So, the nightmare is true, the US still has a Donald Trump presidency. The self-styled saviour of the American people, still forging ‘unpresidented’ uncertainty and enfeebling the linchpin of the American project, is not only increasingly outing himself as the intellectually-derailed despot many of us suspected he is, but the 45th leader of the so-called ‘land of the free and the home of the brave’ has revealed American politics to have blusteringly raised the curtain on an ostensibly new chapter: enemy-rhetoric. In this new climate, Muslims, Mexicans, the Chinese, African-Americans, and his competitors – are all understood as furtive ‘enemies’, as ‘others’; all of whom pitilessly rally against the model American.
The injudicious billionaire and now Commander-in-Chief has not only ferried in all sorts of revolting norms, but he has also normalised the idea that a group of citizens can be neatly and necessarily regarded through the prism of national identity. Formally fixed, ideally-Utopian and relationally-isolationist – the national identity is heralded as the envy of the world, and one liable to the implacable venom of the ‘enemy’.
As odious as Trump is to many socially progressive people who revere and thump for fundamental human-rights, the quasi-religious Manichean locus that Trump has tapped into, enemy-rhetoric, is not as extrinsic to us progressives as it may initially seem. Indeed, the glib rhetoric that Trump has been heaving is not only a disease that has affected us all, but it also something uncontroversially common to all of us, as I hope to spell out.
The enemy-rhetoric is salient in that it has four significant and interrelated features common to us all, as Umberto Eco perspicuously noted. First, having an enemy is important in defining our identity. We require an enemy in order to fathom who we are and, perhaps just as important, who we are not (self-satisfied Trump-haters and Trump-supporters take note). Second, having an enemy provides us with an obstacle against which we can measure our system of values. Third, and this is related to the previous point, in seeking to overcome such obstacles, we thereby demonstrate our own worth. Last, understanding who we are and who they are is crucial for both our self-approval and self-esteem. Together these mechanisms provide the grounds for so much of our decision-making in the sociopolitical realm. We see them at play both in Trump’s pronouncements as well as the Social-Justice-Warriors. They were also present in the groundswell of violent protests in Washington DC after Trump’s inauguration and in the swathes of protests against Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of California, Berkeley.
Sadly, the twofold self-approval and self-esteem cache becomes expedited by positive reinforcers as a result of the rewarding stimuli that follows. Thus, when there is no enemy, we have to invent one. The squall of anti-immigrant sentiment both in Europe and the US is surely an example of this (but so too is the Brexit-bashing assumption that all who disagree with us are somehow our enemies): incorrigibly different to us, and observing customs that are suspiciously and dangerously distinct from ‘our’ national or political identity, the epitome of difference has become the foreigner, whether he is literally from another country, or just mentally divergent from whatever ideological schema we identify with.
Not contained solely to the foreigner, the political zeitgeist is becoming increasingly replete with ‘enemies’ – exacerbated, I would argue, by the increasing social and political trend to divide ourselves into and identify ourselves by certain groups, cultures, subcultures, social movements, religions, political parties, etc., – trends that we’ve unwittingly broached chiefly out of our own self-indulgence and social-unenlightenment.
Cataloguing themselves into a group that is delimited and largely defined by how they differ from the enemy, Trump need only claim that the moon is not made of cheese for a group such as the (well-intentioned) anti-Trump outfit to believe the opposite. Not only that, the current fad that to desist interfacing with one’s political enemies amounts to something noble is only exacerbating the gulf that exists between one’s group and the enemy. This problem is particularly salient for Trump’s politically-Left rivals – those who have the potential to mount a political foray against Trump and his legion of sycophants – because they are not succumbing to prevailing political fads that increasingly foster inveterate temperaments that positive-reinforcement can be easily acquired by concocting oppugners, but they are bound and determined to the belief that enemies are high and low, even amongst themselves. Trump and his minions may differ in ideology, but not in the making of enemies and acceding to political fads.
As Leftists, we must take stock of what Trump’s presidency will comprise given his slew of strikes to human-rights and his sepulchral recoil from the (more) progressive operation his predecessor followed: certain demographics will continue to be conceived as enemies of the Apollonian US identity, and his opponents will continue seeing him and his disciples as their enemy. We can, of course, pattern ourselves upon Trump and co (those who inveigh against Muslims, Mexicans, etc.,), or we can stand apart. Refusing to politically interface with other social progressives on the left, those who also take umbrage with Trump but have been smeared with the hues of enemy, stymies the forging of a collective, unified political movement to rally against him. Not only that, blackballing, belittling and biffing those groups that we don’t belong to (or those groups we’re not supposed to apprise) surely chokes any possibility of recalibrating the views of those who currently support Trump. In other words, we are in a lose-lose situation.
Perhaps from day 33 onwards it might well prove opportune to change tack, perhaps we disincline our own druthers to forge the enemy, perhaps it’s time we realise that they aren’t as different from us after all.
“No man ever got very high by pulling other people down. The intelligent merchant does not knock his competitors. The sensible worker does not work those who work with him. Don’t knock your friends. Don’t knock your enemies. Don’t knock yourself.” – Alfred Tennyson
Benjamin David founded Conatus News in 2016. He currently works as an editor for Parliamentary Review.