Re-Thinking Climate Change

I.

There has never been a wider gap in America between the environmentalist discourse of climate change and the political discourse of our President and Congress. Donald Trump seems to be undoing virtually all of President Obama’s executive actions to curb greenhouse emissions and protect the environment, notably Obama’s signature effort to reign in emissions from coal-fired power plants. These repeals are short-term political wins for Trump but they also have serious repercussions for the global consensus over our warming planet. The Paris Climate Agreement aims to hold global rises in temperature to 2° Celsius, the absolute maximum allowable unless we want to face a slew of natural catastrophes, from sea-level rise to superstorms, desertification to mass species extinction. To be clear, many of these disasters will happen anyway (or are already happening), but the 2° cap functions as an arbitrary limitation—a bridge between warnings from the scientific community and the realities of international politics.

Given Donald Trump’s rollback of the Obama climate doctrine, the United States will fall short of its self-imposed goal of 26-28% emissions reductions by the year 2025 (compared with 2005 levels).[1] This calls the entire Paris Agreement into question, as the United States is the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gas after China. Beyond directly affecting greenhouse gas emissions, US pullout from the accord will have many indirect consequences. Smaller and poorer nations, who have not contributed nearly as much to the problem of climate change, will be far less willing to be part of the solution if the United States shows no interest in sacrificing as well. We are thus in a situation of rupture between the scientific community, the environmental movement, and the international community on the one side, and the US political system on the other. What scientists and activists tell us needs to be done, our leaders are not doing. Not only that, but US leaders—Republicans in Congress and the White House—are opposed to even acknowledging a problem exists, preferring to reap short-term political and financial profit while leaving questions of the future off the table.

Given the obvious disconnect between activists and the scientific community on the one hand—who believe climate change is a real and present danger—and climate change deniers on the other, some clear thinking is needed about the relationship between people, the environment, and the causes of global warming. We already know the answer to the question, “Why is the climate changing?” Though effects of climate change are interrelated and complex, their ultimate cause is the inexorable release of certain gasses into our atmosphere through the combustion of fossil fuels. Energy lies at the heart of the world economy and is so knitted into the fabric of our lives that it is hard to imagine life without it. Burning fossil fuels creates energy that we use to spin turbines, drive pistons, heat homes, cook food, synthesize materials—generally to do everything which makes modern society possible. We know that releasing greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere traps more of the sun’s energy, raising average global temperatures and leading to a series of complex and ultimately disastrous sub-effects. I argue that today’s climate activists and intellectuals focus mostly on the effects of burning fossil fuels, taking the cause for granted. But to think about climate change in its totality requires something different than a laundry list of effects, be they disastrous or perversely beneficial. Instead, one must begin to think climate change as cause, which means questioning the environmentalist thesis that burning fossil fuels is the root of all evil. Only by wrestling with the cause of climate change can we hope to understand it, and whether any solution is indeed possible.

II.

Bill McKibben’s 2012 piece in Rolling Stone is a powerful example of how climate activists think. Titled “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” the article analyzes scientific research to make a moral argument about the fossil fuel industry. McKibben identifies three numeric thresholds that are crucial to grasping the dynamics of global warming. The first, which I have already mentioned, is the 2° Celsius threshold. Scientists characterize this figure as the maximum temperature increase that human society can sustain. But as the author shows us, this figure’s roots are actually political, not scientific. The 2° threshold was first proposed at a meeting in the 1990’s chaired by Angela Merkel, now Germany’s chancellor and Europe’s most powerful leader. Since then, the figure has functioned as a basis for consensus-building at international summits. Both in Copenhagen and more recently in Paris, the international community affirmed that global warming must not be allowed to exceed 2° Celsius. This abstract threshold has become a political symbol—the basis upon which countries ratified the Paris Agreement and are devising plans to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. McKibben is critical of the figure. He quotes James Hanson, a NASA scientist, who says that “two degrees of warming is actually a prescription for long-term disaster.” Other scientists echo this sentiment, which raises a troubling point: in accepting 2° Celsius as the absolute limit for global temperature rise, is the international community simply ratifying an impending catastrophe? What meaning can the threshold have if it does not guarantee us that the worst consequences of global warming will be avoided? And furthermore, is the 2° figure a legitimate basis for political action, given that such an increase in temperatures will have cataclysmic and unpredictable effects? While McKibben flirts with these concerns, he ultimately shelves them in the name of global consensus. If 2° is all we can agree on, then we have no choice but to use the figure, however misguided it may be, in the name of averting an even more unimaginable disaster.

McKibben’s second two figures are interrelated: 565 gigatons and 2,795 gigatons. The latter is an estimate of the amount of greenhouse gasses that would be emitted if proven fossil fuel reserves were extracted and burned. In other words, the figure estimates the global capacity to emit greenhouse gasses through the burning of fossil fuels. It is important to note that “proven reserves” is a technical term denoting reserves with a high likelihood of being extracted. As technology for extraction improves and conventional reserves continue to decline, the definition of a proven reserve will surely expand. The first figure, 565 gigatons, estimates the maximum amount of greenhouse gasses that could be released into the atmosphere in order to hold warming to 2° Celsius. McKibben’s point is that the numbers do not match: 565 is only one fifth of 2,795, meaning that fully four-fifths of proven carbon reserves must stay in the ground to prevent a global rise in temperature of more than 2° Celsius.[2] The figures have a certain clarity to them: 565 gigatons is a concrete measurement; so is 2,795 gigatons. Though they are estimates, these numbers allow us to perceive that our current rate of consuming fossil fuel is incompatible with our desire to constrain temperature rise. Not only do we have the capacity to raise temperatures by more than 2° Celsius, we are doing it right now, with no sign of abating.

