What then are we to make of the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, an event as preposterous as the title of this essay? However fervent his supporters were, and are, it appears that, come Election Day, not even Trump thought he would win. And now he’s stuck with having to govern. He’s caught the tiger by the tail and now he’s got to hold on to stay alive.
To be sure, I wasn’t at all happy voting for Hillary, for she seems to be more of the same. Obama is in many ways an admirable man and leader, but he’s also the Drone president and, though he did something about health care – Thank you, Obamacare! – he also seems to be out of the Clintonist triangulation Wall Street school of governance. Of course, Hillary is also a Clintonist, and even more of a hawk than Obama.
No, Hillary did not fill me with joy. I felt the Bern.
But Donald Trump? I cannot comprehend. Hence the term “singularity” in that preposterous title. The term is best known in the context of computing and artificial intelligence, where The Technological Singularity is when the machines become self-aware, bootstrap themselves into Superintelligence, and take over the joint, lock stock and barrel o’ monkeys. I think that’s nonsense, but the machines surely have been busy.
For one thing, they’ve been automating people out of jobs – hence much of the anger Trump has been able to capture and convert through promises of jobs he’ll have trouble delivering in the long-term, though perhaps he can pull off an employment spike with infrastructure maintenance, repair, and even new construction. If so, more power to him. But when that’s over, what does he do with the ensuring despair and anger? Scapegoat us into more war?
And then we have those Russian hackers interfering with the election. More tech. Did Trump put them up to it, or one of his minions, or was it entirely a Kremlin play? Does it matter? I suppose it does, but at what level, policy, strategy, or tactics (to invoke von Clausewitz)? It’s high tech, just like those Obama drones are high tech – Obamacare too, and factory automation, not to mention high frequency trading, Siri, and every damn thing else. Of course we’re angry that the Russkies would meddle in our internal affairs, as well we should be. It's terrible. But we’ve been meddling in the affairs of other countries for decades, using high tech low tech lethal tech, whatever it takes to topple another government tech. We don’t deserve the moral high ground here.
So much for technology. Yes, it’s in play. But so is global climate change. That’s all out there, in the world as it were.
The singularity I’m thinking about is different. It’s in our conception of ourselves and the state. Our basic modes of apprehension and action. Will the rule of Donald Trump lead us to reconfigure the body politic? That too would be a singularity, a point after which everything is changed.
Boundaries, Public and Private: The Crown
The one thought I’ve got on this whole wretched business is this: boundaries. And that brings me to the new Netflix series, The Crown. It’s about Queen Elizabeth II of England. It started streaming recently, perhaps no earlier than the beginning of November, and I began watching it a couple days before the election. It struck me that this timing was likely no coincidence, a TV show about a woman becoming the British monarch even as a woman was about to become President of the United States. But, Hillary lost, didn't she?
But there's a deeper coincidence, a matter of thematic counterpoint. One of the major themes of The Crown, perhaps THE major theme, is the conflict between personal life and public duty, with Elizabeth opting for public duty. In contrast, the Presidential election seems to have been dominated by confusion between private life and public life.
Let’s start with The Crown. Elizabeth’s father, King George VI, became king when his brother, Edward VIII, was forced to abdicate. Why? Because he decided to marry Wallis Simpson, an twice-divorced American socialite and, of course, a commoner. That is, it is because her uncle chose to put his private happiness above his public duty, that Elizabeth was in a position to become monarch. This much of the story is told in flashback, but Edward, now merely the Duke of Windsor, figures prominently in the early episodes and he returns in the final episode of the season.
In the second episode we see two examples. Elizabeth’s husband, Philip, has two demands: 1) the family keep his name, Mountbatten, and 2) that they remain in Clarence House, one of the royal residences, which they’ve just renovated, rather than moving to Buckingham Palace, which is not particularly homey. Elizabeth is find with this but the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, is against, as is her uncle Edward (the one who abdicated). Duty wins out in both cases. In the fifth episode Elizabeth gets crowned. Philip requests that he not have to kneel before the new sovereign during the ceremony. Elizabeth refuses.
And so on. There are other incidents throughout the ten episodes and each is surrounded by conversation. But always, personal feeling and public duty are put at odds, coming to a wrenching climax at the end of the season, where Elizabeth invokes duty to thwart her sister’s desire to marry a divorced man.
