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No More Returns to Bourgeois-Democratic Normalcy
The Way We Were Sucked
I thought I’d say a few things today about the charm and also the danger of nostalgia, yes nostalgia, which Oxford Online dictionary defines as “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.”
This sentimental longing and wistfulness for the past is a natural human phenomenon and it has of course long been reflected in popular culture and politics. I think of Paul McCartney’s most brilliant composition “Yesterday…. Yesterday, all my troubles were so far away, love was such an easy game to play.”
Or Bruce Springsteen’s “The River”: “I remember us riding in her brother’s car, her body tan and wet down by the reservoir. At night by those banks I’d lie awake and hold Mary close to hear each breath she’d take.”
“I got a job working construction for the Johnstown Company/but lately there ain’t been much work on account of the economy/all those things that seemed so important well they vanished right into the air/Now I just act like I don’t remember and Mary acts like she don’t care.”
“Now those memories come back to haunt me,” Springsteen ads, “they haunt me like a curse. Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true,” Springsteen asks, “or is it something worse?”
It’s interesting the way wistful remembrance of the past can be triggered. There’s parts of the North Side of Chicago I can’t pass through without big hits of nostalgia for experiences decades ago, first jobs in restaurants, a passionate affair, an apartment where I shed criminal delinquency and rediscovered a love for literature, long swims north of Oak Street beach, lying to my parents about having a job and spending afternoons in Wrigley Field learning baseball history from old timers back when the Cubs would draw just 5,000 fans for a weekday game and you could get mugged outside the so-called friendly confines.
Nostalgia is big economic and political business in the US. There are cable stations dedicated to recycling television shows from the Baby Boom era, with commercial breaks dominated by products and services for senior citizens, Tom Selleck selling reverse mortgages and the like, in between snippets of Gunsmoke, Bonanza, and the Carol Burnett Show.
And, to get to my main topic, there are politicians constantly selling different forms of nostalgia. The Republicans now advance an essentially fascist, palingenetic ultra nationalist perversion of nostalgia that is captured in the central Trumpist slogan Make America Great Again. Yes, let’s restore lost national greatness with the demented maniac Donald Trump.
So when was the United States of America “great” according to the Republi-fascist movement and party? Don’t ask a Trumpist or Ron DeSantisian or a Tim Scottist for any serious historical specificity; it’s doubtful that they even know what centuries the American War for Independence and the American Civil War occurred in. Few of them could tell you who the US fought against and who the US fought alongside during World War I and World War II. But just look at their politics and program and all the ugly history they were trying to whitewash out of the nation’s educational curriculum and take off the nation’s library bookshelves. America was great for them when Black and brown and red and yellow people and women and gay and transgendered people and immigrants and workers and radicals “knew their place” and didn’t protest or exercise any political power. America was great for them when white and male supremacy were the unchallenged rule, when fundamentalist, Bible-thumping Christianity reigned, and when the United States always (as like Trump likes to say) won all the wars it engaged in. America was great for them when the masses in multiracial, polyglot, and ideologically diverse cities and campus towns kept their heads down and their mouths shut. America was great for the conspiratorial Republifascists before an alleged nefarious radical, liberal, and globalist elite supposedly stabbed the nation in the back (to use a Nazi Party phrase) – before arrogant radical and liberal elites pulled “deep state” puppet strings to weaken the once pure nation by replacing virtuous hard-working God fearing cis-het white Amerikaner volk with lazy, criminal, and otherwise inferior people of color and dubious sexuality.
Basically, this revanchist brand of national/nationalist nostalgia pines for the lost centuries and decades of slavery, mob-lynching, Jim Crow, cross burnings, genocide, ethnic cleansing, brazen imperial land-grabbing, rampant frontier gun violence, Sundown Towns, anti-labor and anti-radical terrorism, explicit patriarchy, forced motherhood, and Christian fundamentalism. They pine for the Christian imperial white-expansionist America that the proto-fascist Teddy Roosevelt trumpeted in his noxious Social Darwinian multi-volume text The Winning of the West – the America that literally inspired Adolph Hitler’s fascist vision to the point where he initially named his personal war train Amerika.
