In a thoughtful essay at The New Republic, Jeet Heer argues that “Populist” is the wrong label for Donald Trump, the nativist buffoon and mediocre capitalist who wishes to be President of the United States.
Heer follows professional protocols: historians are always insisting upon a more nuanced definition of “Populism.” Unfortunately for Heer’s argument, the more one introduces nuance into the discussion of Populism, the more Donald Trump appears to be a Populist. Adding a layer of ironic complexity, Heer invokes the political theorist Michael Rogin as a witness for the prosecution, whose testimony serves to further indict the defendant, Richard Hofstadter, who stands accused (as always) of having betrayed Progressive narratives of the “people” versus the “trusts,” and of overemphasizing the anti-Semitism at work in American agrarian politics, This is ironic because while Rogin did write an early work, The Intellectuals and McCarthy, that took aim at the pluralist school with which many New Leftists associated Hofstadter, Rogin also came to embrace many of Hofstadter’s key insights. Rogin’s magisterial final work, Ronald Reagan: The Movie, And Other Episodes In Political Demonology is, in fact, something of a sustained tribute to Hofstadter’s counter-Progressivism (it even deploys, without any explanatory fuss, Hofstadter’s controversial idea of “the paranoid style in America politics”)
In so many ways a book ahead of its time, Ronald Reagan: The Movie, And Other Episodes In Political Demonology provides the contemporary scholar with all of the tools necessary to situate Trump as a Populist. Rogin’s focus is on a certain tendency in American political theology that he calls “countersubversive demonology.” Ronald Reagan––failed movie cowboy, enthusiastic Hollywood Red hunter, relentless fantasist of latter day Central American Plans San Diego––serves as the anchor of Rogin’s text. But Rogin deftly moves from the Iran-Contra hearings to Jacksonian bloodlust, from the Frost/Nixon interviews to the anti-Catholic and anti-Masonic manias of the nineteenth century: discovering extraordinary continuities among varied efforts to weed out threats to the body politic by developing detailed knowledge about demons, monsters, and ghouls.
Ronald Reagan: The Movie, And Other Episodes In Political Demonology is also a comparatively early example of a work of American historiography that takes seriously Ernst Kantorowicz’s research on the “King’s Two Bodies.” Implicit in Rogin’s discussion is the articulation of the idea of the “King’s Two Bodies” with contemporary theories of biopolitics (the various analytical projects that take their cue from Foucault’s insistence that in modern political formations, the human body tends to become the medium of state power). Countersubversive demonology feeds off of the oscillation between the two bodies with which sovereignty is concerned: the body politic and the given fleshly body of the subject. A threat to one is a threat to the other; porousness or vulnerability to pollution of my body becomes a crisis of the state’s abstract body; the unwalled border between the United States and Mexico becomes something like an anti-vaccination.
Not all countersubversive demonologies are Populist. And not all Populisms are countersubversive demonologies. But Populism and countersubversive demonology work very well with one another. The process is described elegantly in the writings of Claude Lefort and Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. If we begin with the idea of the “King’s two bodies,” taking that split between abstract sovereign being, on one hand, and the ordinary reality of people, on the other, as constitutive of the political form called the state, we can identify the “problem” that Populism seeks to fix. Many experience the gap between the “King’s two bodies” as traumatic: tremendous libidinal energies can be mobilized around the project of closing the split, making “America,” for example, exactly identical to America (the complex entity in which some of us live). The work of closing this gap between the two “Americas” requires an object around which intentions may be organized. We might say that the relative virtue of different strains of Populism follows from the character of the chosen object and the choices made by Populist politicians regarding its mobilization.
Countersubversive demonology is what happens when the Populist desire for a positive object-cause fails, when no suitable object can be found. The same intense will for suture, the same drive to erase all remainders, leftovers, or holes from the conflation of “America” and America are at work: but lacking the proper object, attention turns to the alien element that has settled in our midst, working in secret to frustrate the longed-for cohesion. As Rogin notes, this anxious search for the polluting or infecting agent is a will-to-knowledge (and the knowledge it produces tends to have a distinctive, repetitive, compulsive character), The countersubversive demonological imagination, Rogin further observes, is often drawn to mimesis: in order to know the enemy, one must think like the enemy. Thus the extraordinary staying power of reactionary drag in American political life. The strangest thing about this mimesis is that it yields no empathy.
The countersubversive demonology outlined by Rogin encompasses much of the familiar history of the United States: the hatred of Native Americans, the constant worry about slave insurrection, the many waves of anti-immigrant panic, protests against the Second Bank of the United States, anti-Chinese agitation in the nineteenth century labor movement, the many Red Scares, the many conspiracy theories about the Federal Reserve, up to and including Prop 187, the extraordinary proliferation of anti-Muslim sentiment post-9/11, and indeed, Trump’s visions of a thousand mile wall (to say nothing of Chris Christie’s proposal to microchip visitors to the US, so that they may be tracked by Federal Express). This is a broad list, and readers will no doubt think of hundreds of additional examples that could be added to it. In each case we see a countersubversive demonology emerge out of the failure to secure a common focal object; in each case, we have seen bloody and anti-democratic consequences. And many of these events unfolded under the banner of Populism, which, for better or worse, also flies aloft over Donald Trump’s magnificent head.
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