These numbers are illustrations of the future. McKibben builds his analysis on the consensus threshold of 2° Celsius, showing us what it would take to prevent global temperatures from rising above this level. The stark difference between 565 and 2,795 gigatons evokes a near-apocalyptic urgency. Unless our consumption of fossil fuels changes radically, and quite soon, the world as we know it is over. But the gap between 565 and 2,795 gigatons is not as concrete as McKibben would like it to be. Yes, both of these numbers are derived from complex models built upon decades of actual measurements. They are based on statistical calculations that can determine the likelihood of certain events happening, in this case the chance that a certain amount of emissions reduction correlates with a particular rise in temperature. But these calculations are also based upon the 2° threshold itself, which McKibben admits is arbitrary. As he puts it, “political realism bested scientific data.” Moreover, the consequences of burning fossil fuels are largely unpredictable, despite the continuous improvement of models, and this is because they are complex and interrelated.

For example, as greenhouse gasses trap heat in the atmosphere, arctic ice melts. This melting then becomes a secondary cause of warming—decreasing the amount of ice that reflects some of the sun’s rays back up into space. To take another example, rainforests are cut down around the world and their timber harvested. Deforestation decreases the amount of carbon that forests can sequester from the atmosphere. Deforested land is often used for carbon-intensive farming or livestock grazing, which releases gasses such as carbon dioxide and methane into the air—turning a carbon-storing ecosystem into a carbon-releasing one. Systems such as these, in which one cause has many interwoven effects, counter-causes, and secondary effects, are quite difficult to predict. Indeed, perhaps the only thing scientists can predict is their unpredictability—we do not know what a 2° Celsius rise in temperature will do to the environment, to cities, island nations, human health, or our economic system.

McKibben’s point is that we do not want to know. After identifying his three numbers and how they are related, McKibben draws out the consequences of global warming’s “terrifying new math.” In order to hold rises in global temperature to below 2° Celsius, four-fifths of known fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground.[3] Who owns these reserves? Who plans to extract them and profit off their use? The answer is fossil fuel companies, which McKibben points out are some of the wealthiest and most powerful entities on the planet. Perversely, as conventional oil reserves begin to run out, these companies stand to make more money, not less, because demand for fossil fuels shows no sign of slowing (especially in developing nations). A rise in temperature above 2° Celsius means disaster, and these companies own the carbon reserves that can ensure such a rise. Thus, the fossil fuel industry holds the key to human survival in its pocket. And instead of unlocking the door to survival, fossil fuel companies have tossed the key away, preferring to reap tremendous profits without taking responsibility for the consequences. McKibben then advances a moral argument. If these companies can choose between life or death for humanity, and if they are choosing death, then they are the enemy. Everything possible should be done to pressure them into keeping their reserves below-ground (this is the origin of McKibben’s 350.org movement). Fossil fuel companies, not governments or technology or consumers, are the main culprits of climate change, because they have the power to prevent it but choose otherwise. This is a powerful argument, and it translates smoothly into a political program: pressure the fossil fuel industry to keep their reserves underground; organize politically in order to hold the global community to its 2° Celsius commitment.

III.

All political movements need an enemy. The environmental movement has found one about as good as it gets in the fossil fuel industry. These companies are greedy, ruthless, corrupt, violent, insanely rich, and hell-bent on extracting every last dollar of profit and ounce of combustible material from the earth while denying climate change altogether (or else minimizing its significance). I want to question, however, whether the fossil fuel industry really is the enemy of the environmental movement, or whether the “culprit” of climate change is more difficult to define. This means questioning the central tenet of McKibben’s analysis, the 2° Celsius figure. For his analysis to hold up—as well as the political conclusions drawn from it—McKibben must accept the 2° figure at face value. In other words, he must accept that holding global average temperatures to a 2° Celsius increase is the fundamental goal of the environmental movement. We have touched on reasons why this threshold is troubling. An increase in average temperatures of this magnitude will have unpredictable effects. It could mean the submerging of major coastal cities, the deaths of tens of thousands of people, the relocation of millions.

What is the point of having a limit if it does not deter the worst from happening? It could always be worse, goes the reply. Still, in accepting the 2° threshold, even with a measure of skepticism, we are resigning ourselves and our children and grandchildren to a world of perpetual crisis. I think McKibben is correct when he says that we are probably too late to meet the temperature threshold. Even if we are not, there is little chance of an international consensus emerging in the next decade that would include mandatory emissions reductions and a meaningful enforcement mechanism. This was not even possible under the Obama presidency. Incentives do exist for nations to reduce their emissions and switch to renewable energy sources, but no country can afford to sacrifice the necessary amount unless all countries do—a bedeviling political calculus.