This kind of national political nostalgia, which Republifascists are trying to impose on public schoolchildren in a large number of states right now, must of course be forthrightly rejected and opposed.
But the other major capitalist party in the country, the Democrats and its many allies in US political, media, and intellectual culture, that other and supposedly liberal party and cohort embrace and advance their own toxic brand of national nostalgia. It falsely presents the Amerikaner fascist movement that Trump has led as some kind of strange anomaly outside and against the supposedly glorious democratic and egalitarian “arc” and trajectory of American history on the path to (to use one of Barack Obama’s favorite phrases) “a more perfect union.” That is essentially how Joe Biden described the Trump presidency when Biden announced his presidential candidacy in 2019. Biden portrayed Charlottesville and the Trump administration as great aberrations outside the nation’s purported exceptional norms of freedom, justice, tolerance, and democracy – all these glorious things that Biden says has made the United States “the envy of the world for 240 years.” He sold his campaign as an effort to end this deviant aberration and restore a benevolent and normal America. Biden ran to bring the nation back to bourgeois-democratic normalcy. (“Normalcy” – the word used by US president Warren Harding to describe his promise to the American people after the vicious proto-fascist anti-radical repression and racist pogroms that arose in the US during and after World War I).
There were and are three great problems with this return to normalcy narrative. The first difficulty is nicely summarized in US revolutionary communists’ pithy chant: “One, two, three, four, slavery, genocide and war; five, six, seven, eight, America was never great.” The comforting American exceptionalist faith that fascism can’t happen here (footnote to Sinclair Lewis) in exceptional and democratic America deletes vast swaths of the nation’s history. Slavery, the Jim Crow era, racist pogroms, Native American genocide, female disenfranchisement, Red Scares (1886-87, 1917-21, and 1948-1960), globally unmatched racist mass incarceration, thousands of racist police state murders (continuing unabated three years and four months after the killing of George Floyd), mass murderous imperialism, anti-intellectualism, bloody nativism, race-class apartheid, savage patriarchy, and much more that is richly consistent with fascism have all happened here. The notion that the nation has some kind of glorious, humanitarian, liberal, democratic exceptionalist immunity to fascist consolidation is naïve, to say the least. Please read the sixth chapter of my latest book This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America, the chapter titled “America Was Never Great.”
The second problem with this whole Biden-Harding-Democratic “return to [bourgeois-democratic] normalcy” narrative is that we are not going to be returning to the previous bourgeois-democratic norm. That ship has sailed. The historical ground has shifted in a menacing way. The American party system and political culture has moved well to the right. It’s been going on for at least the last three decades, and arguably since the dawn of the Neoliberal era in the late 1970s. Ideas and conduct that were previously beyond the pale have gone mainstream and become part of an American “new normal.” The neoliberal capitalist-imperialist Democrats of the last generation are at leftmost like the moderate mainstream pro-business Republicans of my youth and early adulthood. This was clear from President Bill Clinton’s assaults on public family assistance and financial regulation, accompanied by his embrace of what he called small government and his advance of racist mass incarceration and corporate globalization (NAFTA). It was evident also in President Barack “Trans-Pacific Partnership” Obama’s big business bailouts unaccompanied by any remotely comparable effort to bail out ordinary working-class folks and by Obama’s open identification with the moderate Republican presidency of Dwight Eisenhower.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party been overtaken by a gathering fascist storm that somewhere between the Newt Gingrich Contract on America and Clinton impeachment, the Tea Party and the 2016 Trump election went from tropical depression to full blown hurricane. Every election cycle sees the resignation of yet another last remaining Republican who resists the white supremacist women-hating trans-bashing and conspiratorial anti-science strongman pull of Amerikaner neofascism. The beast of ugly political ultra-revanchism, of bona fide Amerikaner neofacism, has been let out of the cage under late Obama, took off under Trump and Biden (whose presidency feels more and more like a brief interregnum in the Trump era), and it’s not going to be voted or prosecuted back into its pen. It will not be slayed short of a massive social and civil conflict, possibly some kind of civil war, a struggle that already feels partly underway in the wake of January 6. Yes, January 6, an actual fascist coup attempt the US Senate could not see fit to properly punish, banning Trump from running again. January 6, led by a malignant Hitler-admiring mob boss who has a good shot at returning to the White House. He would return this time with bloody retribution on his mind, surrounded by an army of arch reactionary apparatchiks with big plans for the full consolidation of neofascist power within and beyond the executive branch.
