“April Day” and the Frankfurt School

Like many progressive employers at the time, the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research (aka “Frankfurt School”) regularly gave its employees May 1 (May Day) the day off work. But the real “holiday” at the Institute came a month earlier, on what was often referred to at the Institute as “April Day.” What started with a few simple pranks developed over time into elaborate practical jokes, perhaps culminating with the faux-serious presentation of a live chicken – “Max von Cluck” – as a “visiting speaker” to the Institute. Everyone but Friedrich Pollock was in on the joke, listening attentively and taking notes for several minutes, until Director Max Horkheimer turned to Pollock and announced “I think we should give Friedrich the honour of the first question to our guest.” Pollock’s flummoxed expression was met with gales of laughter.

Horkheimer’s love of practical jokes is fairly well-known, although the infamously embarrassing incident that saw Leo Lowenthal trapped in a closet for several hours is inexplicably excised from the published version of Martin Jay’s history of the Institute. Perhaps less well-known is Theodor Adorno’s fondness for the “novelty items” that he discovered in America in the 1930s and 40s. An early draft of Minima Moralia, for example, has a section called “Joy Buzzer” that describes “the product of comic book culture” as a “shock which both reifies and, in its “novelty,” provides a momentary delivery from reification.”

When Adorno returned to Germany after the war, he maintained a regular correspondence with Herbert Marcuse, who stayed in the United States. Even when they disagreed quite sharply over the student movement, they remained deeply allied in other ways. Marcuse’s letter to Adorno on 5 April 1969 (starting at p5 on this pdf) – a letter that Marcuse says at the outset is “really difficult to write” – came with a package that included dribble glasses, then still unavailable in Germany, that Adorno had requested. Proof perhaps, that jokes provide a path to reconciliation.

-April 1, 2016


[Addendum, June 6, 2016: In case the date of the post wasn’t enough of a clue, the general terms of the disclaimer here apply to this post as well. It is satire. The specific events and quotations are made up. Although members of the Frankfurt School never, as far as I know, called razing homes to expand a car dealership’s parking lot an “improvement.”]


Sabbaticalog Month 3

I was away for two separate week-long trips in March. One of these was work-related: the annual Western Political Science Association (affectionately pronounced “WHAP-sah”) conference in San Diego. For people like me who work in the area of Environmental (aka Green) Political Theory, this is the premier conference in North America, at least. As usual, it lived up to expectations, as I got to see/hear about lots of interesting work being done (and add some things to my reading list – this and this, for starters).

The other trip was not so clearly work-related: chaperoning my daughter’s choir‘s cultural exchange trip to Cuba. Aside from the attractiveness of the weather (28+ and sunny every day), it was fascinating to be in Havana just a few days before Obama, I got to hear some great Cuban music, and to watch a group of teenagers negotiate the whole cultural exchange process.

I’m hoping I will get to posting something longer than a couple of tweets on either or both of these. But the writing I actually got done this month:

  • Finished my paper for WPSA, “The (dis)taste for bottled water” (you can find it by searching for me here)
  • Discussant comments for a panel of three papers on Critical Theory and the Environment
  • One reference letter
  • One manuscript (article) review
  • About 160 emails and 14 tweets
  • I also wrote a short note to go with a donation to the Halifax Typographical Union (journalists at the Chronicle-Herald), who have been on strike for about 10 weeks now. It got quoted in a couple of tweets like this one.

Today also marks the halfway point of my sabbatical leave.

Sabbaticalog: Month 2

Writing output for February:

  • 3000 words on a conference paper
  • 2000 words on a book project
  • Reference letters for four students and one colleague
  • two blog posts (not counting this one)
  • one Storify post (about having my Intro Politics students teach middle schoolers about politics & democracy  – here)
  • ~200 emails
  • ~50 tweets

Counting only the things in the first four categories (where it is easy to count pages), that is about 40 pages: a little less than last month.