There are additional structural factors, beyond international politics, that call the 2° figure into question. McKibben hints at this when he discusses proven fossil fuel reserves. He points out in the article that “proven” does not simply mean the reserves exist under the ground. These reserves are already part of the economy—written into loan agreements and the portfolios of investors, generating value on balance sheets. Keeping them in the ground would cause an economic catastrophe, a bubble-burst on par with the 2008 financial collapse, or even worse. Thus, tremendous institutional forces are mobilized towards the extraction and burning of these reserves. From the standpoint of the ruling class, crossing the 2° threshold is a fait accompli.

Even this observation—that fossil fuel reserves are part of the existing economy—does not get to the heart of the matter. What is the economy? Why can’t we change it to make fossil fuels less valuable and therefore easier to keep underground? The answer has to do with capitalism, and the particular relationship it structures between human beings and the natural world. John Bellamy Foster explores these ideas in an essay titled, “Marx’s Grundrisse and the Ecological Contradictions of Capitalism.”[4] The essay is invaluable for thinking through the limitations of today’s environmental movement, as well as the contradictions between capitalism and nature—whose symptom is global warming. Foster is concerned with ecological destruction, and he leverages Marx’s writing to place the topic in an economic context. Marx’s analysis of nature is actually highly complex; he does not distinguish between man and nature as separate entities. Instead,

Nature is man’s inorganic body—that is, insofar as it is not itself a human body. Man lives on nature—mean[ing] that nature is his body, with which he must remain in continuous interchange if he is not to die. That man’s physical and spiritual life is linked to nature means simply that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.[5]

As Foster goes on to articulate, Marx does not conceive of either human nature or natural history as static. Instead, both nature and human society undergo change together. But whereas human beings once had a “natural” and sustainable relationship with nature, mediated through living off the land, capitalism forces a total alienation of human beings from their natural conditions of survival. Local and communal arrangements give way to the universalism of capitalism and modern industry, which draws rural populations into cities and skews the relationship between city and countryside. This movement has sweeping consequences for nature and human society. Once an end in-itself, nature “becomes purely an object for mankind,” to be exploited for the production of commodities.[6] Thus soil erosion, deforestation, pollution, and (though Marx did not know it at the time) global warming are all effects of capitalism upon nature. The profound contradiction of capitalism is that this exploitation of the environment, coupled with the exploitation of workers, is part of a universalizing development. Millions of people are lifted out of poverty, technology improves the standard of living, and the exchange of commodities knits the world together into a global network.

This brings us back to McKibben and the 2° Celsius threshold. While McKibben notes, almost in passing, that proven reserves of fossil fuels are already part of the economy, Foster explains why. It has to do with the logic of capital, which not only externalizes nature as a useful object, but externalizes use-value in the pursuit of exchange-value. Marx defines capital as self-aggrandizing value; money which creates more money.[7] Capitalism is revolutionary not only because of its history, but because of its unique structure. Earlier forms of society predicated the exchange of goods and services on human needs. In other words, the limited scope of human needs limited the exchange of commodities. Capitalism is revolutionary in that commodities are produced to realize a profit, not to satisfy needs. The pursuit of profit becomes a special need, an “unquenchable desire for abstract commodity wealth.”[8]  Foster links this unquenchable desire with the “drive/craving” inherent in commodity production. No fixed amount of profit will ever satisfy the capitalist, precisely because exchange-value is quantitative; it has no natural end point.

Drawing on Hegel’s Science of Logic, Marx observes how capital turns every limit to its own expansion into a mere barrier to be overcome. Capital overcomes religious, technological, political, social, natural, even physical limits on its profit-making. In every new crisis or temporary setback, it sees only a frontier where more profit can be made.[9] In Marx’s analysis, the passage from use-value to exchange-value (from useful goods to commodities) opens up a hole within our economic structure. Human labor, because it both produces use-value and is itself a commodity, is the double term or symptom of capitalism. Out of the hole of human labor, capital extracts surplus-value, value realized over and above the cost of producing a commodity. Marx maintains that the drive toward profit is capitalism’s defining feature. Pursuit of profit is structural: limitless and unconscious. Going back to McKibben’s analysis, it is not simply that fossil fuel reserves are already part of the economy as use-values, goods which satisfy human needs. Rather they are also exchange-values, potential sources of profit. As long as there is demand for these commodities, staggering profits can be made. This should serve as a rejoinder to McKibben, who hopes that a political movement can pressure the fossil fuel industry to keep their reserves underground within the frame of global capitalism. In fact, the stakes are much higher, none other than a political struggle over capital itself, whose blind drive cannot recognize or assign meaning to the ecological threat posed by climate change.

IV

Because human society is fundamentally dependent on nature (what Marx calls our “inorganic body”), some barriers cannot be overcome. Even if capital overcomes a barrier ideally, “it does not by any means follow that it has really overcome it, and since every such barrier contradicts [capital’s] character, its production moves in contradictions which are constantly overcome but just as constantly posited.”[10] Climate change would seem to be the prime example of a barrier capital has overcome only in imagination, and not in the real world.[11] This is visible precisely in the warnings we receive from people like Bill McKibben or those in the scientific community that human society is headed toward an unimaginable catastrophe. I think the possibility of total environmental destruction is one Marx could not have imagined. He asserts that capital overcomes every challenge posed to it, but what about the possibility of its dissolution? I argue that this possibility marks the absolute limit of capital’s logic, and thus the point where our faith in the capitalist system should end.