A dark fascist cloud hangs over this Armed Madhouse of a nation as we careen towards the bloody disaster that the 2024-25 presidential election, certification, and inauguration promises to be in our “shining city on a hill” that is “full of fascists,” as Bob Avakian says. (Indeed it is: go to a Trump campaign/hate rally or a Jason Aldean concert.) It’s not for nothing that some Canadian politicians and intellectuals are beginning to plan ahead for distinctly possible scenarios of an “authoritarian collapse” in the USA after 2024-25.
The third problem is that the previous bourgeois-democratic/capitalist normal is precisely what got us into this dark place (as I explained in the final chapter of This Happened Here and, in an earlier and less rigorous way, here). It’s not just that we aren’t going back to the previously “normal.” It’s that we shouldn’t want to. The creeping and not-so-creeping fascism that haunts the United States right now is the natural destination of the country’s underlying runway capitalism, white supremacism, male chauvinism, imperial nationalism, and religious fundamentalism. It is deeply enabled by an 18th Century slaveowners’ constitution that encodes revanchist Minority Rule at numerous levels: through the openly anti-democratic Electoral College presidential election regime, through the absurdly powerful and malapportioned US Senate, through the lifetime and undemocratically appointed and God-like Supreme Court, currently dominated by women-hating Christian Fascists, and through the states’ rights – the remarkable amount of policy and political power that is granted under the American system to state jurisdictions, something that reactionaries have seized on wielded forever – “states rights,” a great rallying cry for the Slaveowners’ Confederacy and the racist southern “Redeemers” who established slavery under new names after the Reconstruction years. The bourgeois democratic, rule of law “normalcy” that some Democrats want to return us to was always a cloak for the de facto underlying class dictatorship of capital. The limited degree of popular governance it permitted was always contingent on state and society leaving capitalist social and material domination intact. The despotic and imperial capitalist system it represented and protected has long de-legitimized, mocked, and rendered inauthentic the democratic ideals it holds up for applause, thereby favoring authoritarian/fascist solutions to the crises it recurrently creates. Add in the toxic American stew of racism, patriarchy, Christian fundamentalism, imperial “Manifest Destiny,” mass arming, the downward pressure of inter-imperialist global capitalist competition, and wrap it all up in an ancient slave-owners’ Minority Rule Constitution that is falsely taken to represent popular self-governance and we see that “the normal” was a revanchist and authoritarian disaster in the making and waiting to happen.
Wanting to return to all that is like a lung cancer patient wanting to resume smoking cigarettes. Calling all that a decent, democratic, humanitarian, just, and free way of organizing and governing society is, to use young Springsteen’s language, worse than just a lie. It’s long past time to wake up from the American Dream, which, as George Carlin used to say, you have to be asleep to believe in. The “vital center” (Arthur M Schlesinger, Jr.) that the preposterous pundit David Brooks can’t stop dreaming about is long gone. The center can no longer hold. The center has been blown up and, like the shuttered textile mill in Springsteen’s song “This is Your Hometown,” it “ain’t coming back.” The future is radical, and the only question now is will it be something truly terrible and fascist – if that word is too much for you, say “Christian white nationalist” – or something beautiful, liberating, and revolutionary socialist. We must embrace and (contrary to Carlin’s brilliant but crippling cynicism) fight for the latter outcome and that means dropping dysfunctional nostalgia for “the way we were” because the way we were sucked and led straight to the way we are now.