In 1951— while in deep introspection to the grotesque horrors of the Holocaust — Theordor Adorno stated that “there can no longer be poetry after Auschwitz” (Adorno 1952) and I cannot state or make any assertions to the efficacy of such a proclamation, but the sentiment in both its time-locked historicity and through presentism should not be lost or subsumed into the bulwarking arrogance of the 21st century. I assure you poetry both then and now is not dead, even if it felt to Adorno that the vacuum of fascism systematically sucked all beauty from the world. Beauty, if anything, was only shrouded by the shadow of tragedy, but it did return. But, not because the world needed to be beautiful, but simply because beauty grows from the darkened void of it’s antithesis. As Chairman Mao once eloquently quipped, “its always darkest before it becomes completely black” and it is that space of total blackness that all beauty, art and poetry is born.
The question I ask is: Can there be democracy after Trump? I am not trying to claim that Trump did not win through a democratic process or that the election was rigged or that the electorate college is a flawed and undemocratic process. But, notwithstanding my agnostic stance on those three aforementioned points, I will go further to argue that democracy has been frivolously subsumed by the void that Trump created with the blunt serendipity of a silver-spoon coddling child. Democracy is not merely the process of governing through the electorate whims of the majority, but rather, democracy is a complex process of public engagement with the community and it contains the hard-nosed facticity of being equal parts burden and blessing. Democracy cannot exist in a society that does not honor political integrity. Democracy cannot exist in a society that eschews human decency as a prerequisite for social engagement. And, lastly, democracy does not exist in a a society that loathes critical thinking — as making utterances about greatness does not imply a rich understanding of either social or human greatness. Democracy as a process is form; whereas democracy as social substance is content. Trump won in form, but not in content. Democracy without content or substance reduces the process to nothing but the blunt and emotional fever of mob rule. Kierkegaard decried there is no truth in the crowd as human nature will always gravitate towards in-group conformability, but the path to Truth is never through simply consensus. Truth is a process and the democratic truth of the body politic requires, as a necessary condition, critical and public introspection and to do so otherwise is to drive the nails into the coffin of the dead corpse of democracy.
I am not saying that Donald Trump killed democracy in America — as I will not grant him with that much credit — but he, instead, danced on its grave and kicked over the gravestone. As the late social critic Jean Baudrillard once remarked, “in a world with more and more information there is less and less meaning” and this has never seemed more true than it does in 2016 and it is Trump who exploited this social reality by creating a campaign that ushered a bombardment of continuous non-stop cable-news-enabled ‘information’, but was destructively avoidant of all meaning and substance. You may disagree with the politics-of-the (sort of) left of Obama and Clinton, but that does not mean we throw out the baby with the bathwater — we should not lower our political discourse to the bitter brevity of Twitter. And nor should we reward this with the power and respect of the high-office of our land. In other words, immigration is an issue, but the solution is not as simple as the four lettered word ‘wall’.
A democratic state without critical discourse is like attempting to create poetry without aesthetic valuation — utterly impossible and a contradiction of terms. Trump did not win democratically, but instead he won through popular and emotional appeal — he won by converting the standards of presidential appraisal to the standards upon which we judge the next American Idol. Trump turned our democracy into reality television where catch phrases and dramatic shock and awe filled the space once inhabited by political inclusion and the nuanced merits of civil engagement.
But now as I sit and lick my wounds the question arises — now what? The Pandora’s box that was opened in the 2016 election will manifest in two ways as we move on into the future: first, the absolute disdain Trump had for our electoral democracy will most likely carry over as disdain for balance of power and checks and balances and secondly, Trump reduced our electorate standards to the realm of the “politics of the aesthetic” that allows critical engagement of the issues to be replaced by impulsive emotional appeal. And it is on these fronts that we must battle. Trump exploited the flaws of the media and electoral process to crown himself king and we cannot let this process continue. Trump will — as a matter of when and not if — attempt to exploit the power of the presidency to circumvent political friction (either by the opposition or his own party) and the GOP will not stop him. The Trump supporters feel his win is a memorandum to erect broad-sweeping change and to these ends, they will capriciously justify almost any means — completely surrendering to the irony of labeling Obama a king for eight years as a precursor for electing a fascist dictator. Many Trump supporters told me time and time again, that if he becomes president and starts enacting fascist-like tendencies they will stand up against him, but when I point to fascist-like tendencies he exhibited during the election or the fascist-like qualities in his proposed policies and proposed methodology they defend and accept these qualities as necessary evils to bring about the American greatness that Trump all too often speaks of, without saying much. This is how fascism gains power — not by a single and bold act of power acquisition, but by thousands, if not millions, of small concessions made by millions of agents who justify their actions as necessary and wholly insignificant. Millions of tiny wrongs can coalesce to one giant catastrophic wrong, when gone unchecked. This was the wisdom of Hannah Arendt in her Nietzschean style apropos of the “banality of evil” — evil is not through the product of some top-down super villain with a cat on his lap that decrees an evil agenda; but evil is the aggregate results of millions of people making obstinate and microscopic utilitarian concessions towards an ideologically rendered justified belief. That is to say that the resistance to fascist forces will not come from the ones who elected a fascist — they will justify and rationalize in a slow process of ethical suspension (to use the Kierkegaard expression) that seems right in the moment.
