First of all, I put “liberal democracy” in scare quotes because I would like to defy anyone to give it a clear definition, and one that applies across the range of countries currently included under the label. (I have been trying—not that hard, admittedly—to discover when the term “liberal democracy” started to be used. The Wikipedia entry traces its “origins” to the “18th century Enlightenment” but says nothing about when the phrase itself appeared.) A constitution (or “constitutional order”) which limits the power of government and ensures basic rights plus regular elections for at least national offices would, I suppose, do as a definition (although some people would want to throw “free market” into the mix). So, the Netherlands just convicted the leader of a major political party of “incitement to discriminate.” Is the Netherlands a liberal democracy? Bridget Bardot has been convicted, I think, 5 times for speech crimes against Islam for criticizing the way they slaughter animals. Is France a liberal democracy? Anyone will find it easy to multiply the examples, undermining the whole notion of “limited government” and “guaranteed rights.” We don’t even need examples: as soon as you guarantee a series of vague, abstract rights you will immediately proceed to generate exceptions. You have whatever rights the government doesn’t find it urgent to violate at the moment. You’ll be able to call it a “liberal democracy” as long as the government has a high threshold for “urgency” (and that will be because its elites are able to rotate in power without one section seeking to supplant another) but not a second longer.
But at least we have elections! In fact, not so much anymore. Leave aside all the usual discussions about the way choices available to the voters are managed oligarchically—that’s mostly done as a matter of course, through well-established channels, behind the scenes, and so as to leave a modicum of actual choice to the voters (although “Tweedledee and Tweedledum” complaints are perennial, and always at least 75% justified). The 2016 election has transformed the electoral process itself, i.e., the actual counting and recording of votes, into just another arena of political battle. This has been in the making for a while—the Democrats contested the 2000 election, of course, and even, more abortively, the 2004 one; while some on the right (“birthers”) questioned Obama’s legitimacy and, closer to the mainstream, have been insisting (with very good reason) on the prevalence of voter fraud for years. In turn, the Democrats attack antifraud measures as “voter suppression,” and they can really go on about that. All this has been prepping the battlespace—each side gearing up to refuse to accept the results of an election. Now, these machinations have penetrated deeper into the system. Trump, of course, spoke of the “rigged” political process in a way that didn’t exclude, but didn’t necessarily highlight, manipulation of the actual process of collecting and counting the votes. The left has now taken the next step. First, they pushed, through the Green Party candidate Jill Stein (an obvious pawn of either the Clintons or forces behind the Clintons) a nonsensical recount. Second, they have fabricated the meme “the Russians hacked the election,” a meaningless phrase meant to scapegoat and delegitimate (a side note on the crazed anti-Russian hatred the left is now peddling: Russians are the perfect white hate objects: culturally conservative, isolationist, patriarchal, apparently still filled with unapologetically feminine beautiful women, indifferent to leftist emoting and, best of all, you don’t have to figure out a way to get 35% of their votes). Third, they are actually lobbying Republican electors who need to vote in order to officially confirm Trump’s victory, with their usual combination of high-minded platitudes (appeals to the “intent of the founders,” commercials with fake president Martin Sheen, etc.) and low-down skullduggery (attempts to intimidate and no doubt bribe the electors (Madonna’s pre-election promise should be much more manageable given the small number of electors who would need to flip)). The electors should at least be able to see the intelligence (ginned up by Obama’s political appointee John Brennan) regarding the “Russian hacking,” shouldn’t they? That would be quite a rule going forward—from now on, the electors must be apprised of all the intelligence regarding attempts by all actors, domestic and foreign, to influence the election. All of the attention of the political system would then shift focus to the selection of the electors, which no one has cared about in the slightest up until now (name one of the electors in your state), and contributing to “intelligence” regarding as many “hacking” agents as one can concoct. Perhaps a new reality show will result.
