Observe the conduct of these people closely
Find it estranging even if not very strange
Hard to explain even if it is the custom
Hard to understand even if it is the rule
Observe the smallest action, seeming simple,
Let nothing be called natural
In an age of bloody confusion
Ordered disorder, planned caprice,
And dehumanised humanity, lest all things
Be held unalterable!Exception and the Rule, by Bertolt Brecht
You could practically hear the relief when the decision came through and Joe Biden was declared the President-elect of the United States. Events seemed to have a kind of inertia to them leaving Republicans to complain about the various myopic conspiracies that dominate the conservative collective psyche. Politics could finally get back to normal with the defeat of Trump and the election of Biden. If that’s the predominant sense of mainstream political discourse it’s worth taking a moment to think about what normality might mean, and how thinking in terms of what might be normal for political discourse imposes an artificial unity on a complex and contested field.
To talk about a return to normality implies that Trump was, in a sense, a break or rupture in some kind of political continuity. Honestly, none of the arguments for Trump as a radical shift in Republican politics seem remotely convincing. It’s easy enough to think of Trump and Trumpism as something different but that obfuscates the continuity in his politics with the Republican party’s aims and objectives over the past decade or so – easily observable if one tracks the figures close to him and the policies pushed by Trump and his administration. What distinguished Trump was a set of aesthetic markers – his brash tastelessness, his crude enjoyment of the levers of power and of course, his willingness to just go right ahead and say the quiet part loud. Trump sees politics as essentially retributive – getting revenge for perceived slights and celebrating his own strengths rather than doing sober, sensible Republican things like carpet bombing Tehran or conspiring to have socialists murdered in Latin America.
That’s all over now. We’ve gotten back to normal.
But if Trump was nothing outside the norms of right-wing discourse, what does it mean that things are back to normal now?
Principally it seems to be about the naturalisation of a particular kind of discourse. The exclusion of Trumpian aesthetics from the political sphere has left centrist and moderate Republicans and Democrats breathing a sigh of relief. They have a new figure-head in Joe Biden and a massive stage to drive the message home that there is no alternative. Getting back to normal is a slogan of capitalist realism. Politics is a contested field – a sight of struggle and change. The desire to establish the norm is the desire to establish the boundaries of what kind of politics can be given serious national attention or, even more broadly, “the norm” determines what kind of politics is thinkable. It’s only been with the heroic effort of activists and organisers over years and years of effort that issues like abolition and defunding the police or Medicare for All have even become something that can be discussed in the mainstream (even if that discussion is only to dismiss it). Back to normal politics is solipsistic, inward looking and generally incapable of meeting the real material challenges of contemporary capitalism.
Back to normal politics establishes an asymmetric relationship between Republicans and Democrats – who are already being encouraged to “reach out” to the right – whilst high profile right wing politicians are already being talked about as front runners for senior positions in a Biden administration. Getting back to normal for the Democrats means futile bipartisanship whilst being constantly attacked by the right (see the Republican rhetoric of Biden the radical socialist) whilst for the right, getting back to normal is about one thing only – eliminating the possibility of change and the continuation of maximising capitalist extraction for them and their political allies. Mitt Romey, hero of the hashtag resistance is already on TV making this explicit – the aim is to prevent Medicare for All, to continue the destruction of the environment and to prevent any kind of legislative effort to stymy climate collapse. Back to normal means an encroaching austerity, the further entrenching of neoliberal politics that will make every systemic issue a matter of personal responsibility. It will mean the expansion of the carceral apparatus under the guise of reform. It will mean technocratic liberals in control of key levers of government policy – seen by the lists of tech executives and republicans already circulating as prospective cabinet nominees. All of this is coupled with a general dismissal of the electoralist left, despite the colossal and generally hugely successful work of leftist activists in registering voters, turning out voters and advocating for some of the most reliably popular policies with the electorate. One only needs to look at John Kaisch, decrying socialism as a vote loser whilst at the same time his former state of Ohio goes for Trump by eight points. So, for the Democratic establishment, the left has to be brought in line – social movements have to be integrated into the party machine, whilst any kind of push for more radical policies has to be deferred until after the next election (a point which will be made ad infinitum if and when the Democrats fail to take control of the Senate).
Donald Trump’s defeat is not a victory – it’s a moment of breathing room. A full scale effort is already underway to normalise and further entrench capitalist realism under the guise of defeating Trump. The Herculean effort of on the ground activists, campaigners and working class people who made such revolutionary demands over the summer can all too easily be folded into the milquetoast neoliberal reformism of the Demicratic party. What has to be refused is the idea of going back to the norm. The normal is not natural, but constructed and there should be critical suspicion of anyone arguing for a return to an imagined political normality. We have to renew the task of inventing the future, wresting it from the violent nationalism of the reactionary and racist right, as well as the neoliberal frantic stasis of politics as normal.
For a good breakdown of what the norm looks like and the ways in which normalised discourse frequently serves to obscure a whole host of systemic issues as well as the ways in which this “normal” or mainstream political common sense is nothing but a complete failure, see Kyle’s excellent point about the incompetence of Florida Democrats. We can’t invent the future without knowing who is there to stop us at every level of the political structure.
As he put it
“The Florida Democratic Party is a national embarrassment, repeatedly failing to act in the interest of Florida workers and the most vulnerable members of our community. They frustrate and thwart the efforts of advocacy groups and a smattering of elected progressives willing to use their office to platform and advocate for working Floridians. They’ve let down the organizers who work tirelessly for their terrible candidates and many of the working class Floridians who volunteer their free time and money in hopes the FDP will someday get their shit together, all while capitulating to the moneyed interests who have turned this state into a playground for the rich.”