If capital cannot rescue itself from nature-imposed limits, what can? Where should we look for a solution to climate change?  This question is not an easy one to answer. The solution of the mainstream environmental movement—holding global warming to 2° Celsius—is flawed for several reasons. It is geopolitically unfeasible, because each country stands to lose out unless all countries adopt emissions reduction programs. More fundamentally, the 2° limit is not compatible with the logic of capital. So long as there is demand for fossil fuels, nations and corporations will have no choice but to extract and burn them, or risk losing out to competitors. Even if a few institutions band together and reject fossil fuels, this will not erase their value within the global economy. The key question is not whether energy companies should or should not extract fossil fuels. Instead the question is: where does the demand for fossil fuels come from?

Let us imagine that in the next few years the ecological movement sparks a worldwide revolution, democratizing production and giving people control over their economic destinies. What policies should such a movement pursue in order to mitigate the worst effects of climate change? The proposal by mainstream environmentalists to limit global warming to a fixed amount would probably be implemented. To do so, burning fossil fuels would have to be made illegal—the vast majority of current and future reserves would lose their value and remain underground. This proposal, perceived as moderate today, would, if enacted, be the height of extremism. The energy resources to replace existing fossil fuel reserves simply do not exist and will not exist for many years given the limited scope of renewable power.

It is difficult to imagine the end of capitalism. But it is far harder to envision a world without fossil fuels. Marx describes the relationship between human beings and nature as “metabolic,” using an analogy from biology. But perhaps we should read him quite literally: metabolism is defined as the chemical processes occurring within an organism to sustain its life. Human life is, today, shot-through with the social relations of capital and the cultural accumulation of civilization. In other words, we no longer live as natural beings, but as social ones, within a system of language and symbolic exchange. Yet we cannot escape the metabolic base of this existence—the transfer of energy due to chemical reactions. Since the discovery of steam-power, and later the internal combustion engine, civilization’s development has proceeded according to our ability to harvest the energy released through combusting hydrocarbons, the organic compounds found in fossil fuels. The majority of the world’s population is dependent on this chemical process, whether to power cars, trucks, tractors, airplanes, refrigerators, computers, lights, or stoves, to manufacture clothing, plastic, cellphones, buildings, or books, to pump water, provide heat, run businesses, and broadcast radio waves. In short, the fossil fuel industry is not the enemy, however much they deserve to be. The enemy is modern life itself, knotted tightly to the release of energy responsible for climate change.

My point is that meeting the 2° threshold is not just politically and economically difficult. In truth, things are much more serious: meeting the threshold is incompatible with modernity. Modernity has its critics of course, and there are many within the environmental movement and the Left (generally) who do not view its preservation as worthwhile. Some hardline environmentalists envision a return to pre-modernity through a return to the land. They want to reconstruct, to paraphrase Marx, a sort of natural communism of the type that spontaneously existed early in human history, before the advent of nation-states. Many hard-leftists, by contrast, wish to bypass modernity all together, for they see in it nothing other than the universality of exploitation, poverty, misery, and violence which Marx so adeptly critiqued. Their vision is not a return to the past, but skipping ahead to the future, either through great technological leaps, a worldwide political revolution, or both. For them, modernity is a curse to be broken. Both of these positions, eco-primitivism and the hard-leftism, miss something of Marx’s critique of capitalism—precisely his refusal to sacrifice the real gains of modernity, however unequally they are distributed, for a return to pre-capitalist or pre-modern social formations. Marx is at pains to recognize the gain that capitalism represents over pre-capitalism:

Thus capital creates the bourgeois society, and the universal appropriation of nature as well as of the social bond itself by the members of society. Hence the great civilizing influence of capital; its production of a stage of society in comparison to which all earlier ones appear as mere local developments of humanity and as nature-idolatry.[12]

Elsewhere, writing about the English colonization of India, Marx captures the profound tension between capitalism and the social formations it replaces:

Now, sickening as it must be to human feeling to witness those myriads of industrious patriarchal and inoffensive social organizations disorganized and dissolved into their units, thrown into a sea of woes, and their individual members losing at the same time their ancient form of civilization, and their hereditary means of subsistence, we must not forget that these idyllic village-communities, inoffensive though they may appear, had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism, that they restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaving it beneath traditional rules, depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies.[13]

Marx is no lover of capitalism or European imperialism. And yet he refuses to go backward. However perverse and violent, capitalism does represent an advance over village life, in which the individual has little possibility of breaking out of his or her hereditary inheritance. These quotations from Marx are a rebuke to those hoping to return to pre-capitalist society or else leapfrog into a new world: the former position discounts personal freedom while the latter is a fantasy without technological or political basis. Even if a revolution against capitalism were achieved, the problem of burning fossil fuels would not go away. Capitalism’s universalizing and civilizing functions, the ones Marx wishes to preserve on the road to communism, are inseparable from our metabolic relationship with nature, the extraction of energy and release of greenhouse gasses. This admission should be, I argue, the first thesis of a humanist environmental movement.

