land,” as Arlie Russell Hochschild puts it in her recent book on red-state America. …

The Angels decided not to be polite losers, however. Believing everything — politics, society, the economy — was rigged against them, they fought back with an intense nihilism, a nihilism that deliberately sets out to provoke the genteel and educated through, among other things, coarse, offensive, and racist speech.

Therein lies the ethic of total retaliation. The Angels, rather than gracefully accepting their place as losers in an increasingly technical, intellectual, global, inclusive, progressive American society, stuck up their fingers at the whole enterprise. If you can’t win, you can at least scare the bejeesus out of the guy wearing the medal. You might not beat him, but you can make him pay attention to you. You can haunt him, make him worry that you’re going to steal into his daughter’s bedroom in the darkest night and have your way with her—and that she might actually like it.

Thompson would want us to see this: These are men and women who know that, by all intellectual and economic standards, they cannot win the game. So whether it be out of self-protection or an overcompensation for their own profound sense of shame, they lash out at politicians, judges, scientists, teachers, Wall Street, universities, the media, legislatures—even at elections. They are not interested in contemplating serious reforms to the system; they are either too pessimistic or too disappointed to believe that is possible. So the best they can do is adopt a position of total irreverence: to show they hate the players and the game.

Understood in those terms, the idea that Trumpism is “populist” seems misplaced. Populism is a belief in the right of ordinary people, rather than political insiders, to rule. Trumpism, by contrast, operates on the presumption that ordinary people aren’t going to get any chance to rule no matter what they do, so they might as well piss off the political insiders using the only tool left available to them: the vote.

There’s a lot of insight here, about why such folks might hate government and still think very highly of the police and the armed forces (because both institutions legitimize and draw their legitimacy from the use of brute force, and the Angels both appreciate and respect brute force), and how there’s no reasonable or polite or even civilized way of dealing with such politics. Now that it has been unleashed electorally (Nixon, who also rode such sentiments to the White House, faced a Democrat majority Congress that could check and eventually vote to impeach him; Trump will face no such impediment to his power, at least not for the first two years), it will be intriguing to see how progressives will cope with and adjust to this. My guess is: badly and incompetently. The Left will have to learn a street-fighting fearlessness I don’t see in those busy policing language. The seeds of that fearlessness are there, but the American Left spends too much of its time appealing to power rather than fighting it.

(The time has come to study Act Up! and Queer Nation.)

Anyway, read the piece. It’s worth it.

To be honest, I sympathize an awful lot with the resentment that Thompson describes here. I did a lot of work, got a lot of education, and have failed spectacularly within polite society and respectable institutions. I have a whole raft of useless education, skills and talents no one is willing to pay for. In  the end, that’s my fault, but honestly, I’m not all bad or disreputable, despite what some religious leaders have concluded. (Jen and I lived next to a biker gang in San Francisco; that chapter didn’t make it into my book.) But it’s bad enough for me, I am disreputable enough and almost completely useless even with my Georgetown education, my master of divinity, and my solid middle-class upbringing, to see the class problems at work in bourgeois and elite America. Really, on many days I too wouldn’t mind bringing the whole the thing crashing down upon itself.

I remember when the Department of Homeland Security, the Pentagon, or some similar agency, was test flying a giant, white, antenna-and-camera-covered blimp over Washington, D.C., testing out the device’s intelligence gathering capabilities. I was taking a mid-morning break from The Oil Daily, had gone down to the Starbucks in the lobby, gotten some coffee, and was standing at the corner of 14th St. and New York, watching this spy blimp drift over the city.

Everyone knew what it was. We’d all been warned it was being tested.

I don’t recall if anyone else gave it the finger, but I did.

The Dangerous World to Come

I was talking to a co-worker today about Donald J. Trump, billionaire president-elect (he owns a mansion and a yacht) and she said something very interesting that I hadn’t considered.

She suggested that all of this “luv” Trump has been showing for Vladimir Putin isn’t real. Or rather, it isn’t what it seems to be. There’s no bromance going on here.

Rather, what we are seeing is something akin to the admiration Hitler and Stalin allegedly had for each other, and the cooperation Nazi Germany (and before then, the Weimar Republic) and the Soviet Union engaged in, especially when it came to military cooperation (such as tank training) forbidden to Germany under the Versailles Treaty and the sale of German military and chemical technology to the USSR in exchange for Soviet food and raw materials, especially after the Molotov-Ribbentro Pact of August 1939.

The sides were ostensibly friendly to each other, and once the Germans invaded Poland, the two nations carved up Eastern Europe. It is my understanding that even as German tanks crossed the Soviet frontier in June, 1941, Stalin was still sending food and resource shipments to the Germans, and had been convinced that he, and not Hitler, was going to be the one to abrogate the pact.

So, it may be that the Trump-Putin “bromance” is more akin to this David Low cartoon from late September or early October 1939 than a real effort by two of the five major “Congress Powers” to run the world along the lines envisioned by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the UN Charter.

davidlowrendezvous

This makes sense, given that the best way to understand Trump is to take him seriously without taking him literally. (A mistake the educated chattering classes of the elite, including myself, constantly made.) However, this also means that Trump’s intentions toward Russia are fraught with a great deal more danger than advertised, since far from avoiding confrontation, he’s steeling himself for the moment he thinks he can provoke something and have the absolute advantage.

This also makes sense if I’m right about my analysis of Trump as a gangster, then right now, he and Putin are sizing each other up, and Trump’s words are not so much sincere admiration but coded language that tells Putin, “I know who you are and how you act, and I can play your game too.” (In fact, I’m beginning to think we underestimate Trump’s native intelligence at our peril. He’ll be undone at some point, but Obama’s cool, calm, educated cleverness was as well.) It’s a signal that Trump will be dealing with Putin on Putin’s terms.