Democracy — as was the case for poetry after Auschwitz — is currently hidden and shrouded behind the hyper-realism smoke of the election and the solution to prevent the total annihilation of democracy is to fully embrace the purity of democratic engagement. In other words, do not sink to the level of the fascists. Do not attempt to fight violent language with more violent language; oppressive conditions with more oppression conditions; obstruction with obstruction. We must engage, reflect, debate and take in consideration the social criticisms of the Trump bloc without judgement. The Trump camp criticized establishment politics for ignoring their problems and voice; and with that history and reality at-hand, their voice must be included into the totality of democratic discourse. This does not mean we accept their propositions or socially destructive solutions, but it only means we attempt to find the core-root concerns and work towards compromise. The recognition of the Other as one deserving of respect and recognition is the first step in any democracy, and more so the case for the radical democracy I propose. The poetry after Auschwitz was different than all poetry that proceeded it because all post-Auschwitz poetry contained the looming shadow of it’s own negation — it became elevated in it’s aesthetic power, because it not only overcame it’s attempted destruction, but it consumed this annihilation into it’s allure and showcased its paradoxical nature as being both indestructible and painstakingly fragile.
Many people were in shock over the Trump win and this is for the pure simple fact that they forgot that democracy — like poetry — is fragile. It is a concept that runs against the grain of animal nature and it gains all its power from social fidelity and social engagement. You have to believe in democracy and enact democracy in order for it to exist. The Trump supporters in their talks of a ‘rigged election’ do not believe in democracy (but will certainly accept the results when it is to their advantage) and they only enacted the superficial form of democracy and spitefully disregarded the substance of it. And as we move forward, we must believe that a fully engaged democratic republic is possible. And we must do everything to honor democracy and forcibly bring about a radical revision of democracy in its most purest form — public debate and discourse. Not as a process of confirming your bias, not as a process of building echo chambers and not as a process for filling your ego with righteousness; but as a process of constructing a society that synthesizes multiple perspectives of the ‘the concept of america’ into a seamless entity. This requires going to the person you most disagree with and asking them why they believe, what they believe. Ask them if there is room for compromise and if they truly understand your view as well. That is to say that despite the fact that Trump appointed an EPA director who doesn’t believe the environment is in need of protection, despite the fact that he hired an attorney general who has been previously denied a judgeship for being ‘too racist’ and despite the fact that he appointed a ‘political strategist’ who worked for an ‘opinion organization’ that is actually considered a ‘hate organization’ by some — we need to stop being offended and upset and thrown back by the absurdity, and go to these people and ask ‘why’? Ask them what America means to them and more importantly what does ‘greatness’ mean in the context of America. See if there is middle ground and see if reconciliation is possible. Because to dig our heels in the ground and obstruct for the sake of obstruction without compromise, is only to grab a shovel and help them bury the corpse of democracy that we all killed together.
The most purest and effective forms of democracy are the ones that fully embrace the possibility of its own negation through the simple recognition that democracy is not given. We cannot be passive, we cannot mix words, we cannot toss insults, we cannot assume the worst, we cannot divide and we cannot allow this shallow form of democracy to replace its dynamic predecessor. The fight for democracy begins with recognizing our own freedom and the freedom of the Other as active voices that are all equally deserving of public consideration. Democracy takes work and heart, and it is now time to let the process begin.
The sublimity of revived poetry does not resign us to eye-rolled passivity; but rather it cajoles us to demarcate the real from the unreal and the possible from the impossible.
So listen, digest, think — and then speak softly.