V

Interestingly, the Oxford English Dictionary defines two types of metabolism, constructive and destructive: “constructive metabolism, the synthesis of the proteins, carbohydrates, and fats that form tissue and store energy, and destructive metabolism, the breakdown of complex substances and the consequent production of energy and waste matter.” It is clear that human society’s current relationship with nature, in a very literal sense, is destructive. Our system of production is built upon the extraction of hydrocarbons, remnants of living organisms whose energy has remained trapped underground for millions of years. We break these substances down through burning them (perhaps the most primitive and important chemical reaction humankind has mastered), harnessing the energy released to power engines. These engines perform the useful tasks of civilization, but at a cost: the release of waste matter, which enters the atmosphere trapping the sun’s rays and warming the planet. It seems that nature is imposing a real boundary here, even if capitalism views it merely as another barrier to be overcome. There is no energy had for free, no metabolic destruction without the production of waste, and thus no modernity without global warming. Perhaps constructive metabolic processes could be discovered to balance our current destructive use of nature. The ability to create and store, not merely expend, hydrocarbons is already done through planting trees. But I do not think any solutions exist to match the scope of today’s problem: how to preserve the gains of modernity, the “civilizing influences” of capitalism, while overcoming the natural limit of climate change. We are in a profound deadlock here, one which implicates our relationship with nature. If the first step of a humanist environmentalism is admitting the necessity of fossil fuels, the next step, I argue, is to assert that we do not have any solutions. Only from this position of absolute honesty might a way forward be illuminated.

***

Notes

[1] At the time I am writing this, Trump has threatened to remove the United States from all obligations under the Paris Agreement. This will not be legally possible until 2020 but is practically possible right now.

[2] Duncan Clark disputes these numbers in a 2015 article published by The Guardian. Clark highlights that McKibben’s numbers are based on specific assumptions about risk and mitigation, and that they are already out of date. While changing assumptions and finding ways to compensate for carbon emissions can swing estimates one way or the other, Clark’s numbers are still basically the same as McKibben’s: an 850 gigaton threshold, with the clock continuously ticking down towards apocalypse.   

[3] Clark’s numbers are slightly different, but not enough to affect my overall argument.

[4] J.B. Foster, “Marx’s Grundrisse and the Ecological Contradictions of Capitalism,” originally published in Karl Marx’s Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy One Hundred and Fifty Years Later, ed. Marcello Musto, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

[5] Marx quoted in Foster, p. 96.

[6] Marx quoted in Foster, p. 101.

[7] I define capitalism, by contrast, as an economic and political system built upon the realization of profits.

[8] Foster, p. 98.

Within capitalism, this desire is structural, not individual. Even if a particular capitalist is satisfied with his amount of profit, market competition will force him out. Today’s equivalent is the publicly traded corporation, contractually obligated to provide ever-increasing returns to a mass of anonymous investors.

[9] A vivid example of this is the melting of the polar ice caps. Even though this poses a tremendous threat to native peoples, endangered species, and coastal cities and islands threatened with sea-level rise, nations are negotiating over the right to extract even more fossil fuels from areas that were previously inaccessible due to ice. Where environmentalists see a tragedy, corporations see also the potential for greater profits.

[10] Marx quoted in Foster, p. 101.

[11] This thesis would be a good place to begin an investigation of climate change denialism, which is a much more insidious ideology than liberals would like to believe.

[12] Marx quoted in Foster, p. 101.

[13] Karl Marx, “The British Rule in India” (1853), published electronically at https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1853/06/25.htm.

A prime illustration of Marx’s point is the conflict today in India over the role of women in society. Economic opportunities draw women from villages to cities, yet cultural stigma and other pressures often force women to return home. This tension between village and city, repression and personal freedom, is precisely what Marx has in mind when critiquing pre-capitalist society.

See Ellen Barry, “Young Rural Women in India Chase Big-City Dreams,” https://nyti.ms/2k5gxkP.

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Donald Trump Will Not Save the Peace Process

President Trump’s visit to Israel has provoked a slew of articles characterizing him as a dealmaker who can negotiate an end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Trump is the first president to travel to Israel this early in his tenure. He is also the first sitting president to visit the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site. Photos of the president leaning against the Western Wall wearing a skullcap, laying a wreath at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial, and walking through the narrow streets of Old Jerusalem conveyed the message that he is a friend of Israel—willing to dispense with the diplomatic correctness that characterized President Obama’s relationship with the country. His visit was thus full of promise: “The president’s arrival here opened a new chapter in Middle East peacemaking, one that will test whether a career of business-deal-making can translate to success in the world of international diplomacy,” reports the Times. Israel’s leaders shared this measured optimism. Both Benjamin Netanyahu and Isaac Herzog (leader of the opposition Labor Party) expressed their renewed hope for peace and confidence in Trump’s deal-making savvy.