If the American foreign policy establishment was in the process of rather stupidly wandering into war with Russia with extremely foolish talk of supporting Ukraine, a no-fly zone over Syria, and maintaining the foolish expansion of NATO all the way to Russia’s borders, well, Trump may well be sneaking and creeping under the cover of darkness toward that same place.

It is no comfort to point out to anyone who might be listening that while you can win a limited with Russia (Crimea, Tsushima), total war is another matter entirely. I once pointed out to a Greek TV crew in New York in the week following 9/11 that no one has successfully conquered Afghanistan since Alexander the Great. Similarly, it’s been a long time, since the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth installed a czar of its own in the midst of the Time of Troubles, that someone has conquered Russia.

Napoleon and Hitler sent in magnificent armies to conquer the place, and what came home were ragged remnants that cost both their empires.

And as I was happy to tell anyone who thought a no-fly zone over Syria was easily manageable, Russia is still armed with H-Bombs and the means to lob them over the North Pole. Hundreds of missiles of our own sitting in glaring in North Dakota are no guarantee our army won’t be reduced to rags and our country to ruin by war with Russia.

I’m still not sure it will get that far. Even with all this, I do trust Trump to deal with Russia more than I trusted Clinton and the existing foreign policy establishment, if only because the foreign policy elites — especially those Clinton would likely have surrounded herself with — have grown entirely too sure of themselves and their self-righteouness. Russia is the only nation that can possess anything remotely resembling parity with the United States, if only on the H-Bomb front. It is best not to provoke or confront Moscow needlessly.

A good gangster has a fairly realistic approach to armed conflict (a lot more realistic than a neoconservative or a liberal/humanitarian interventionist). He may look for the first opening to bring out the knives, but the same gangster also knows when a conflict will cost more than it will gain, and when to cut a deal that carves up territory and keeps the peace.

Because, in the end, a good gangster is a good businessman. And in a world where force rules, maintains order and stability, all-out war is bad for business.

And the H-Bomb is definitely bad for business.

Learning to Parse Trump’s Tweets

Oh goodie. We’re going to have to spend the next four years (at least, maybe) trying to read between the characters of a presidential tweet to figure out what Donald J. Trump, billionaire-president, means or is trying to say.

It’ll be a little like Kremlinology, and trying to figure out who is in and who is out by seeing which Communist Party figures are in and which ones are out by where they stand stand in relation to the General Secretary in the May Day Parade reviewing stand atop Lenin’s Tomb.

(Yeah, I’m old.)

So, Trump said this:

And, apparently, Russian President Vladimir Putin said something similar, noting a need for his country to “strengthen the military potential of strategic nuclear forces, especially with missile complexes that can reliably penetrate any existing and prospective missile defense systems.”

This has some people I know wondering whether or not we’re going to be going back to the days of “duck and cover” drills when we all worried about “The Bomb” (please note: I’ve never stopped worrying, since it’s never gone away, which is why I take relations with Russia so very seriously) and wondered if Ronald Reagan was going to press the button or not.

And whether we will be going back to the time when U.S. factories churned out an H-Bomb or two a day. Make America great again!

First, let me recommend that everyone calm down a bit. The weapons producing infrastructures of both the United States and Russia have taken quite a hit in the last 25 years — Hanford, where the U.S. produced the bulk of its plutonium 239 (the kaboomable kind needed for both plain old A-Bombs and city-busting H-Bombs), has long been closed and turned into an EPA superfund site and a national grassland. While the Obama administration has wanted (and budgeted) to get the United States back into plutonium production, that is still some time away, and what supplies exist on hand are scavenged from old weapons and reclaimed from spent reactor fuel rods.

The same is true of tritium, the fuel needed to make proper fusion bombs. There is enough to keep the slow upgrade program going on the current arsenal of U.S. nuclear weapons, but not enough tritium to produce any new thermonuclear bombs.

Russia is in a similar situation regarding its nuclear weapons complex. Neither superpower (sic) is in a position to mass produce nuclear weapons. It’s not 1982 again.

While Putin’s words are measured and the reasonable talk of a national leader (more like something Obama would say and do), Trump’s require some interpreting. Because it’s not entirely clear what he is saying.

There’s a charitable reading of “until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes,” the reading that has Trump eventually seeking disarmament along the lines of the infamous “Walk in the Woods” or the near-elimination of ballistic missiles at the 1986 Reykjavik Summit between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

The charitable reading has “until the world comes to its senses” meaning until nation states and their leaders decide that nuclear weapons aren’t needed anymore, no one will want them, and everyone will beat their nuclear swords into plowshares. (Though, hopefully, not like this.)

In this, Trump is a Reagan figure, using his bluster for more as a way of negotiating for less. And yes, this is a real strategy and is actually worked. A lot better than, say, the Nuclear Freeze. It is also suggests that Trump believes in eventual total nuclear disarmament or something like it.

Yes, this is the charitable reading. It may be true, for all we know.

But there is a darker reading of “until the world comes to its senses.” Trump believes in force, in the willingness to make threats and keep them. His understanding of statecraft is that it isn’t much difference than being a street thug, or a mob boss. If someone is causing a problem, or attacking you, or generally being disorderly and unpleasant, it’s because they aren’t properly afraid of you. Fear is a necessary component of rule, and the willingness to follow through is essential.