Update on last month’s sabbaticalog: the grant proposal that I submitted was approved.

Prospects for Month 3: I will be out of town twice, for a total of about 2 weeks, so that might well reduce the word count. On the other hand, I will finish the conference paper and write discussant comments for a conference panel.




Trump / Schmitt

“I would bring back waterboarding and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding….

… You have to get people in, grab them, hug them, kiss them, and get the deal done.”

-Donald Trump, Eighth Republican debate, Feb 6, 2016, New Hampshire

Yesterday, Donald Trump decisively won the Republican Nevada caucus, and if things continue this way, he will win the Republican nomination. It’s true that there is still lots of room for unexpected events to disrupt the race. Bill Clinton didn’t win any of the first four primaries in 1992. Which means there is still hope for Marco Rubio (or, for that matter, John Kasich or Ben Carson). But given everything that has so far failed to put a dent in Trump’s campaign, increasingly outlandish scenarios have to be concocted.

The decisiveness of Trump’s Nevada win (45%) also makes the conventional wisdom – that Trump is so toxic to so many people, that he has a hard “ceiling” of support that makes him unelectable in a general election – a little more shaky. Maybe it’s true. But Trump has defied expectations pretty regularly throughout the campaign. And the deep Republican antipathy for Hillary Clinton in particular means that the GOP establishment might learn to love their monster in the end.

The juxtaposition of the two quotations above, both from Trump’s performance in the New Hampshire Republican debate (debate transcript is here), show the essence of Trump’s appeal, which seems to owe quite a bit to the political philosophy of Carl Schmitt.

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Carl Schmitt/Donald Trump

In The Concept of the Political, Schmitt says that the political is the sphere that is defined by relations of friendship and enmity. The friend/enemy distinction is the fundamental political distinction: it is what all real politics is built upon. For Schmitt, many of the things that we might normally think of as “politics” don’t qualify. Normal elections, passing legislation, court decisions, contract negotiations: all of these things determine how a society is administered – “who gets what, when, and how” in Harold Lasswell’s famous definition of politics – but they don’t get to the essence of the political.

For Schmitt, politics provides the foundation which makes all of those other things possible. Electoral, legislative, judicial and other such processes of governance can only work within a community that has a certain level of existential security. It’s only if we know that we are going to be around next week, next year, or the next election cycle, that we have a reason to build those kinds of governance institutions and accept their outcomes as binding. At the same time, it is the parties being bound to the rules (and therefore outcomes) that makes those processes non-political. The political only becomes visible when those rules are in question. If we are faced with an “enemy,” in Schmitt’s sense of the term – someone who is an existential threat – then we need to be able to do whatever is necessary to ensure our survival. Trump’s statement about waterboarding was in response to Ted Cruz being pressed by the moderator to defend an earlier statement that “torture is wrong, unambiguously, period. Civilized nations do not engage in torture.” Cruz responded by parsing: waterboarding doesn’t fit the legal definition of torture, and I would bring it back, but not in “widespread” use. Trump responded by following Schmitt’s logic: I am prepared to engage in “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding” because (implicitly) otherwise we risk losing civilization entirely. (Totally consistent with this, Trump sides with the FBI over Apple.)

For Schmitt, it is in this moment, this willingness to consider that which is forbidden, that we see the political, and can determine where power really lies. Anyone can follow the rules. But, in Schmitt’s famous formulation:

Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.

Part of the reason for Trump’s appeal is that, post-9/11 in particular, we inhabit a culture that is infused with this Schmittian view. When I explain Schmitt’s understanding of politics to my students (his is one of a few definitions of “politics” that I run through early on in my Intro Politics course) there are plenty of pop culture examples to draw on Agent Jack Bauer from 24 maybe the most obvious, although it is getting dated. More recently,  Chancellor Thelonius Jaha explains in an early episode of season 1 of The 100: true leadership means knowing when to break the rules. The hard-headed pragmatism of it has a certain appeal. When the appeal of this view of politics starts to sink in, I point out that Schmitt was also one of the most important legal theorists of the Nazi regime.