Despite these sentiments, Trump’s visit to the Middle East does not herald a new beginning for the peace process. We should react with the utmost skepticism to his statement, apparently off-the-cuff, that a deal between Israel and Sunni Arab nations must also include a settlement with the Palestinians. These words have garnered Trump enormous praise, as if merely acknowledging that the Palestinians do exist and must be dealt with at some point is an unsurpassed diplomatic breakthrough. But note the context of his announcement: “I was deeply encouraged by my conversations with Muslim world leaders in Saudi Arabia, including King Salman, who I spoke to at great length. King Salman feels very strongly and, I can tell you, would love to see peace with Israel and the Palestinians.” It is from Saudi Arabia that Trump detects a desire for a solution to the Palestinian problem, not from an independent assessment of the situation in Israel or the Occupied Territories.

Trump’s magnanimous mentioning of the Palestinians has little to do with actual Palestinians, just as his visits to Yad Vashem and the Western Wall are scant evidence for his love of the Jewish people. Instead, these phrases and actions are exercises in political expediency. The proof is obvious. During the Obama Administration, a visit to Israel would elicit some symbolic gestures from Netanyahu’s government, such as temporarily freezing settlement construction in the West Bank or releasing a handful of political prisoners. Trump’s visit has produced absolutely no concessions for Palestinians, as if Netanyahu is saying “We all know your words are completely empty Donald, so we will dispense with even the tinniest of symbolic gestures towards peace.” This emptiness of word and deed was equally evident when Trump met with Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority. President Trump spoke about the need for peace between Israel and Palestinians, but mentioned no specific demands or steps toward negotiations. The mendacity of his meeting was obvious. There can be no peace process without common sacrifices and symbolic actions that bring both sides to the bargaining table. Trump showed no understanding or even awareness of this structural dimension of the conflict—the fundamentally different positions of both sides on core issues such as Palestinian refugees, Israel’s existence as a Jewish state, and the nature of Palestinian sovereignty and self-determination.

However transparent Trump’s lies are, they do reveal something quite striking about the conflict. Both sides are perfectly willing to abandon the peace process, as each has more to gain by maintaining the status quo. This has been the trend for many years, but President Obama’s genuine efforts to force a settlement obscured how little each side wanted one. Netanyahu’s coalition government has much to lose by pursuing a two-state solution. Jewish settlements in the West Bank are so materially and politically intertwined with Israel that abandoning them is impossible. Moreover, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and blockade of Gaza prevent Palestinians living there from acquiring any rights in Israeli society. Israel can maintain its status as a Jewish state and a democracy only because of this demographic repression. Furthermore, occupation and siege are vastly preferable to confronting a sovereign nation along shared borders from a security standpoint. Israel’s military knows this, and would never allow a militarized Palestinian state that could deter Israeli power.

On the other side, the Palestinian leadership (namely Abbas) is equally reticent about entering into negotiations. A two-state solution would force the Palestinian leadership to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state—an emotionally charged demand that many Palestinians would not support. Abbas would have to sacrifice every piece of leverage for what would amount, in the end, to an impoverished nation encircled and dominated by its greatest enemy. Partition has never truly been an option because both sides have deep emotional and historical ties to the same land. While the situation in the West Bank and Gaza is dire, it allows the Palestinian leadership to maintain the promise of victory in the future without sacrificing on core issues such as the right of return for refugees, the status of East Jerusalem, and the nature of Palestinian “sovereignty” given Israel’s military and economic dominance.

Thus, the political leadership on both sides of the conflict have nothing to gain and everything to lose by pursuing genuine negotiations. This is, I believe, the secret to Trump’s popularity with Israel’s ruling factions (and his tacit acceptance by Abbas): both sides can see that his statements about resolving the Israeli-Palestinian lack even the barest shred of credibility. They are sound bites without content. Each side can continue maneuvering for power without the distracting and ultimately dead-ended prospect of negotiations over a two-state solution.

If Trump’s sentiments about peace merely underscore both sides’ unwillingness to pursue a two-state solution, then what ultimately is at stake in his visit to the Middle East? The answer is not difficult to intuit, as the President visited Saudi Arabia before Israel and announced a staggering $110 billion arms deal with the Sunni nation. As the Times reports, Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia was meant to realign United States foreign policy with that country and away from Iran. Trump played to Saudi anxieties, which dovetail with US and Israeli public opinion, characterizing Iran as an evil nation that sows terrorism and extremism in the Middle East. The irony of delivering these remarks in Saudi Arabia—a repressive monarchy engaged in the relentless bombing of Yemen and the exporting of Wahhabiist Islam—was probably lost on Mr. Trump. But as confused and contradictory as the president’s rhetoric can be, his Middle East policy is clear: support Sunni nations and Arab dictatorships that are sympathetic to US interests, while demonizing countries, especially Iran, that pose a challenge to Sunni hegemony in the region. This is an old playbook for the United States, one which has proven totally disastrous by any measure. One could argue that the Persian Gulf War, the 9-11 Attacks, the War in Afghanistan, the Iraq War, the Syrian Conflict, and the rise of the Islamic State are all directly attributable to US policies that privileged Sunni states and Arab dictators in order to control the Middle East. So, while it is likely that Trump’s Middle East policy will prove catastrophic in the long-run, it is unsurprising in the short-run. US interests, conceived in narrow terms, favor more repression in the Middle East rather than less; a concentration of power than can be placated and manipulated is favorable compared with the instability of democratic self-rule.