In this, Trump echoes a lot of conservatives who believe that a failure to be strong, make threats, and follow through on those threats has given us the uncertain world we live in today where Daesh rules a diminishing portion of the desert between Syria and Iraq and angry Muslim immigrants drive trucks into crowds. The world coming to its senses is an acknowledgment of American power and supremacy — made flesh in the W88 and its brethren, the ultimate and most serious threat we could make.

War, for these folks, is a form of communication. (It was for these folks too.) It communicates toughness and resolve. Building more nuclear weapons is a sign of resolution, a way to tell the world, “we mean business … don’t mess with us.”

A world that has come to its senses will behave itself, will understand how tough and resolute we are, won’t attack us, and its angry young men wont blow themselves up.

I think Trump’s wrong. George W. Bush was more than willing to make threats and follow through, and it got us … just about nothing. Except the mess along the Euphrates we live with today. Obama made his fair share of war, most of it has resulted in chaos and disaster, too.

I wrote this piece more than a decade ago about comments Paul Harvey made during the height of the war in Iraqi. “With all this power at our disposal, with all our missiles and planes, why are people still resisting us? Why aren’t we winning? Why haven’t we already won?” Harvey asked, plaintively, angrily, despairingly, and quite honestly. It is very much the question, I think, hardened into almost incoherent rage, that animates many Americans now.

After more than a decade of war, after bombs and assassinations and invasions and trillions of dollars, why haven’t we won yet?

Because some people, some groups, cannot be deterred. They are willing to fight, to kill and die, for truth, for family, for home, for honor, because of our power, and not in spite of it. War is not a form of communication in which one expresses one’s seriousness, resolve, and willingness to inflict pain, suffering, and death. The North Vietnamese should have taught us THAT. The only response, IF you believe the cause is just and the war is right, is to kill your enemy until they run out of resolve.

And even then, there is no victory for us to win. Or we would have won it already.

Trump may understand this. He’s not a learned man, but I will grant him some serious smarts. He’s running rings around us, won the presidency, and I suspect gets a lot more than he lets on. (It is, after all, a good business strategy to play dumb, especially when your opponents think themselves too clever by half.) He’ll have successes in imposing his will upon the world.

But reality has a way of resisting the human will. So do other human beings.

How to be White

All of my regular readers, assuming I have any, should know that I am a fan of what gets called Old Time Radio. I’ve written about Gunsmoke before, and I think old mass media provides an interesting window into how the world was once viewed — a kind excavation of popular culture and where it intersects, assuming it does, with elite opinion.

By far my favorite show is Ft. Laramie, the story of a group of U.S. cavalry soldiers stationed in Wyoming in the 1870s starring Raymond Burr as Capt. Lee Quince. Forty-one episodes were produced and aired between January and October of 1956, and it’s just about as good as episodic radio ever got. The acting is solid (many of the radio voices who appeared in Gunsmoke and Have Gun, Will Travel also make appearances in Ft. Laramie), the writing is good, and most importantly, the characters are complex and the endings are frequently morally ambiguous (for 1950s radio).

You can download the entire series here. Do so. It’s worth the effort.

As with Gunsmoke, Ft. Laramie shares a particular sensibility — it’s liberal, in that it understands the struggles of the Arapaho and Cheyenne, and even empathizes with them. And it believes in benevolent authority.

In one articular episode, “Hattie Pelfrey,” the character of Quince has been wounded while some portion of company is on patrol. He has sent his badly outnumbered soldiers back to the fort, while he and one other solider find a safe place to hide so the captain, who has been shot at least once in the leg, can recover from his wounds.

Quince and Private Harrison are riding their horses looking for shelter — an abandoned cabin, a clump of tress, anything — where Quince can get of his horse and rest.

Harrison: You can’t go on just water, captain.
Quince: It’ll help. We can water the horses too.
Harrison: Not much sunlight left. I hope we find a settler where we could bed down for the night.
Quince: This is Arapaho country, Harrison, they routed out most of the settlers.
Harrison: They sure got a way of acting like they own the place, don’t they? Running off white men.
Quince: They were here first, I guess they’ve got a funny idea that makes this their land.
Harrison: If we’d of had the whole company back there we’d of run through ‘em for sure. Showed ‘em whose land it is!
Quince: It would take an awful good company. Those were dog soldiers leading that raid.
Harrison: Dog soldiers?
Quince: Toughest fighters in the tribes. Handpicked for their daring. Ho-te-min-taneo.
Harrison: How’s that, sir?
Quince: That’s the Cheyenne name for dog soldiers. But most Plains Indians have a select band like ‘em, Sioux and Arapaho.
Harrison: Oh. Guess we were smart to take cover in that canyon, captain.
Quince: I guess we were.

And later that episode they take refuge with Hattie Pelfrey, a woman in her 60s who has lived in this cabin since the 1830s, and she’s stripped Quince and Harrison of just about everything they own in order to let them stay in her cabin. Quince and Harrison heard some Arapaho coming, and snuck outside to see what had become of their horses.

Pelfrey: You just about as foolish as can be, ain’t ya, crawling around in the brush out there. What’s the idee?
Quince: Fresh air, Hattie.
Pelfrey: Got no guns, no food, there’s Arapaho all around. You don’t think too good of your hides, do you?
Quince: Where’s the horses, Hattie?
Pelfrey: Your color’s coming back some.
Harrison: You heard the captain! What about the horses?
Pelfrey: They come pretty high in these parts, young’un. I could get me a passel of things, trading horses.
Quince: You’re real friendly with the Arapaho, Hattie.
Pelfrey: They treat me good. Course, they know Mr. Pelfrey and me come peaceable to their country, not to run ‘em off what rightfully is their land.
Harrison: You never seen ‘em at the killing? White women, babies, no matter to them!
Pelfrey: You ever ask yourself who started it all? I seen it happen, the whites and their guns moving in. It wasn’t pretty work they did. Women, children too.
Quince: They, they let you live here? Hmph. There’s got to be a reason.
Pelfrey: He come like you, full of shot, ailing. White men’s doing. Mr. Pelfrey and me, we took ‘em in, tended him. He was a young chief then, but Standing Bear never forgot, not in all these years. He’s as near to a relation as I got.
Quince: You’re from another age, Hattie, you and Standing Bear.

