On the night of the midterm elections, my wife and I organized an open house, inviting friends and people from all walks of life to watch the results. The TV ran, but instead of staring at the screen and following the constant predictions of electoral victories and losses, people were interacting and getting to know each other. There was practically no politics mentioned, as the people in the room were evidently oversaturated with political debate. Around midnight, I think, one person announced that the Democrats had won the House, but — he opined — Trump won the elections.
A few minutes later, Nancy Pelosi, former Speaker of the House and Minority Leader since 2011, appeared on the screen declaring a Democratic victory, announcing a new day in America. It was somewhat grotesque. There is nothing new about the 78-years-old Pelosi. With ballots still being counted, the minority leader rushed on stage, surrounded by her colorful staff and two underage grandsons, and claimed her place as next speaker of the House, declaring that her leadership will restore democracy in the United States. Two days later, to ensure her position, she gave an exclusive TV interview on CNN, underscoring without a doubt that she will hold the gavel in the House again.
Pelosi was hardly a convincing messenger on the night that Trumpism became more entrenched than ever. As Bret Stephens wrote in the New York Times, “The result of the midterms means, if nothing else, that the president survived his first major political test more than adequately. And unless Democrats change, he should be seen as the odds-on favorite to win in 2020.”
Pelosi is evidently the wrong candidate for the party’s requisite change. Perhaps as much as Hillary Clinton in 2008 and 2016, Pelosi acts entitled to the job. Among the new breed of young Democrats, however, the experienced, well-connected and power-seeking Pelosi is not considered an inspiration. She’s considered instead as an obstacle blocking a necessarily speedy party renovation. It is legitimate to think that Democrats could have done better without Pelosi during this election, and their survival may depend on her replacement. Despite a leftward transformation of the House, it’s in the Senate where Trump’s powers are manifest, emboldened by the old, white, male generation of supremacists and gun-lobbied leaders. Between this president and the Senate, a double whammy that might last way beyond 2020 thrives.
So the situation is not the brilliant reversal liberals were hoping for, and there is very little hope that this country will be less racist, nationalist and violent in the near future. What can Democrats do to rein in the president, whose campaign no longer hides open appeals to racism, xenophobia, and paranoia? As David Remnick observes: “These were not inadvertent gestures. They were not gaffes. He did this deliberately and incessantly. His calculation, as it had been in 2016, was that his supporters’ deepest anxieties are connected to the country’s changing demographics. He showed little interest in running on matters of policy. Healthcare, it turned out, was a losing issue for him. Instead, without restraint or shame, he whipped one crowd after another into a frenzy by waving the banner of fear, resentment, and white nationalism.”
Donald Trump’s rhetorical escalation is impressive, namely because it hasn’t ruined him. How many in 2016 thought that Trump would be a catalyst of change, that his reckless, out-of-box thinking might create a disruption that would force Democrats to look into the eyes of the beast in which we live. Slavoj Žižek, in this interview, says that the problem of today’s America is not Trump, but the facile opposition of the Democrats. Žižek explains his placing blame on the Democrats, as well as the world’s center-left coalitions, by claiming they’ve lost contact with working people, leading to the disintegration of the welfare state. Here was the crack in a society that Trump took advantage of. Žižek, a controversial Slovenian philosopher, says the point is not the Trumpian caricature, but the inability of the center-left to ask and answer fundamental questions which should focus on how we cope with the global power of capital. In short, the incapacity of the center-left political class to articulate the issues that derive, yes, from the might of global capital, and consequently from the exponential growth and impact of technology on our lives, causing job loss, climate change and so many of our contemporary crises.
These questions remain unanswered and largely untackled or ignored, and they are looming in the darkness of our human existence. People like Trump and Bannon are unconcerned with such longevity, preferring to take the easy way. They flee into the past, cutting ties with everything associative, global and challenging. The size of Trump’s ignorance and greed is incredible, monstrous. If Trump and his attendants run into a simple, but not-so-remote past, how can the underlying problems of this world be resolved? I am afraid that the old dichotomy between left and right is no longer enough to explain the world, and the alternation of political parties in power no longer represents the business model that can manage this increasingly complex, intertwined world. Trump is not helping; he is not pushing the other side to think better as we, two years ago, secretly hope he would. Nevermind thinking together. And as far as the American left is concerned, it is old and worn out, as corrupt and as promiscuous as the Republicans.
So what can the Democrats do? Remnick thinks, “A Democratic majority in the House will not only make it harder for Trump to achieve his legislative ambitions; it could also intensify the state of crisis and siege in Washington. The loss in the House of Representatives means that an array of committees—Judiciary, Intelligence, Ways and Means, Foreign Affairs, and others—will now be chaired by Democrats who can initiate, or accelerate, investigations into Trump’s past, his Presidency, and his associates. They replace Republican chairmen like Devin Nunes, who, as the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, often seemed to act as like a detached lawmaker and more like the President’s personal attorney.”
At the end, though, Remnick concedes that this might not be enough. “In order to defeat him,” he writes, “defeat him decisively, the leadership of the Democratic Party will have to get better, become more focussed—and not merely on the travesty of its outrageous and dangerous opponent.”
Most observers agree that Dems seizing the House represents an opportunity to exert some control over the roaring President, who only a day after the elections started reconfiguring his cabinet, accelerating his plan to reshape the federal judiciary. But we also saw something else. Pushed by an insistent reporter, a White House correspondent from CNN, the President lost it, walking up and down the stage like a caged animal. When Trump is pushed into a corner, he fires back uncontrollably, becoming even more unpredictable and dangerous. Jim Acosta, the CNN reporter, was immediately punished after the incident, the White House press secretary denying his future accreditation. It may seem a small and predictable injury to a network that has become the bete noire of the right, but a dangerous pattern emerges, one in which checks on the executive office are threatened. When the House begins to send subpoenas to the Oval Office, Trump may really go wild.
