Our America: Grotesque Sovereignty, Revisited, Part Two

Thomas Dumm

Part Two: Trump and the Triumph of Christian Totalism

(Author’s note: The following is Part Two of a three-part series, which updates a blog post that originally appeared in The Contemporary Condition in May, 2017). Read Part One here.

In the case of Trump and other buffoons in power today there is a disjunction between power’s operation and the operator that advances that operation, because within the regime of grotesque sovereignty there is a continuous exposure of the gap between representations of power and its actual operation. (The experience of this gap is both hilarious and terrifying for those of us who find in Trump the apotheosis of the ridiculous: the urge to laugh, despite our terror, is a response many must have had during his early period of rule.)  This exercise is quite different from what has often been assumed, that the buffoonery and absurdity of Trump is at its core a tactic designed to distract the attention of the polity onto the representation of sovereign power, while power itself operates as we are distracted by the spectacle.

This is what cannot be emphasized enough: Trump, like other grotesque sovereigns of the modern age, whether they be fascists like Mussolini or Communists like Stalin, is dangerous because he is ridiculous. His ridiculousness exposes the wildness of power that is usually framed within the legal regime of the state. And the ridiculousness is quite likely to continue upon his departure from power by whoever replaces him, until this system is broken or transformed.

We might think about it this way: the inciting of violence against minorities, the ongoing ransacking of the public treasury, the blatant embracing of corporate power over democratic accountability, the flagrant undermining of the respectable institutions of constitutional government, the aggressive reversal of federal policies designed to ease the country out of the era of mass incarceration, the appointment of far right judges from the Supreme Court down, the reversal of environmental regulations, the gutting of public education, the enormous shift of wealth upward by way of tax legislation and the gutting of the enforcement capacities of the IRS, and the overtly racist attacks on countries whose populations are composed of black and brown people, to name but a few of the ongoing accomplishments of this administration so far, are not happening because the public is distracted away from these activities, but because the attention we are paying to these actions, of which we are all aware at one level or another, is contained within this larger system.

All of these policy initiatives have been followed and acted upon by agents within the system, even as the grotesque sovereign continuously demonstrates the disqualification of the system. It is as if it goes on by itself. Because it does, and will go on, at least for an indeterminate length of time.

The grotesque sovereign represents a certain termination point of power, a radical disjunction, which in the late modern era has been synonymous with fascism, a politics well suited to the spectacular, which operates through those media of mass communication through which the grotesque finds its fullest expression. That the spectacular now is digital in character, and that the medium of choice for Trump is Twitter, only underlines this point. In fact, it is as a fascist that we can best understand Trump’s own politics.

There is another element of sovereign power at work here, a part of the digital landscape, and the rise of the internet, but that also preceded it. That is the Christianization of the Republican party. By the late 1990s, what the political theorist William E. Connolly has labeled the capitalist-Christian resonance machine, a combination of evangelical Christians, corporate capital, and the ideological communication apparatus known as Fox News, emerged as a force that was to present a self-reinforcing take over the national Republican party.

Indeed, as early as 1994, writing in The End of the Republican Era, Theodore Lowi noted that a major shift in the demographics of the rank and file voters in the GOP was underway. In an afterword to the 2006 second edition of that work, Lowi wrote, “Even by 1994 the conservatives, especially the Christian Right, had become the infantry of the Republican party and could enjoy their victory over the long dominant Democratic Congress. By 2004, nearly 30 percent of Bush’s total popular vote was evangelical—twice as much as any other group. . ." And according to the research of Jim Guth, a political science professor at Furman University, ‘Nearly every third congressional office stocks an ambitious Christian leader who calls himself ‘evangelical.’ This kind of constituency leverage had transformed the party and reoriented the coalition” (292).

Thinking specifically about the Christian right, Lowi observed a general rule in regard to political action: “mobilized morality trumps normal politics. It suppresses party politics in particular and instrumental rationality in general.” He suggested that George W. Bush succeeded in holding the new coalition together through the articulation of a moralistic politics over instrumentalism. It didn’t hurt that 9/11 handed him a moral crusade that bound his party together and demoralized the Democrats.

For the long-term, Lowi didn’t see morality-based politics as being able to succeed. What he labeled Hypocracy, a politics of certitude based on a sense of moral absolutism, was in the Bush years spawning an imperial foreign policy of “democraticization,” disguising an attempt to convert non-Western nations to Western cultural values. It was also beginning to produce a politics of hypocrisy on the domestic front, which always occurs with such politics, because, as he writes, “The gap between moral perfection and political reality institutionalizes deceit. . .” (313). The most tragic end for Hypocratic rule, he suggests, is the emergence of “totalism” which may or may not result in the establishment of a state religion—whether explicit or implicit—based on a sort of international moral crusade against Islam: Samuel Huntington's “clash of civilizations,” coupled with the increasing marginalization and stigmatization of the secular values of tolerance and open-mindedness.

When imperialism fails, the effect on domestic institutions is corrosive, as there is a deeper insistence on moral certitude, coupled with an increasingly conspiratorial mindset, to explain the failures of the Hypocratic regime. In 2006, Lowi concluded with only a half-hopeful conclusion.

Although liberalism cannot win a direct confrontation, the Conservative coalition can end in a tragedy of a love affair with certainty and purity. Its standards are too high. Hypocracy has a short half-life. Neocratic certainty, Paleocratic prejudice, and Theocratic purity will revive the Puritan separatism with a vengeance. At that poiint—and no thanks to current liberal leaders—liberalism will be vindicated. If not, a long era of conservative moral purity will mean the end of the republican (small r) era—because we could lose our memory of what a republic is. (314)

For Lowi, then, the possibility of an end of the republican era was real. But what did he mean by end? He was always slippery on this point, suggesting it could mean both a temporal end but also a teleological end. He was a measured pessimist concerning the temporality of liberalism and republicanism, even as he remained one of the most ideological sophisticated defenders of the liberal republic. Read Part Three here.

THOMAS DUMM is the William H. Hastie '25 Professor of Political Science and the Chair of Political Science at Amherst College.