At one point, as Pelfrey is busy looting Quince and Harrison of their weapons, money, and anything else of value they may have (including Harrison’s ring, which Pelfrey calls “a bit of pretty”), extending a hospitality conditioned entirely on the two soldiers’ ability to pay, Harrison yells at her:

“What kind of white woman are you?”

In these three characters — the Arapaho themselves are merely bit players whose language we hear mumbled, or in incoherent war cries and gun fire — we have three fascinating examples of what it means to be white in America.

Harrison is by far the clearest example. He is the Jacksonian white man. Everyone who is not white is a foreigner to him, not a member of the tribe. In Harrison’s whiteness there is an automatic solidarity, and he cannot understand Pelfrey and the fact she lives at peace amidst a foreign people, an enemy people. Because the land has been claimed by white men and they have exercised white sovereignty — title deeds and annexation backed by law — the Arapaho become interlopers and foreigners on their own land.

Their crime, to Harrison, is acting like white men — like this land is theirs, and they have a right to live on it and an obligation to fight for it. The Arapaho can only be met with violence because they are in the way, because they live and breathe and resist.

Pelfrey’s crime is a failure to act like a white woman, to show solidarity.

Pelfrey shows us another way to be white. Pelfrey basically defected, and sees little of value in being white. Quince is right, she’s the product of another age, when this land — Wyoming — wasn’t occupied by an army, when the United States and the Cheyenne or the Kiowa or the Arapaho were at war. She knows the Arapaho as kin, and is known as kin. She has surrendered her whiteness, at least as much as she can, and did so under conditions in which she could.

She was a minority, she knew that, and adapted as needed.

Ft. Laramie and Gunsmoke are full of characters like Harrison, and they usually cause trouble. If they are underlings, they usually need to be taught. If they are a little higher up the chain of command, their orders or actions always need to be creatively and subtly disobeyed or circumvented in order to keep the peace or do what is right.

And both shows are full of the likes of Pelfrey as well. Scouts, hunters, trappers, traders, men (and the occasional woman) who arrived out west long before anything resembling civilization and its order came. They adapted themselves to the order they found, and ended up being peripherally useful by the time the 1870s rolled around by being able negotiate the space between the defeated and dying order of the natives and the inrushing order of white men.

But the most interesting form of whiteness on display here is Quince’s. He is an example of a midcentury liberal. He is basically a New Deal program manager in the guise of post-Civil War cavalry officer. (U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon is essentially the same character.)

Quince understands exactly why the Arapaho and the Cheyenne fight. He respects them. He sympathizes with them. If the tables were turned, and his civilization was in the throws of utter defeat, conquest, subjugation, and dispossession, he would likely fight back as desperately as he could. He is a keen observer, he’s learned something of their language, their movements, their societies ands cultures, and he’s built relationships of trust of with leaders among the Arapaho and Cheyenne.

The captain wants what is best for the natives, a fair deal for them, and there are episodes in which he fights hard for rations or hunting privileges or decent treatment for those who remain on their treaty lands. He argues stridently with racist officers that the Arapaho are human beings worthy of dignity and resect. But Quince also clearly believes that if the Native Americans are to have a future, it will only be within and as part of the order Quince represents. Quince is deeply committed to the order he has come to enforce. Whose uniform he wears. He never challenges that order. He may challenge particularly awful colonels, with their bigoted and brutal approach to dealing with the Native Americans, but he never challenges the fact the Army is there in the first place.

Quince follows orders, he fights, and in the end, he knows which side he is on. He may sympathize with the Arapaho and Cheyenne, but Quince also knows that as long as they fight, they are also an enemy. He is not afraid to use what he learned against the Native Americans. He is a U.S. Army soldier, a white man, and he will fight, defeat, and subjugate his enemy. Quince, as a character, appreciates the tragic in this situation — perhaps it should be another way, brave men and innocent women and children die needlessly and pointlessly on both sides, but he understands that it is what it is, and there is no transcending the situation.

This appreciation of the tragic uses of power, of one’s place in a struggle one didn’t start and won’t finish, is very midcentury. Quince is, in some ways, as much a victim of the impersonal forces of history as the Arapaho. He exercises the power he has effectively, efficiently, with restraint, with reason, and with as much mercy as he can.

He reminds me a lot of my Grandpa Featherstone. Charles T. Featherstone ran education programs for the Bureau of Indian Affairs for roughly 20 years, from 1948 to 1970, when he retired. He understood and appreciated the miserable situation of Native Americans — “With the exception of the Alaskans, they were at war with the United States, and we conquered them, and it’s that simple,” he said once — and even sympathized with it. At the tail end of his career, he got to know of a number of the leaders of the American Indian Movement, and had a great deal of respect for them and even sympathy for their cause and demands.

But Grandpa couldn’t extricate himself from the very order he had come of age in. From its inevitability. There was no alternative to the American order he represented. His anger at the young men and women of AIM was at their desire to fight against the system, rather than within it. In grandpa’s mind, there was no point to that. You might as well fight the wind or struggle against the rain. Grandpa told me that the Indian tribes were sovereign, but when I pressed him, he couldn’t tell me what that sovereignty actually meant.