There are, however, more radical ideas on how to stop Trump, save America, and the world with it. Aleksandar Hemon, a Bosnian writer transplanted from Sarajevo to Chicago, proposed the most extreme way. Hemon is a powerful writer and his piece, Fascism is Not an Idea to Be Debated, It’s a Set of Actions to Fight, set in motion new thinking in many minds around the world.
Hemon describes how the war in former Yugoslavia changed the relationship he had with his high school friend, who was like a brother to him. Zoka and Aleksandar played soccer together, discussed movies, debated, fought and were inseparable until college. “But then, bit by bit, in ways so incremental as to be imperceptible to me, he became a passionate Serbian nationalist. Posters of rock bands were replaced with pictures of Serbian saints and stately World War I generals. He no longer quoted lines from movies but from Gorski vijenac (The Mountain Wreath), the 19th-century epic poem about the Serbs’ righteous extermination of Muslims. I detested his turn to nationalist tradition, entirely alien to the urban spirit of Sarajevo, where we both grew up, and I frequently told him so. It got to the point where we were likely to spiral into an argument whenever we saw each other. I’d often insist, before getting wound up myself, that we avoid “politics” and stick instead to soccer and movies, but by the time the war started in Croatia, with news of atrocities committed by the Serb Army, it was hard to stay away from it.”
In 1992, the war was ravaging in Sarajevo and Hemon moved to Chicago. There he received the last letter from Zoka. It was written not only by a stranger but by an enemy. Hemon never responded to Zoka directly but wrote:
My relationship with the war has always been marked by an intense sense that I failed to see what was coming, even though everything I needed to know was there, before my very eyes. While Zoka took an active part in enacting the ideas I’d argued against, my agency did not go beyond putting light pressure on his fascist views by way of screaming. I have felt guilty, in other words, for doing little, for extending my dialogue with him (and a few other Serb nationalist friends) for far too long, even while his positions—all of them easy to trace back to base Serbian propaganda—were being actualized in a criminal and bloody operation. I was blinded, I suppose, by our friendship which had ended, I know now, well before our dialogue did. For all that, I still feel guilty and ashamed of my cowardice and naïve belief that if we only kept talking something might bring him back. I retroactively recognized that his hate and racism were always present and that there was no purpose or benefit to our continued conversation. I had long been screaming into a human void.
When earlier this year The New Yorker announced that Steve Bannon was invited to a conversation with editor-in-chief David Remnick, Hemon recalled his memories of Zoka. “I was so upset that I rushed to a conclusion that Bannon’s fascism was, for The New Yorker, merely a difference of opinion that could be publicly debated for the intellectual enjoyment of its paying audience,” writes Hemon, adding: “The public discussion prompted by the (dis)invitation confirmed to me that only those safe from fascism and its practices are likely to think that there might be a benefit in exchanging ideas with fascists. What for such a privileged group is a matter of a potentially productive difference in opinion is, for many of us, a matter of basic survival. The essential quality of fascism (and its attendant racism) is that it kills people and destroys their lives—and it does so because it openly aims so.”
I was sitting in the bar near my house in the North West of D.C. when I heard something similar. A couple sitting next to me was having varied conversations; a young man, confessing his life to a woman who sounded more experienced, was leading the conversation. I do not recall how they passed onto Bannon and the New Yorker. I listened, curious, then engaged the couple, asking them why they thought Remnick invited him. They were angry. I become even more curious and proposed possible explanations that were churning in my mind. After a few attempts to direct the debate toward reason, they cut me short and ridiculed me. The conversation ended with them saying: “We don’t give a shit what might be the reason for the invitation of Bannon on the New Yorker stage. He is racist, and for us blacks, this is favoring someone who is doing us a lot of harm.” I apologized, having never considered their race. It was the reaction Hemon describes in his piece: “The catastrophic error would’ve been in allowing Bannon to divorce his ideas from the fascist practices in which they’re actualized with brutality. If he is at all relevant, it is not as a thinker, but as a (former) executive who has worked to build the Trumpist edifice of power that cages children and is dismantling mechanisms of democracy.”
Both the couple from the bar and Hemon used strong words, opinions to be respected. Their sharp, uncompromising thinking marks a red line, a kind of taboo that the human race established after WWII. We were brought up to believe that the tremendous war will never happen again, that Nazism has gone forever, that the postwar realization injected in us enough antifascist corps to prevent a new epidemic forever. It did not. Look to the massacres that followed the secession of Yugoslavia, the reemerging racism around the world, the genocide of Rohingya in Myanmar. Look what has been happening to the black American minority on the streets of this country for centuries. I get Hemon–he is from tortured Sarajevo–and his wife, so he writes, is African American. It is significant that two years ago, Hemon was giving everyone a lesson on democracy, while now, though less than half of the Trump era, he has lost faith in words and ballots, now calling for a struggle in which anti-fascist forces must clearly identify the enemy and commit to defeating them, whoever they are, whatever it takes. “The time of conversations with fascists is over, even if they might be your best friend from high school,” he concludes.
The evolution of Hemon and other people who are seeing the ghosts of the past haunting them is the first significant damage of the Trump era. The lines are being drawn. In this case, only Democrats can save America from the easily digested, divisive rhetoric of Trump. Nobody outside of this country can do that but them. Once this is done–if–then the world will begin its reckoning and resolution, aimed at addressing the pressing problems that have been left aside. Let’s hope that all this can be done without more bloodshed and violence. It will soon be too late.