The point of mentioning this is not to invoke Godwin’s law. Rather, I use it to illustrate the point that definitions of politics themselves are shaped by context. When you think about it, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that, writing in the chaos of interwar Central Europe, Schmitt defines politics in terms of existential choices about collective survival. Or that in postwar America, with its Fordist economy, Lasswell defines it in terms of regularized distributional processes.

In that sense, the contemporary resurgence of Schmittian politics can be seen as the bitter fruit of a decade and a half of the War on Terror, with its ubiquitous threat assessments and institutionalized state of exception. Bomb, build a wall, torture, force companies to compromise the security of their products: whatever it takes to secure ourselves against the existential threats we face, until we “can figure out what is going on.”

But along with his outspoken belligerent truthiness, Trump’s appeal is also grounded in his reputation as a deal-maker, as is evident in the other half of the quotation above. What gets a lot of the attention are Trump’s statements about how he would deal with enemies. But an equally important component of his braggadociousness is his claim to be a deal-maker: “I get along with everybody.”

In this sense, the two quotations from the New Hampshire debate are not in contradiction with each other. They are just two sides of the same Schmittian coin: always be willing to work with your friends, and always be willing to be completely ruthless with your enemies. If Trumpism works only to the extent that his audience always believes they are on the former side, then at some point we have to expect that at some point, sooner or later, Trump will mis-step, overplay his hand, and supporters will start to see that they could be identified as enemies as much as friends. But despite numerous predictions that this will happen, each time Trump went “too far” with attacks on Hispanics, Muslims, women, people with disabilities, Bush-Cheney, etc. it hasn’t yet. Why don’t Trump’s supporters recognize themselves as potential enemies?
One weakness in Schmitt’s analysis is that he doesn’t explain how a community, which has definable friends or enemies, comes to be constituted in the first place. As Gianfranco Poggi puts it (in The Development of the Modern State):

His [Schmitt’s] chief error is to take the collectivity of reference (Us) as a datum… How can a collectivity discriminate between friend and foe if not by referring to a conception of what makes Us into Us? (pp.11-12)

It is only by knowing who “we” are that we can figure out who is deserving of “waterboarding and a hell of a lot worse” and who needs to hugged and kissed to get the deal done. So a great deal rests on what exactly constitutes the “Us” that is the contemporary American electorate (or at least enough of it to put together a winning electoral coalition). Democrats are counting on an ideology of freedom that translates into a tolerance and even embracing of diversity, openness to immigration, religious pluralism, and so on. For the last decade at least, if not half-century, Republicans have counted on an ideology of the free market combined with an anxiety that delivered a clear, if coded, account of who the enemies, without and within, were. In the Obama days, the contest could be cast as a battle between hope and fear. Or more pragmatically, whether to mobilize (however cynically) disengaged citizens or disenfranchise those who can be cast as internal enemies. But the dominant emotional tone for Trump is neither hope nor fear. As is commonly noted, it is anger. What makes him attractive to some Republicans is an anger at the failure to recognize the Schmittian nature of politics: a failure to deal with enemies appropriately. (And similarly with friends: his Nevada victory speech included the eminently quotable line “I love the poorly educated.” But it was immediately followed by “We’re smart. And we’re loyal.”)But what makes Trump attractive more broadly, and a threat in the general election, is anger at a broken political system. From a long read today by Matt Taibbi:

the presidential election campaign is really just a badly acted, billion-dollar TV show whose production costs ludicrously include the political disenfranchisement of its audience. Trump is making a mockery of the show, and the Wolf Blitzers and Anderson Coopers of the world seem appalled. How dare he demean the presidency with his antics?