This brings us back to Israel, and the question of a two-state solution with the Palestinians. It is conceivable, in fact probable, that Donald Trump, Jared Kushner, and Rex Tillerson will succeed in brokering a deal between Netanyahu’s government and the Sunni Gulf states, including of course Saudi Arabia. This deal would be historic given the mutual enmity between Israel and Arab nations, who fought two wars against Israel and lost both times. It would also be tragic. Israel would put strategic interests ahead of any concern for democracy or human rights. They would ally themselves with a repressive monarchy that preaches Islamic extremism and double down on aggressive policies toward Iran, Syria, and Lebanon. Essentially, Israel would be choosing sides in a conflict with no ultimate winners. I see no indication, despite President Trump’s remarks (and perhaps because of them), that an accord between Israel and Saudi Arabia would necessitate resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The interests of Israel’s ruling coalition and the Saudi monarchy transcend the conflict, and one can easily envision a strategic partnership where both sides publicly criticize one another but maintain a tacit understanding.

When Trump speaks about resolving the Palestinian issue alongside a deal with Sunni Arab states, both Palestinians and Israelis should be worried. The Palestinians should worry that their leadership will trade what little leverage they have for the appearance of a resolution, some semblance of a state with no real power or sovereignty (in essence, this has already happened). Neither Saudi Arabia nor the leadership of the Palestinian Authority has the majority of Palestinians’ interests at heart. They could contrive a deal that, far from ensuring Palestinian self-determination, legitimates and reifies the status quo—continued repression at Israel’s hands. Similarly, Netanyahu’s coalition is shortsighted in the extreme and cares little for Israel’s survival over the next fifty years so long as it is strong now. A deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia would not solve the problem of Israel’s existence in the Arab world. Instead it would align Israel with one particular strand of Islam and one particular regional power—in a place where religious and regional sectarianism leads inevitably to war.

It is difficult, amidst these shifting alliances and realities, to envision either a reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians or between Israel and the Arab world. President Trump’s rhetoric is so transparently false that both sides cling to it, relieved that no serious peace process is being proposed. But what is the alternative? I do agree with Trump that the Palestinian question is fundamentally connected with Israel’s relation to its Arab neighbors. Israel and its main patron, the United States, have pursued policies that favor regional stability over the aspirations of Arabs themselves. The US aligns itself with dictatorships in Egypt and absolutism in Saudi Arabia, while Israel threatens war with Iran for daring to pursue a heterodox agenda and rains violence on Palestinians in Gaza for rebelling against their conditions of existence. The forces that unite Israeli and Saudi interests are also those keeping the Palestinians oppressed: military and economic power, which sees any political opposition as a threat to its rule. Reconciliation between the two sides is difficult to imagine, but the alternative is not. Israel’s ruling factions cannot imagine a resolution to the Palestinian question other than continued violence and oppression. Only by reckoning with Palestinian self-determination can Israel avoid an eventual civil war, a horrific prospect. Emerging from this encounter, Israel would perhaps be capable of pursuing peace with its neighbors, recognizing that political differences are vastly preferable to a perpetual war that no one country can win.

 

One State Solution: Trump, Netanyahu, and Jewish America’s Moment of Reckoning

This essay was originally posted on Jewschool.com.

The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan often insisted that truth has the structure of a fiction. He meant that human beings do not have access to the Absolute. Instead we experience truth in the slippage of everyday speech, which reveals a hidden dimension of thought. Political truth is also conveyed through fiction, and no one demonstrates this more clearly than President Donald Trump. On February 15, during a press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Trump broke with 15 years of established United States foreign policy to say that a two-state solution may not be necessary to achieve peace. “So I’m looking at two-state and one-state and I like the one that both parties like,” he said. This pronouncement must have been shocking to State Department functionaries, who have spent years upholding the viability of an independent Palestinian state, and to Jewish groups on the center and left, who have staked their commitment to Israel upon the success of a two-state solution.

While President Trump’s statement was shocking, all it did was affirm the actual policy of the United States government, which values Israeli security and cooperation far more than the creation of a Palestinian state. If anyone doubts this, consider the billions of dollars the US gives to Israel each year in military aid, and the diplomatic cover it provides as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. If domestic policy interests aligned with a viable Palestinian state, the US would (publicly or privately) threaten to withdraw this aid and protection unless Israel followed through on its commitments under international law to withdraw from the West Bank and end the siege of Gaza. Of course, this will not happen so long as Israel remains of such immense strategic and political value to the United States.

If Trump merely stated actual US policy concerning Israel, rather than the fictional narrative, why was it so shocking? Two reasons. First, because the fictional narrative, however dubious, is crucial in upholding the United States’ image of itself as a neutral party that can negotiate peace. The perennially sputtering peace process is not actually about achieving a two-state solution. If it were, the US would take the steps listed above to pressure Israel into an agreement, while exerting equal pressure on the Palestinian leadership to accept. Instead, the peace process is a public relations cover underneath which actual policies are carried out: Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and systematic appropriation of their land and resources. For giving Israel a free hand to carry out these policies, the US receives immense geostrategic advantages, as well as the domestic support of Jewish and Evangelical groups. Moreover, the very idea of Israel—a Jewish democracy occupying Biblical land—has always held special influence over the imaginations of the British and American ruling classes.