It was, of course, easy to be liberal in the 1950s when the “threat” of the Arapaho and the Cheyenne had receded to distant memory, when they were a fully dispossessed and subjugated people whose lives were, at best, a matter of guilty curiosity or administrative responsibility. It takes a confident people to produce a class of Quinces. And we are not so confident anymore.

When I became Muslim, I opted for something more like the Pelfrey approach to whiteness. I surrendered what I could in order to belong to and learn from a people among whom I was a clear minority. And for this, I earned a condemnation from my grandfather — I had betrayed my heritage, my race. We never spoke after that, so wounded and angered was I by his words.

But it’s hard to create a nation of Pelfreys. In fact, I suspect it is impossible. And the era of Quince is passing, if it hasn’t already. Ours is world with little appreciation for the tragic, or moral ambiguity, and uncertain exactly what kind of order it wants.

Harrison, however, will always be in fashion.

Draining The Swamp

So, President-Elect Donald J. Trump, billionaire (he owns a mansion and a yacht), wants to drain the swamp of D.C. and Northern Virginia (I’m thinking the placeless Crystal City).

I think that particular phrase was used by some officials within the George W. Bush administration to describe what the invasion of Iraq was supposed to do — drain the “swamp” that is the Middle East of all of the terrible things that motivate Islamic extremism. Dictatorship, despair, war, a lack of economic opportunity. Toppling the government of Saddam Hussein was supposed to solve all of these problems.

It didn’t, of course. Neither did the Arab Spring.

Somewhere, maybe over at LRC, I wrote that while this was an interesting idea, Iraq was not the swamp we should be “draining” (as if this were simply an engineering problem to be solved by the Army Corps of Engineers). If we were really concerned about all of the things and places that gave birth to Revolutionary Islam, then the “swamp” we should be wading into was the muck of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan.

But we didn’t have the resources to tackle them, and the outcomes of that war, had we waged it, would have been far worse. All three countries had a total population of around 240 million in 2000, and occupying Pakistan alone would have been a fool’s errand which would have destroyed the the U.S. military and created tremendous new operating space for the revolutionaries.

So, if Trump takes on the real swamp that is D.C., he will likely get bogged down in it. The swamp … will swallow him whole and maybe even drown him.

More likely, though, he was go at the wrong swamp, claim it’s the right one, do a great deal of damage, and proclaim some kind of symbolic victory. Little of lasting value will be accomplished.

That won’t matter, of course. My guess is the incoming Trump regime will be at least as dank and fetid and disease infested as any swamp which has ever infested D.C. and Northern Virginia.

SERMON It May or May Not Be Okay, But I Have Hope

A reading from the Book of Jeremiah, Chapter 29:

1 These are the words of the letter that Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders of the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. 2 This was after King Jeconiah and the queen mother, the eunuchs, the officials of Judah and Jerusalem, the craftsmen, and the metal workers had departed from Jerusalem. 3 The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah the son of Shaphan and Gemariah the son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to Babylon to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon. It said: 4 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. 8 For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, 9 for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the Lord.

10 “For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. 13 You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. (Jeremiah 29:1–14 ESV)

I want to tell you things are going to be okay.

But I can’t. Because I don’t know if they are.

I don’t know what okay means with the election of Donald Trump. I know that many of my queer friends, many of my friends in mixed-race marriages with with mixed-race children, are terrified, and many with disabled kids are as well. They fear for the future, and rightly so. Because it isn’t just Trump himself, it’s many of the people he brings into office with him — Chris Christie, Rudi Giuliani, Newt Gingrich could only best be described as callous and indifferent — who are also short-tempered, petty, vindictive, and intolerant of dissent. Sheriff David Clarke, who may find himself tabbed to head a department like Homeland Security, has for months now called Black Lives Matter a “terrorist movement” and predicted a BLM alliance with the Islamic State to topple the U.S. Government.

And what do we do with terrorists? What has Trump said we should do with terrorists? Arrest them. Torture them. Kill them and their families.

These may just be words, but words mean something. Trump’s 2005 boast that he grabs women “by the pussy” has a terrifying resonance given the ministry I do. Words set actions into motion. We’ve had a little taste of what life in Trump’s America looks like, and I suspect Trump and his regime, if they are magnanimous at all in victory, won’t be for very long. We have every reason to believe his government will be a punitive, authoritarian one eager to arrest and brutalize and condemn people.

Alex Jones may yet see FEMA Camps at work.

So no, I have no idea if it will be okay. At best — at best — the American Greatness Trump supporters seek hearkens back to an era which did not welcome and did not include many of the people I love and care about. I have no idea how this will end, whether this will be a bumbling and incompetent government or merciless and brutal. I have no idea. None at all. There is no future to discern here1.

When God spoke through Jeremiah to the exiles of Israel, he didn’t promise them things would be okay either. Consider where Israel was. They had been invaded, subdued, Jerusalem the holy city besieged. Judah was defeated, conquered, and carried into exile, told by their captors to sing and dance and entertain them with their strange new stories. “By the waters of Babylon, there was sat down and wept, and we remembered Zion.” Zion was gone. Not just far away, but reduced to rubble.

There were prophets telling them “soon and very soon now,” that within two years God will break Babylon and the exiles will go home to live and rebuild. And to someone in a strange place, frightened, traumatized by war and conquest and dislocation, living admidst hostile captors and conquerors, that seems good news! Just hang on a few months, all will be reversed! We will be going home! Our defeat will be undone! We can hope again!

But God is having none of it. Because that is not what real hope looks like here.