But they’ve all got it backward. The presidency is serious. The presidential electoral process, however, is a sick joke, in which everyone loses except the people behind the rope line. And every time some pundit or party spokesman tries to deny it, Trump picks up another vote.

And stopping Trump is not the same thing as changing the conditions that made his emergence possible.

Electronics in the Classroom

I was part of a twitter conversation over the weekend about student use of electronic devices in the classroom. My thinking about and practice around this issue has changed over time. I’ve started using it as an opportunity to engage in, and think about, democratic governance in the classroom. What follows is a bit on the weekend’s conversation and the background on my situation, and then a discussion of that practice.

The conversation started with Raul Pacheco-Vega (@raulpacheco) tweeting about the hard line he plans to take on cellphones:

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Perhaps not surprisingly, this got some pushback. Robin Nagle (@rznagle) linked to a piece by Michael Oman-Reagan, which makes the case for uninhibited student use of technology in the classroom quite strongly. It’s quite a thought-provoking article (but do we really need that many rhetorical questions?) Oman-Reagan points out that a few studies about student tech use have been widely but uncritically circulated. Like the one done at McMaster University a couple of years ago, which found that the most harmful effects of student laptop use were on non-laptop using students, who were distracted by the screens around them. Alberto Roca (@MinorityPostdoc) pointed to this study, which seems to come to somewhat different conclusions (the article is paywalled; I’ve only read the abstract). Paper note-takers did better on exams than laptop note-takers, but it didn’t matter whether students were in a classroom where laptop use was restricted to a particular “zone” (presumably less of a potential distraction for non-laptop-users).

My own thinking and practice on this has evolved over time. I teach at a university that pioneered digital tech in the classroom, and our faculty contract stipulates that we have to “explor[e] the use of information technology in developing effective means to meet pedagogical needs.” This was in place before I arrived in 2002, and while not a total tech booster, I dutifully learned how to use powerpoint, our CMS, etc. In this environment, laptops in the classroom just seemed to be a fact of life (students had paid quite a bit for them, as part of their tuition, so it was difficult to make the case that they shouldn’t bring them to class). It was argued that they could take notes more efficiently, and of course, without leaving the classroom, they had a world of information at their fingertips. (During my job interview, a senior administrator bullish on the program basically described it as giving students the ability to fact-check the professor in real time.)

Cellphones, on the other hand, well, that seemed to be a different issue. Those annoying ringtones were just a distraction, something that interfered with the creation of a pedagogical space where we all had a common focus. Lines were (or seemed) clear, and I was comfortable putting a statement like this in my course syllabi:

Students are encouraged to bring their laptops to class for note-taking and similar course-related activities… Catching up on email, messaging, updating your Facebook page, gaming, random net surfing, writing papers for other courses, etc. should NOT be done during class time. Attempting to multitask seriously impairs your ability to process new information and to engage in meaningful dialogue (i.e. to learn and do well in this course). And it is rude. Similarly, while in class cellphones should be turned off or silenced and ignored.

And then: cellphones became smartphones, capable of doing just about anything that laptops do. And laptops became smaller. And tablets, ipads, e-readers, etc. filled in that gap between “computers” which can have a positive function, and “cellphones” which are just a distraction. Worse: I had the increasing sense that I was totally clueless about how students actually use these various technologies. The first time I heard “I use my phone to take notes,” I was skeptical, but had no way of actually judging whether it was true, or what to do about it. The psychology of learning is a big field that I am not trained in, and in any case technology use is a fast-moving target.

