Paradoxes of Eventfulness in Trump’s First Year

Attacking “so-called judges,” athletes, and the media; appointing cabinet secretaries who are antagonistic to the agencies they run; and defending white supremacists. Trump’s first year was, if nothing else, eventful. It was so eventful that, in the onslaught of broken norms and sabotaged institutions, it is impossible to give each violation its due recognition. Framing the Trump presidency as an event in and of itself has instigated a wave of nostalgia for a return to “normal” politics and “normal” political institutions. This sudden nostalgia, fails to recognize the already “ordinary, chronic, and cruddy” condition of US democratic practice, to borrow a phrase from Elizabeth Povinelli.

Ursula Le Guin, who died on January 22 this year, inspired Elizabeth Povinelli’s reflections on the ethics of late liberalism. K. Kendall/ Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Povinelli is an anthropologist and critical theorist whose work addresses the politics of recognition, particularly in the context of settler colonialism. In Economies of Abandonment, she takes her inspiration from Ursula Le Guin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” in which the well-being of an entire city depended “on a small child’s being confined to and humiliated in a small, putrid broom closet.” Povinelli argues that this situation characterizes politics in late liberalism, claiming that it ignores the consubstantial nature of the relationship between those who enjoy relative well-being and those who suffer in the margins. Some situations rise to the level of “event.” They make suffering visible and demand that we recognize it as such. Other situations—“quasi-events” as she terms them—never rise to the level of event and are not recognized. These quasi-events make up the cruddiness of everyday endurance. Yet, she insists that those “for whom the world seems to work just fine” and those at the margins share an ethical substance that is materialized in these quasi-events. For Povinelli, any ethical critique of late liberalism must address this essential connection. Applying this ethical argument to the first year of Trump’s administration reveals a series of paradoxes. While Trumpism itself is recognized as an event that deserves to be addressed, the eventfulness of Trump’s administration allows for the ongoing concealment of ordinary, chronic and cruddy quasi-events of human endurance.

People who would otherwise have continued to ignore or boycott the practices of US democracy have begun to pay attention to events, and even participate in political processes. An optimistic rendering of this moment would have it lead to a reckoning of the practices of liberal governance to make them function as tools for justice. In many ways this is happening. For example, the election of a man who so blithely described sexual assaults that he himself committed tipped the balance from quasi-event (something to be endured) to an event (something that must be recognized and addressed). Since Trump’s inauguration in 2017, masses of women have taken to the streets,  posted on social media, and run for office themselves, demanding that everyday sexual violence be recognized as an event. This is momentous.

Like Trumpism’s “make America great again,” anti-Trumpist nostalgia imagines a utopian past and calls for us to reclaim it. That others would prefer an earlier and even more unjust status quo strikes me as cold comfort.
Yet, the scope and volume of events prevent us from fully appreciating each injury. On the same day that Trump complained about immigration from “shithole countries,” the Washington Post also reported that  the education secretary awarded a contract to collect student debt to a company she had invested in; the IRS reduced the tax bill on property the president leases from the US government by $991,367; and the state of Kentucky was given permission to begin implementing work requirements for Medicaid recipients. These government actions characterize what Povinelli calls “weak state killing.” They make life smoother for those at the center of power and endurance more difficult for those at the margins. They kill in an indirect way that could be attributed to natural causes. None of these stories made it above the fold. Although we must pay attention to the violence of Trump’s words, watching the spectacle of Trumpism distracts us from the cruddy quasi-events of the moment.

And focusing on Trumpism fails to reckon with the past. It allows us to continue to ignore all the already-ongoing ordinary, chronic, and cruddy injuries of late liberalism before Trump. It’s not as though police brutality, racism, debt-entrapment, and war-profiteering were invented in 2016. Hoping that a return to a pre-Trump “normal” will solve human injustices merely obscures this cruddiness: like Trumpism’s “make America great again,” anti-Trumpist nostalgia imagines a utopian past and calls for us to reclaim it. That others would prefer an earlier and even more unjust status quo strikes me as cold comfort.