But there’s quite a bit more. Those on the left who see Trump’s victory as a coup are not completely wrong, and they have some support from the right—the Conservative Treehouse: The Last Refuge blog (more Tea Party than Alt-Right, and perhaps the best informed and most loyal pro-Trump site) has argued that Trump’s election does represent a kind of salubrious “soft coup,” arguing (far more complexly than I am here) that the Defense Department has executed a kind of secession from the other elements of the security regime, preserving a patriotic “America First” understanding of national security against the Obamaite (and beyond) corruption of the other elements of the security apparatus. Moreover, “white hats” within those other elements have rallied behind Trump, perhaps influencing the election in ways we are not aware of. No one has really explained James Comey’s reopening of the investigation into Clinton’s emails days before the election, and a kind of “soft-coup”-like pressure from with the FBI seems as plausible an explanation as any. We can’t know that much about all this maneuvering, but it does seem that different institutions within the government are ranging themselves against one another in an unprecedented way. (Let’s take it one step further—what if Putin really was trying to help Trump, in order to advance the “nationalist international” Clinton warned us of during the election—that would just indicate the emergence of one more player in the field and one global coalition to fight another. You can’t be a globalist and then complain about “outside interference”—what can be outside the globe?) One less-often noted characteristic of “liberal democracies” is that we take for granted that this is unthinkable, beyond inconsequential bureaucratic wrangling, and maybe a few discreet donations from Chinese billionaires. And this means that once we have to start thinking it, we are thinking outside of the bounds of liberal democracy. Hence the title of this post: you can only imagine yourself ensconced within a liberal democratic order to the extent that you don’t think about power. But once you start thinking about power, all the busyness of “liberal democracy”—we need to sharpen our arguments! We need to appeal to new voting blocs! We need to formulate policies that appeal across different social groups! We need to rebrand! We need to get our message out! We need funding for a new think tank! Etc., Etc.—seem like so many shadows on a cave wall. (And this is not even to address the revolt of the bureaucrats once Trump takes a scalpel to the various agencies—already, the EPA, like some snotty college president, is refusing to cooperate with the President-Elect and Congressional Democrats are offering support to those in the State Department ready to resist the new regime. Or the barely veiled threats behind the hysteria over “fake news,” or the ongoing anathematization of Trump voters and their preferred media. The disinformation campaign the intelligence agencies are running against Trump. And I had actually forgotten the post-election riots.)
Regardless of what one thinks of Trump, the terror he evokes in the entire establishment or ruling class, national and global (even those Republicans now claiming to support Trump give the very strong impression of biding their time) is worth noting. They are ready to expose the ugly innards of the system (to force us to think about power) in order to block him, and that can’t have been an easy decision (maybe it was just impulsive). The most productive way to think now is in terms of order and disorder. The ruling class is sowing chaos, while Trump is assembling a team of “white hats” (almost all from the upper political, military and especially economic strata—no academics, no one promoted from within) is trying to establish order. Just about every pick for his cabinet and staff so far seem aimed at providing him with a strong hand within the governmental and corporate institutions that most need to be de-weaponized. An Exxon CEO friendly to Russia; a Labor Secretary very knowledgeable of the way the EEOC keeps the illegal immigration scam going; an EPA head seemingly prepared to create a hostile environment for climate change fanatics; an Attorney General with a long history of insisting the immigration law be enforced to the letter—all, except for the women in somewhat marginal roles, seemingly “Alpha” males, like Trump himself, designed to trigger panic in SJWs. We can assume he will choose a combative press secretary, perhaps from the right wing talk radio pantheon. Trump seems to be adopting a strategy of baiting the opposition so that he can disable them when they expose themselves (what we now call “trolling”). Our somewhat befuddled but no less dangerous for all that rulers seem to be ready to bring the house down in order to stop Trump, and he may have to be ready to do the same to stop them. Maybe we’ll still be having elections when this titanic battle is over, but everyone will have a much clearer sense of where the real power lies, and meta-electoral concerns will diminish interest in the actual results (the more you can convince elected officials that their power is contingent on all kinds of things that are in turn contingent upon you and yours, the less power they actually have). The central theme of this election will be the central theme of Trump’s presidency: sovereignty. Who rules? This decision, this bureaucratic act, this latest delivery of Somali “refugees”—is someone’s fingerprints actually on it, or do we have to go down the rabbit hole where lie in wait foundations, agencies, donors, corporations, foreign governments, etc., to figure out what’s going on? As Colm Gillis says in his The Exceptionally Decisive Carl Schmitt, “politics is the art of counting up to one.” For the forces of order, at least—for the furies of disorder, politics is the art of counting down to zero, that is, of representing order as the source of disorder. It’s a thankfully simple binary to work with, and not one that accommodates the favored and decrepit concepts of “liberal democracy” (“rights,” “due process,” “balance of power,” “rule of law,” etc., all weaponized beyond retrieval).