Admitting that I can’t become an expert, I do a couple of things. 1) Revert to traditional, old school pedagogy in cases where I can and think it’s worthwhile, 2) find ways to avoid the vexed question of whether students learn better with computers or paper, and 3)

  1. In seminar-style classes, I have either outright banned or at least strongly discouraged tech use. In these classes we spend class time in discussion, often working through difficult texts or ideas, and we all need to be focused on the same thing (text) in front of us. I tell students that it is a discussion class: I won’t lecture. And these classes are small enough – rarely more than 15 students, often more like 8-12 – that I can get all students involved in the discussion. Within certain parameters, I let the students set the agenda for discussion: they decide what is worth talking about (important, interesting or confusing) in the texts. And if they don’t have any questions or comments about it, we’ll sit in awkward silence for the three-hour block. Fortunately this hasn’t happened yet.
  2. In larger classes, I’ve tried to incorporate more active learning in class time. This really started with a Contemporary Political Theory course in 2014 (first time I explicitly completely banned electronics), and some of those ideas are documented here. And I did some more in a Politics & Mass Media course (40 students) last year (two things storified here and here). And increasingly in my Intro politics class (one thing storified here). Intro classes in my department are capped at 65, and 2nd and 3rd year classes are smaller. So “larger classes” is obviously a relative term, and it would be harder to do at least some of these things in a 200-person lecture (but see here).
  3. Finally,in my Intro class, for the last three years I have let students determine the electronics policy in our class. Untitled1 copy

I tell students that I do this out of my ignorance of what you darn kids do with your newfangled gizmos. But I do it for other reasons, as well. My initial thought was that it would give the policy a kind of legitimacy that it wouldn’t have if it was imposed by some clueless old dude who just wants to get your cellphones off my damn lawn. I’m less sure about legitimacy now, but I’ve found other reasons to continue doing it.

The class is, after all, an introduction to politics. This exercise, which they are told about on the first day of class and do on the second day, gives us a concrete example of deliberative democratic decision-making as a starting point for the course. And it also fits with one of my aims for the course (in which a majority of the students are non-majors), which is to introduce students to democratic citizenship and think of politics as an activity that they engage in, as well as an object of study. The process invariably involves not just getting students to construct logical arguments, refer to evidence, think critically about the arguments presented – the kinds of things teachers want students to do in all kinds of classes. But it also forces them to engage in the specifically political activities of articulating their needs in ways that make sense to others, listening to the articulated needs of others, and negotiating a solution that everyone can live with. Politics, as I mention in the course syllabus, is fundamentally about answering the question: “how should we live together?” At least for one aspect of how they will live for three hours per week over a semester, this gives them a chance to explicitly figure that out.

I’ve done this three times now, and the results have been pretty similar each time. A number of students are committed to the idea of paper note-taking. A number really want to use their laptops. And a few will, with varying degrees of sheepishness, admit that they really don’t want to go 50 minutes disconnected from the world outside the classroom. They realize that generalizing their own preferences can have negative implications for others, and they try various forms of argument to persuade others. When these fail, they end up with as much of a live-and-let-live policy as they can find, usually with laptop users relegated to the back of the classroom so their screens won’t distract people behind them. If things like texting are allowed, they have to be done “discreetly,” so as not to distract others. This emphasis on maximizing individual choice without impeding others’ freedom isn’t a surprising result in a liberal society. And it provides a good point of contrast when we talk about non-liberal approaches to politics (like Plato’s idea that there is one best way for human beings to live) later in the term.

One somewhat surprising result is that students have tended to demur on the question of enforcement: what to do when someone breaks the rules? I tell them that policies need enforcement mechanisms, and the limits we have to work within (no expelling offenders from class, for example). I had thought they might come up with creative forms of social sanction. But they seem to not want to deal with this problem, and if anything, leave it to me to deal with offenders. I’m torn between two contradictory conclusions about this. More pessimistically, this can be seen as evidence that we (or at least the subset of “we” that finds itself in my Intro Politics class) don’t really trust ourselves with institutions of democratic self-governance. Maybe this is because we are so thoroughly constructed as liberal individualized subjects that we don’t trust collective processes, even when we are a part of them. Maybe we are post-political and don’t trust that we non-experts can make the right decision. Maybe in liquid modernity we are too uncertain about our future selves and their desires.

