We — or Him?
We live as never before in a time when oppression emanates from the individual—or indeed, millions of individuals.
When President Donald Trump last week began a tweet with “we” and then deleted it, Trumpwatchers on Twitter seized on the opportunity to turn it back on him. According to The Hill, a onetime aide to Hillary Clinton used the tweet to start the #We hashtag, encouraging others to “tell Trump how you really feel.” The “We” is a fitting ripost of the anti-Trump resistance, expressing the collective sensibility that has exploded since January 20. And this “we” sharply rejects Trump’s megalomania as it rejects the great man-centered assertion on which Trump was elected, the cult of his own personality that convinced people that "I alone can fix it."
The anti-Trump “we” helps make sense of the deeper historical moment. Nearly a hundred years ago Evgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian novel We depicted the unfolding scourge of the twentieth century, a totalitarian society that oppresses its inhabitants in the name of the collectivity. Zamyatin’s novel, the first great chronicle of that assault, was followed by Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984 and, in a very different register, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and then Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man. A century later the problem is reversed: we live as never before in a time when oppression emanates from the individual—or indeed, millions of individuals.
"What has been happening since January 20 tells us not only about the meaning of the Trump presidency but also the 'we' now taking shape in the United States."
In the last generation this has expanded in a way that can best be described by a term that is usually used medically: hypertrophy. Personal responsibility, and individualism more generally, have grown disproportionately, resembling an organ or body part that is excessively enlarged. In a society dominated top to bottom by the fantasy and reality of the “free market”—as our culture grows more heavily influenced by psychology and therapy, as personal demands and technologies explode, and as individuals are increasingly fated to take control of their lives bounded by few traditional roles and customs, we are required to make endless decisions about education, job, place of residence, lifestyle, and family. In my just-published book—We: Reviving Social Hope—I describe this as the “privatization of hope”: society and its most vital purposes, including the common good, are under assault by individuals and corporations run wild, and neoliberalism is ranged against collective efforts to solve our collective problems.
In 2016 people turned out by the tens of thousands, and voted by the millions, against neoliberalism’s plans for all of us. Rejecting the atomizing trend from both ends of the spectrum, they responded to the social pain of our troubled times: the Great Recession and the neoliberal projects of austerity and privatization, rising inequality, student debt resulting from the decline of social funding for education, the loss of well-paying manufacturing employment due to globalization, and declining working-class incomes and social power. These sources of the Bernie Sanders and Trump movements are widely understood. What is not well recognized is the same abrupt turn at the heart of both campaigns: the rejection of the individualized society, its smugness, and the experience of living in the free-market maelstrom shaping people’s lives.
Without saying so explicitly, the Sanders and Trump campaigns rejected the privatization of hope, making neoliberals in both parties aghast. Obviously, there are enormous differences between the two movements, including the fact that the Sanders hearkened back to the sense of “we” solving our problems collectively while the Trump phenomenon, never an authentic social movement, veered toward an authoritarian cult of personality constructed around his “I.”
What has been happening since January 20 tells us not only about the meaning of the Trump presidency but also the “we” now taking shape in the United States. The “we” of the Resistance is a movement of social self-defense: to preserve the collective attainments of a certain historically evolved level of civilization, which are threatened with deliberately being undone. The goal is to protect the entire web of social goods, regulations, amenities, constitutional provisions, their accompanying level of culture, science, and even literacy—that have characterized contemporary American society. With no central direction millions of people are acting as “we,” some alone on the telephone and the internet, others in small groups, still others in demonstrations and mass meetings. The movement is everywhere. They are talking to each other, planning, strategizing. People are acting amid vast fears about what is about to happen, not in the hope of achieving anything new—although “Medicare for all” is rearing its head as one obvious solution to the crisis Trump and the right wing are creating over the Affordable Care Act. Most important, in the anti-Trump resistance a new militant “we” is beginning to assert itself against his “I,” affecting the courts, the media, and perhaps eventually Congress. Noone can say where this movement will lead, but it has been growing with an energy equal to the magnitude of the threat.