Arguments to return to a pre-Trump “normal”—“norms,” standard practices, and conventions by which politics happens—often recognize the institutions of democratic governance as the target of Trump’s attacks. This position sees US democratic institutions—in and of themselves—as worth protecting. It attends to the quasi-events of institutional endurance, rather than the quasi-events of human endurance. Seeing the dismembering of these institutions as an event obscures the work that these institutions do. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling an uncomfortable dissonance when the President accuses the FBI of acting with political motivations, or the Chairman of House Intelligence Committee lambasts the abuses of secret FISA courts. Why do I feel an urge to defend these institutions that are, after all, the institutions that brought us COINTELPRO and secret, warrantless surveillance?

Even if you do manage to find sympathy for some institutions—or if you are sympathetic to the concept of liberal institutionalism more broadly—calling for them to be restored to a pre-Trump normal fails to recognize the already ongoing exhaustion and endurance to which they have long been subjected. Again, cribbing from Povinelli, US democratic institutions are like the child in Le Guin’s broom closet, “drift[ing] across a series of quasi-events into a form of death that can be certified as due to the vagary of ‘natural causes.’” The FEC has failed to enforce election finance law for years. State legislatures long ago outsourced the writing of laws to the corporate lobbyists of ALEC. Only one Wall Street executive was sent to jail for his part in the 2008 financial crisis. I could go on, ad nauseum.

The events of Trumpism deserve our attention and recognition. They make longstanding patterns of endurance and eventfulness—the quasi-eventfulness of sexual violence, or racist nationalism—concrete and visible. Yet, focusing on Trumpism as an event casts these injustices as if they were new. It dodges difficult ethical entanglements by not reckoning with the already-ongoing, normal, and cruddy quasi-events of institutional and human endurance. It avoids imagining an ethical world and reflecting on how our world—before, during, and after—falls short of that.

Chuck Sturtevant is a PhD candidate at the University of Aberdeen’s Centre for Citizenship, Civil Society and Rule of Law. He writes about political anthropology in the Amazonian lowlands of Bolivia. His recent published work includes “Habilito: Debt for Life.”

Cite as: Sturtevant, Chuck. 2018. “Paradoxes of Eventfulness in Trump’s First Year.” Anthropology News website, February 21, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.778

Comments

There is no question that the continual focus on Trump and his doings and not-doings and Trumpism (I hate to honor Trump with an “ism”) deflects our attention from the inhuman conditions in which the majority of the world endures, I find the use of “quasi events” a product of the worst sort of academicism. We might better refer to human conditions, perduring, debilitating, nefarious, and at times — rarer and rarer it seems — beneficent. We might then look at the ways these conditions are punctuated–fractured, perpetuated, repeated, and indeed supported — by events, real events (including, to be sure, those instigated byTrump and his henchmen and henchwomen) and not quasi-events. For those who have to sustain them, the victims, they are devastatingly real events.

I hear you that the language is a bit jargony and opaque. I think Povinelli is trying to highlight the relentless, repetitive, and ongoing nature of these events for the people who endure them. In any case, I agree wholeheartedly with you that we have to recognize and keep our attention on inhuman conditions in which the majority of the world lives, and not just on account of Trump’s henchpeople. Thanks!

This is in an important reflection and thank you for writing it. I would like to cross-reference these reflections with an article by Jonathan Rosa and Yarimar Bonilla in American Ethnologist, “Deprovincializing Trump, Decolonizing Diversity, and Unsettling Anthropology.” Although Rosa and Bonilla are talking about the election rather than the first year, it is important to note how they anticipate the idea that this is not so much a new development as one that is entangled with history. The article is featured in Open Anthropology Matters and is free to read through October 2018.

Yes. Thank you. I hadn’t read Rosa and Bonilla’s article but you are right, we are making similar arguments. Thanks for pointing it out.

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