Build houses and plant gardens, God says. Marry and have children, and give them in marriage. Seek the welfare of the city — this strange city, this foreign city, this enemy city, this home of your conquerors — where I have sent you into exile. Pray for it. It’s success will be your success.

You’re going to be here for a while, God tells exiled Israel, amidst your enemies and your conquerors. So build, plant, beget.

In face of hopelessness and fear, in the face of uncertainty, humiliation, and defeat, God’s command to us is: build, plant, beget.

This is what hope looks like. Not “hang in there, everything is going to be okay,” but: build, plant, beget.

This is not an easy hope. It is not a happy hope. It does not promise quiet, easy, untroubled lives. And it is given to people who will never live to see it realized. It is little different that the promises given to Abraham — descendants, a land of his own, and a blessing to the world — promises he never saw during his lifetime but took hold of tight and believed anyway (though he wasn’t always entirely faithful in that either). We, my sisters and brothers, may never leave this place, this exile, this Tel Aviv — Summertime Hill — that we have cobbled together on the banks of the Euphrates.

We may never see Zion again. We may die here. Our children may die here. And their children may die here too.

None of that matters. We still have hope. We are still called to build, and plant, and beget.

Because we know something else. Babylon is judged. God has promised we will be delivered. We will not be here forever. “I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope,” God says. “I will bring you back to the place from which I have sent you into exile.”

Seventy years from now. A long fullness.

And so we wait. And live. In hope. We build, and plant, and beget.

Because Babylon has been judged, and she will fall. We have that promise too. Babylon has been judged, and been found wanting, a place of violence and brutality, of lecherous corruption, of immorality and debauchery. “So will Babylon the great city be thrown down with violence and will be found no more … And in her was found the blood of prophets and saints, and of all who have been slain on the earth.” (Revelation 18:21b, 24)

Babylon has been judged. It has already happened, even as we weep in exile in its midst. Babylon has fallen, even though she stands tall and strong, her armies invisible, her treasury bursting.

And we have already been redeemed. One who was faithful and true lived and preached and healed and died and rose from the dead, facing down that very power which has carried us off, dying at its hands, and showing us that God’s response to faithfulness is not success, but resurrection. (Just as God’s response to sin is not damnation, but resurrection.) I’m certain in the Garden of Gathsemene, Jesus wanted it to be okay, to know it would be okay, and he realized — it wasn’t. And it wouldn’t be.

This is hard faith. And a difficult hope. It is sometimes a hope of bitter determination. I wish I could say no one will suffer and no one will perish and no one will have to resist great evil. But I don’t. I can’t. I have no idea how terrible things will get. I have no answers except the ones God gave to Israel in exile — build, plant, beget.

Build. Plant. Beget.

In a difficult and uncertain time, that is what hope looks like.


  1. With all the talk of Nazi Germany, Trump reminds me more of Mussolini or Napoleon III (who was the first real modern dictator), and their use of power on opponents and dissidents was real but fairly restrained. Both regimes ended badly, however, in war, conquest, and ruination because of wars they started or joined. Something that should also give pause. ↩︎

The Golden Rule Still Applies

Well … THIS wasn’t supposed to happen.

And yet it did.

I confess, I thought the election of Donald J. Trump as president of the United States nigh near impossible. I didn’t believe Americans — particularly so many white Midwesterners — would make that choice. Turns out, I was wrong.

There will be many things to say over the next few years, about race and class and elite failure, but I’m not going to worry about any of them today, except to note a tweet from a Trump fan who follows me:

Turns out that “you’re a racist/sexist/bigot” STILL isn’t an argument.

No, it isn’t. Progressive talk on race and gender not only failed to convince, it angered and alienated what is, right now, a majority.

I don’t know how Americans who stand on different sides of this talk to each other — frankly, I doubt we will, and the slow-motion civil war we’ve been living through gets a little faster and a little warmer. The time of talking is likely done.

I won’t expect much from a Trump regime, being as it will be staffed with the most amazing collection of third- and fourth-rate intellects the modern world has seen, save for a kind-of official or legal lawlessness, a desire to expand power and use it as capriciously as possible and as viciously as what decency remains will allow. But the GOP (such as it is) controls Congress, the presidency, and soon the Supreme Court. They will get their way. According to our rules, they have earned it.

Neoliberalism has failed us. Utterly and completely. And with it, much of liberalism — the governing creed of the mass, democratic, industrial West — stands discredited. Liberalism has discredited itself. We wouldn’t be here otherwise.

My reasons for thinking this belong to another day.

To the matter at hand. At some point in any seminary class on ethical actions, particularly the effectiveness and morality of violence, the discussion will usually get around to someone asking, “But what about Hitler?” Because it can be assumed that no amount of linking arms and singing “We Shall Overcome” will defeat the Wehrmacht. And no doubt, if life in Trumpestan becomes as bad as many fear, that question will come to be asked about our world as well.

“What if love is not enough?”

Assumed in the question, “What about Hitler?” is the idea that while Jesus spoke nice words, he didn’t have to face modern evil. Mechanized, industrialized, mass evil justified by ideology. This is nonsense, of course, and his death proves otherwise. The Romans knew how to kill, and how to dominate, and how to enslave, and they knew how to justify it all too. They were good at it. They conquered the Mediterranean and maintained their dominance for more than four centuries that way.

But it also ignores where the command, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” comes from.

Karen Armstrong, in her book The Great Transformation (I think), speaks of The Axial Age, that five century period from 800 BC to roughly 300 BC when nearly all of antiquity’s major civilizations discovered some form of the Golden Rule — love as you want to be loved.