In the 2016 presidential election perhaps the most obvious collision between public and private was depicted in the video tape where Trump brags about his sexual harassment; and that was just one in a number of incidents of sexual harassment. There is nothing new in the wayward sexual behavior of powerful men, but in previous decades the press didn’t report it, not for Roosevelt, or Eisenhower, nor John Kennedy. That changed with Bill Clinton and the Lewinsky scandal in his second term. Just why the change, I don’t really know. But it has happened.
Other issues were about public-private confusion as well. Continuing with Trump, there’s his apparent tax avoidance, which may well have been legal, but was presented as a failure of civic duty, his use of his foundation, and other issues. And there’s his relationship to his vast business interests, a matter that is far from resolved. On the Clinton side, there’s the use of a private email server for conducting public business and there’s the Clinton Foundation: did they trade political favors for donations to the foundation?
What, if anything, should we make of this? I don’t quite know. What I’m suggesting, though, is that there is some kind of inverse ‘resonance’ between the appearance of The Crown at this time and the current atmosphere surrounding presidential politics in the United States. This issue has become salient in the culture and shows up in both the Netflix drama and the Presidential Election. Has Trump been elected despite his narcissistic confusion between the public and private or almost because of it? His lack of a coherent political doctrine is, in effect, the absence of a public political personal. This strikes me as being fundamental, for it is a matter of the basic categories through which we structure our lives.
Trump rejected GOP doctrine to get the nomination. In rejecting Hillary Clinton, the voters rejected Democratic doctrine. The net result, then, is the rejection existing political doctrine, Republican as well as Democratic, in favor of Brand Trump. Trump stands, not for a body of ideas, much less a body of conservative ideas, but for himself.
The Trump Singularity?
When I look back over the history I’ve lived through, the only political event that seems comparable to Trump’s election is the collapse of the Soviet Union. The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 was a shock, as was the verdict in Bush v. Gore in 2000, when the Supreme Court handed the Presidential Election to George W. Bush. But the collapse of the Soviet Union was something else.
I’d been raised during the height of the Cold War. I remember the Cuban Missile Crisis. And I remember reading articles about bomb shelters, how and where to construct them, what supplies to stock them with, and how likely they will protect you against an atomic attack. I’d even identified a spot in the back yard where I figured that our family bomb shelter ought to go, though I don’t remember ever discussing this with my parents so perhaps my thoughts on that partook more deeply of fantasy than reality.
On a slightly different note, I remember the day in the fall of 1957 when my father took me out into the back yard in the evening, pointed to a light in the sky and said, “that’s Sputnik.” Just how, back then, I weighed the fact that it was the Russians (who did it) against the fact that it was humans (who did it), I don’t recall. But surely my father wanted me to experience the wonder rather than the politics. As for whether or not that tiny tiny light was actually Sputnik, probably not. In this context the point is simple: the Russians.
The Berlin Wall – the fabled Berlin Wall, Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner”, the line between East and West – came down in 1989. The Soviet Union was dissolved in late 1991. It was over, the Cold War had ended. There was a lot of talk about swords-into-ploughshares, talk about “the peace dividend”, and even the end of history – none of which I found persuasive. The Cold War was over, but it’s not as though sites for conflict had disappeared. On the contrary, they were all over the place.
It’s not, mind you, that I had ‘predicted’ 9/11 and the aftermath. Nothing like it. Rather, I simply did not believe that the Cold War international dynamics. The ‘top layer’, if you will, had been removed, but much remained. And what remained is what we are now living with. A large and powerful nation-state, the USSR, disappeared. Yet what remained was still an international order dominated by nation states.
Is the ascendency of Donald Trump to the leadership of the ‘free world’ an event of that magnitude? We have no way of knowing, not at this point. But I do think that is the scale at which we have to think.
If so, just what has happened? Will Trump reign for two terms, or only one? Will he be impeached? And what happens after Trump? That’s the question.
If, as I argued in the previous section, Trump represents the triumph of the personal over the political, it represents the unraveling of the skein of basic ideas that has governed our public life since the 18th century. Will the American political system return to business or usual or not? Will Trump usher in an era of crony capitalism in the United States that will cascade throughout the world so that transnational corporations will play the role of feudal lords and come to dominate a world of impoverished nation-states and their citizen peasants? Will we collapse into neo-Feudalism, as my friend and colleague Abbe Mowshowitz has argued?
If not that, then what? Will we have the imagination and courage needed to create new social forms out of the wreckage of the current world order? Will we have the time?