The more optimistic reading of it, is that it represents an intuition that institutions of coercion are only necessary in large groups, with relative strangers interacting in systems that aim at the (re)production and legitimation of inequality. At least ideally, university classrooms don’t fit that description.


Sabbaticalog: Month 1

I’ve been on a sabbatical leave since January 1. I don’t want to get too hung up on trying to quantify productivity. And there is lots more to a “good” sabbatical than writing, but just so we’re clear that “sabbatical” ≠ “vacation”:

Here is what I have written over the first month of my sabbatical:

  • One grant application
  • Three blog posts (not including this one)
  • Reference letters for four students and one colleague (on average, about two letters each)
  • One grant application review
  • One external review of a teaching dossier

At a conservative guess, 50 or 60 pages in total.

Plus about 200 emails, 40-50 tweets (er, “microblog posts!”), and a whole bunch of notes on various things.

I’m hoping subsequent months will be more “productive” in the conventional academic sense – like, conference papers, journal articles, maybe some headway on a book manuscript. Reasons for optimism: We’re getting to the end of reference letter writing season. I am co-coordinating the Environmental Political Theory section of the WPSA meeting in March, and the program goes to the printer today, so there will be no more tinkering with that. And I am ironing out some kinks to establish a sabbatical working schedule/routine that really works.

Donald Trump, Rob Ford, and the Performance of Seriousness, Part 2

In part 1 of this post, I wrote about the similarities between Donald Trump and Rob Ford, and particularly their appeal to people who had been or are politically disengaged. In the meantime, Sarah Palin has endorsed Donald Trump (transcript of her speech, which is a remarkable mix of Whitmanesque ode and surrealist word salad, is here), among other things affirming his claim to be a political outsider – neither a Beltway insider, nor part of the GOP establishment – and saying that despite being a multi-billionaire, Trump is “not an elitist.”

With the exception of Trump’s racism, it is remarkable how closely his message tracks with Ford’s, in its appeal to people who feel alienated both politically (the political establishment isn’t listening to the concerns of people like me) and economically (increasing insecurity, struggling to make ends meet). And for both Trump and Ford, that alienation is expressed almost exclusively as a problem of the corruption of the governmental system. This is hardly a new way of framing the problem. Indeed there is a long tradition, in the US especially, of positing government (and the federal government in particular) as the source of ordinary people’s woes. The anti-government content of Trumpism is important, although it is also worth underscoring that Trump is very far from the most libertarian (or anti-government) candidate in the GOP field. I will come back to that as I set up a theoretical frame for understanding it.

Also in the “Part 1” post, I mentioned the importance of a political psychology that would help us to understand this kind of political phenomenon, and name-checked Adorno et al’s study of “The Authoritarian Personality.” Since then, well, this piece came out. Just saying.

But I think there is more than just resurgent authoritarianism going on here, and it has to do with the specific content of the message. The support for Trump and Ford can be put in the context of what political theorist Ingolfur Blühdorn calls the “performance of seriousness” and the problem of “sustaining the unsustainable.” Blühdorn develops these concepts in thinking about the politics of environmental (un)sustainability, but also sees them as broadly applicable to the politics of the “late modern” (contemporary) era. Blühdorn’s article is written for an academic audience (I’ve assigned it to senior undergraduate/graduate seminars, and those students have found it tough going.) But a potted summary goes something like this:

Politicians often engage in “symbolic action,” which doesn’t address real (or material) causes of problems. People are often frustrated with (merely) symbolic actions, and demand that politicians “get serious” or address problems in a real (not merely symbolic) sense. At the same time, really addressing problems of unsustainability would mean ending the privileges that unsustainable systems produce. Environmentally unsustainable modes of living, for example, allow us to consume beyond our (real) means, so really addressing this problem would mean an end to overconsumption. The same goes for fiscally unsustainable modes of living (governments, societies, or households borrowing and spending beyond their means), or any of a number of other problems. To the extent that people enjoy overconsumption, and want to keep doing it, there is also an interest in “sustaining the unsustainable.” This creates a conflict – a simultaneous desire for 1) unsustainability to be really (not just symbolically) addressed, and 2) the privileges that come with unsustainability to be maintained. The solution to this conflict is what Bluhdorn calls “the performance of seriousness”:

This is a seemingly schizophrenic condition where citizens want politics to be no more than symbolic, but still complain about democratic deficits and ‘merely symbolic’ politics.