If I remember correctly, Armstrong points out that the Golden Rule became the preferred response to violence, unrest, instability, and uncertainty in by people who were at risk, suffering, and facing death. It was not the response of a comfortable people who felt safe and secure. And it was one of that age’s great discernments.

Israel is given the command to love God and love neighbor in Sinai, when it is a scattered collection of people still lead and fed by God as it wanders aimlessly through the wilderness. Israel is told to find a home in exile and work and pray for the welfare of the place and people they have been hauled off to. Jesus reiterates this invitation — this command — to a conquered people who live under occupation, an occupation that for Israel will not end (and, in fact, will only be intensified following two failed revolts).

We are not commanded to love because it feels good, or because life is easy and comfortable, but because love is the right response — God’s response — to our violence. It may convince oppressors and win them over, one soul at a time, but that is a secondary (and only potential) benefit. The real reason we love is because we are called to. Because God loves even as he surrenders to our violence.

Because the violence of the world is not all there is, and is not all there will be.

Conservative Christians have opted to conquer. They have opted for violence. They have opted for Satan’s bundle of temptations in the wilderness. Despite this, they will find themselves unfed, powerless, and unprotected. The rest of us have to love in the face of what will likely be many difficulties. It will not be easy or pleasant. There is much at risk, lives and wellbeing at stake. And often, love will not seem to be anywhere near enough.

We are still called to love.

A Quick Observation

I do like Andrew Perriman over at postost.net, and I think there is a lot to his thesis that Jesus and Paul were envisioning something akin to Christendom in speaking of judgment upon the nations and Christ’s rule over the nations.

Something. I’m not sure what yet. I do believe we ignore the historical context of scripture at our risk, and scripture is mostly a message of hope to a conquered and exiled people yearning for their redemption.

It is most definitely not written to a comfortable people either confident of their power or frightened they could lose it. In the story of scripture, much of what could be lost, is lost.

But saying the nations would be subject to Christ is not the same as saying the nations would be subject to the followers of Christ. The church in Christendom has come to see itself in that role, and in that place. A world subject to Christ is a world subject to us, subject to the church, which is what I think much of the struggle Christians (particularly conservatives) are having right now.

Of course, it isn’t. The world is still subject to Christ in post-Christendom, we’re just going to have to learn to see God at work in our enemies in ways Christians in Christendom rarely have. Because we’ve had order and power on our side.

Some Thoughts On Governance

So today is election day, and quite possibly the most ugly election in modern American history is going to more or less come to an end.

I say more or less, because if Hillary Clinton wins as forecast, I suspect Donald J. Trump, billionaire (he owns a mansion and a yacht), will not go away. He will linger, and likely proclaim himself the aggrieved victim of some kind of fraud, and then launch into his next venture as the “President” of some kind of ersatz, make-believe “government” that will feature itself on Trump TV.

Or whatever it will be called.

He will play at governing for television, second guessing every decision the Clinton White House makes. Even if congressional Republicans don’t impeach Hillary Clinton, the country will rather quickly slide into ungovernability, Clinton unable to accomplish much (at least legislatively) and Trump able to play at being president without having any real responsibility for anything.

It won’t quite be the worst of all possible worlds. Trump won’t hold real power. But the sense of resentment, and entitlement, on the part of his core supporters is real, and it won’t go away. They want an America ordered differently, ordered in their favor, and they believe that the country will be lost if they don’t get that order. That’s a motivation for drastic action. It won’t simply be content to lose an election.

I’ve long believed that, as Americans, we have invested so much in politics, as part of our sense of justice, good order, and however we identify, that there will come a moment when one side will decide: There is too much at stake to lose.

If this is indeed the Flight 93 Election, then nothing is off the table, not even force and coercion and violence, if the fate of the nation is at stake.

I admitted earlier this year, there were things about Trump I kind of admired. His anti-elitism, especially given that elites across the liberal/social democratic West have so completely failed in the last two decades, resonates with me. And I still admire, kind of, his utter lack of respectability, and his inability to be shamed.

But Trump’s authoritarianism is the kind of thing that won’t save the nation. It will accelerate whatever rot we’re dealing with, from moral failure to elite failure. He is not Pinochet. Trump is too undisciplined to be a savior, and too capricious to lead effectively. In the end, he is all of the failure we suffer from, incarnate.

Hillar Clinton is not much better, for she too is embossed with failure. And she too will govern by decree as much as she is able. We are headed toward dictatorship of some kind (I won’t call it tyranny, since that word is largely empty of any content in the Anglo-American political tradition), the only question is whether we are on a local or an express train. Clinton gets us there just as surely as Trump, though the nature of the dictatorship will look different.

Most people won’t suffer under what’s coming. And that will be true whether Trump or Clinton presides.

I’ve seen some happy Christian posts on Twitter in the last few days reminding everyone that whatever happens today, Jesus is still King. And this is true as well.

But American Christians approach government as if it matters, as if somehow government somehow has to be a reflection of t5he God-given order, or an expression of how blessed the people of God are. There is some of that in scripture, with good leaders — like Josiah — able to temporarily avert the coming judgement of God.

But only temporarily. God’s judgement on God’s people was cast at Sinai, a consequence of their idolatry and their faithlessness.

For much of scripture, including the New Testament, the people of God are governed by conquerors and enemies. This is our condition. Not the Davidic Kingdom (which has been restored in Christ in any case), but Egypt and Philistia and Babylon and Rome. Despite its misuse as a prod to good and loyal citizenship, Romans 13 is a reminder that even conquerors and enemies are “legitimate” authority who can impose good order and even some modicum of justice in the world. When Jeremiah calls upon Israel to “seek the welfare of the city,” he is speaking to exiles far from home to build and love and have hope amidst the people who conquered and oppress them.