We thus have a distinctive form of political communication that is all about “societal self-deception“:

political communication that… articulates demands which are not supposed to be taken seriously and implemented, but which are nevertheless constantly rearticulated with politicians being criticised – as part of the performance – for not implementing them.

More than anyone, the reality TV star understands that politics is about performance.

Donald Trump’s appeal – as Jeet Heer has noted, the feature that makes him appear “strong” in comparison to the rest of the Republican field – is his refusal to play by the (largely unspoken) rules of contemporary US/Republican politics. Most prominently, he has refused to use the codes of dog-whistle politics to talk about issues like race, a rule that has been followed by Republican candidates since the Civil Rights era. Unlike the others, Trump is willing to talk openly about the “problem” of Mexican rapists or Muslim terrorists, and in doing so positions himself as the candidate who gives the best performance of seriousness.

But particularly in the current cultural context, where ubiquitous surveillance in a sense makes all of us reality TV stars waiting to be discovered, “performance” can’t be easily distinguished from reality. And what I said about Adorno and the authoritarian personality, also applies to Kurt Vonnegut’s novel about fascist performance.) “Performance,” and “acting,” has the double meaning of both pretending to do something, and actually doing it. If something really is unsustainable, then “societal self-deception” can’t sustain it indefinitely.

The need for someone as “serious” as Trump did not emerge overnight. As mentioned above, US politics is notable for its anti-(federal) government streak. Before Trump it was the Tea Party. Before the Tea Party, Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution. Reaganism. Nixon’s “silent majority.” And on back it goes. Conservatives’ frustrations fit Blühdorn’s diagnosis of symbolic politics: they keep electing outsiders who promise to “clean up Washington” and “shrink the size of government.” (Really this time! Not like those previous RINOs!) Only to have those people turn into insiders who watch government continue to grow. Why? At least in part because many anti-government conservatives want to “keep government out of my medicare,” maintain a strong military, renegotiated trade deals to end the offshoring of jobs, and in various other ways want the benefits that come with sustaining a strong national government.

But if Blühdorn is right, this kind of cognitive dissonance, or strategic, collective self-deception, is far from being unique to Trump supporters. It is simply how politics works today. To suggest that it is a function of their lack of educational credentials is as wrong-headed as suggesting that Trumpism could have been avoided if only formal education had paid more attention to white people’s problems. Rather, Trumpism is a product of a system that functionally produces economic insecurity and political disenfranchisement (in the broadest sense), intersecting with a culture where that alienation can only be understood and expressed as a broken governmental system, and nostalgic longing (“make America great again”). Of course Trump’s “solutions” won’t solve the “problems” he identifies, much less the more generalized insecurity and disenfranchisement of his supporters. But the performance of seriousness might serve to sustain a system that is in many ways straining at the seams, at least for a little longer.

Most of the time, we (and by “we” I mean the people that Trump and Ford supporters sneer at) tend to fetishize voter participation as the measure of political engagement, and thus of the health of our democratic system. And yet we are frustrated when people like Trump and Ford have the ability to activate politically disengaged people in legitimate political institutions. I don’t want to unduly fetishize this kind of political participation (Darin Barney has a great piece on thinking about youth political disengagement, in particular). For better or worse, we’ve reached the point where we need to ask whether this kind of engagement with legitimate political institutions, however framed by the performed seriousness of authoritarianism, is better than the attempt to assert self-government through the armed takeover of public property.