When Jesus tells the Pharisees to render unto Caesar, he speaks not of a co-equal sovereign to whom love and loyalty and bodies are owed, but a competitor, a conqueror, a pretender, a false god, and one who has enslaved God’s very own people.

And one who makes his own claims to bringing peace and salvation to the world.

This is not to say that all political orders are created the same. A Trump victory would likely lead us to places we have not been before, to an officially sanctioned lawlessness that would shred any sense of shared community and solidarity in ways the status quo won’t. A Clinton victory gives us more of the same, and there is a lot to hate about the neoliberal world order. But a Trump presidency would likely be a deluge which would drown all in its path.

It has the potential to be regime change in the worst of all possible ways. And we’ve seen how well that’s worked where it has been imposed.

But the political order doesn’t save us. The political order is capable of giving us only an approximation of justice. The political order can provide some safety and stability that allows individuals and communities to thrive. But it doesn’t always, and it won’t always. No matter how we are governed, or who governs us, we are called to love enemies and conquerors. We are called to be good neighbors to those who oppress us. We are called to have hope in redemption when it seems that suffering and death are the only things that are real. And we are called to do all of things knowing that we may never see that redemption, that we live for children and grandchildren and descendants we will never know.

I know, the spirit of the age, whether we quote Martin Luther King, Jr., or Frantz Fanon, or George W. Bush, or Donald J. Trump, is: “Now is the time, and we are the people.” Maybe.

But we are still only exiles, homeless, a people between creation and eschaton, who live in and with the consequences of choices we never made and hope for deliverance we may never see. Because we, the people of God, are the justice of God, right here and right now, in how we live, how we love, how we hope, and what we hope in.

Not kings and princes and presidential candidates, not greatness and glory or even safety and stability. But love. In the face of violence and uncertainty. And a God who loves, loves us utterly, loves us to the end, and has not left us or abandoned us in our exile, has promised us that even conquerors too will be held accountable. May even become part of the people of God.

Because God so loves the world. A world run and ordered brutally and violently and unjustly. We love. We hope. We live.

The Fatalism (and Hope) of the Doomed

Noah Millman over at The American Conservative laments what politics in America has become:

The sorts of people who show up for a Mitt Romney fundraiser want to hear that 47% of the country should be written off because they are not financially self-supporting for whatever reason. They can’t be reached, but simply have to be defeated and kept away from power.

The sorts of people who show up for a Hillary Clinton fundraiser want to hear that 50% of their opponent’s supporters belong in a “basket of deplorables” because they are racist, sexist, xenophobic, etc. They can’t be reached, but simply have to be defeated and kept away from power.

He goes on to note the alt-right supporters on Donald Trump see civilization at stake — in a way coup plotters like those in Salvador Allende’s Chile did in 1973 — and thus there is no room for conversation or even compromise.

We are no longer a nation of fellow citizens engaged in a common endeavor, even as we differ. We have become a nation of enemies and strangers, living side-by-side. Politics is about conquest and subjugation. About preventing those enemies next door from ruling.

By any means possible.

My fear is, soon, we will actually mean that.

Politics is always about winners and losing, excluding and including, competing visions for the polity, even lording it over those you have defeated. But I have long been afraid, ever since I was in graduate school at Georgetown, that the rhetoric (of the late 1990s!) was such that at some point, someone would be so unwilling to lose that they would consider drastic action. Extra legal, extra-constitutional action.

Violent action.

We are headed there. Anyone who thinks Donald Trump is the antidote to what ails America shares the same deluded line of thinking that prompted Soviet generals to arrest Mikhail Gorbachev in August, 1991, and a handful of confused Turkish military leaders to ineptly try and overthrow Recep Tayyep Erdogan earlier this year. Doomed attempts to save dying states, to preserve collapsing orders. The attempt to impose order simply accelerates the rot, and it will further collapse sclerotic institutions that only marginally function anyway.

I admit, I’m a fatalist. For several decades now, I’ve become convinced that dictatorship and violence are an inevitable outcome of our politics. We invest too many of our hopes, dreams, and identities in political acts, in state power, at a time when the state sprawls so widely that it cannot act quickly, effectively, or all that efficiently. At a time when the state itself is increasingly all we share in common — the only thing that links us to each other.

And we too easily constructs our identities ideologically, writing people out of the common, national story who do not believe what we believe.

It doesn’t help that we still seek an earthly paradise, and we still believe politics can and should give it to us. Such is the curse of modernity in an age when Democratic politics has begun to fail and elites can no longer think straight or govern with much wisdom.

This is what happens when you delude yourself into thinking you have abolished history merely because the notion of history you’ve lived with for nearly (and yet only) two centuries — ideological struggle — has gasped its last breath. It lets you forget history is not so much a struggle of ideas as it is of men and their competing and conflicting desires, their aspirations, their appetites, and their successes and failures. History is still happening, because sinful men still breathe, still want, still struggle, still yearn, and still fail.

The metaphor of a Flight 93 election is an interesting one, because once the hijackers took the cockpit of that plane, there was no saving it. The passengers of that plane only got to choose what purpose they died for, the reason they died, and the meaning of their deaths — they didn’t have any choice about death itself.

They were doomed.

And yet, even as polities rise and decline, as order and civilizations come and go, there are always people. Sinful, blessed, striving, caring, brutal, lost, noble, people. However this election ends, and whatever it brings (I’m not betting on renewal, but I never have), we — humanity — will still be here, still breathing, still begetting, still working and loving and praying and fighting and wondering.

So there is hope. There is always hope. Even among the doomed.