The second significance of Trump’s comment gets to the kernel of truth buried in fictions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If his statement is any indication of future US policy, then at some point the idea of a two-state solution will be scrapped. United States policy will align more closely with Netanyahu’s governing coalition, which “openly opposes the two-state solution” and would prefer “to annex major portions of the occupied West Bank while continuing to deprive the Palestinians of full sovereignty,” according to an article in the Huffington Post. Even if the two-state solution were to survive, it would be devoid of meaning because, as Netanyahu asserts, “Israel must retain the overriding security control over the entire area west of the Jordan River,” and no doubt over the Gaza Strip as well. This means that even if the Palestinian leadership assents to a sovereign state (a politically suicidal position without Israel’s withdrawal from settlements and a resolution to the refugee question), they would be agreeing to govern a nation of hostages over which Israel would still dominate in the name of security.

Effectively, Trump is saying that, one way or another, there will not be a two-state solution. Israel will either rule over a puppet state or it will continue to rule directly over the stateless Palestinians. This view dovetails with the prevailing opinion in Israel’s ruling class that no Palestinian state is viable given Israel’s security concerns. By dropping the pretense of a two-state solution, President Trump hopes to score political points with domestic and Israeli audiences. Perhaps he does not fully understand the implications of the policy-shift. “I thought for a while that two-state looked like it may be the easier of the two, but honestly if Bibi and if the Palestinians, if Israel and the Palestinians are happy, I’m happy with the one they like the best,” he said during the press conference. In other words, we all know the peace process is a sham, whatever form it takes, so let’s go with the most politically expedient choice at this moment.

This admission is a startling moment of truth. Israel is quickly moving towards a point when settlement construction will no longer be reversible. This means that the West Bank will effectively become part of Israel, or Israel will annex it directly. Two and a half million Palestinians will be included in Israel geographically, but not politically, plus another one and a half million living in the Gaza Strip. Fully one half of Israel’s population will be Arab Palestinians. For Donald Trump to say that a two-state solution may not be necessary is to touch upon the linchpin of the conflict. Israel will soon rule over millions of disenfranchised Palestinians. Without the fantasy of a two-state solution, neither side will be able to pretend the situation is merely temporary. This can only lead to a political crisis, in which Palestinians will rise up against their oppressors. For a nation bordering Syria and lying near Iraq, Libya, and Egypt, the stakes could not be clearer. If the Israeli/Palestinian conflict does not end in a political resolution, then violence—of an intractability and scale tragically characteristic of the Middle East—will fill the gap.

The President’s remarks pushed both Israel and the United States closer to this moment of reckoning. We all know that a political resolution between Israel and the Palestinians would be nearly impossible to negotiate. Today’s peace process amounts to arguing over details of a solution that has no basis in political realities. Beyond the mistrust and deep animosity on both sides, fundamental questions remain unresolved. It is time for Americans to dispense with the fiction of a two-state solution. Such a compromise has never been viable because it has never addressed the question of mutual sovereignty or the right of Palestinian refugees to return home. Neither issue can be dealt with in a two-state framework, so they were excluded from negotiation. Both issues can only be resolved when Palestinians demand full rights and shared sovereignty over Israel. It will be quite difficult for Palestinians to accept this. Much of their identity is based upon resisting Israel up to the point when what was lost can be taken back. In the meantime, negotiations over a separate state secure power, wealth, and a measure of dignity for the Palestinian leadership. But the position of Palestinians as a whole is weakened. To win peace, Palestinians will have to trade an identity of resistance and victimhood for one of struggle towards a better future.

Likewise, it will be especially difficult for American Jews to accept the bankruptcy of a two-state solution. This is because both the issues historically excluded from negotiation—shared sovereignty and the refugee question—challenge Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. Many right-wing American Jews have accepted this fact. They understand that in order for Israel to remain a Jewish state it must maintain demographic and political hegemony. Implicitly, they acknowledge that Palestinians will remain stateless—pushed out of sight or made miserable enough to leave. But for liberal and left-wing American Jews, the two-state solution offers an escape from these existential questions. This group is free to criticize Israel’s policies while staunchly maintaining its status as a Jewish state (that neither includes Palestinians nor recognizes their rights). Liberal Jews are right to question Israeli policy and to cultivate a discourse of peace. But if this critical gesture does not extend to the two-state solution, and the central questions it ignores, then liberal Jews are engaged in wishful thinking. A lasting peace can only be achieved when Jews relinquish their right to rule single-handedly over Israel—something just as difficult as Palestinians accepting their historical losses and abandoning their posture of resistance.

It is harder, not easier, to envision peace without two states. Stability must be exchanged for political uncertainty. And neither side is ready or willing to address the fundamental issues that divide them. It will be a long time before negotiations take place that can promise actual peace, within the context of one state. But the truth is that no other peace is possible.

The Palestinian Question: A Letter to American Jews

All Jewish-American politics is about the Holocaust. Widespread support for a Jewish state in Palestine dates to the mid 1940’s, when it became clear to Jewish-American leaders that Hitler was exterminating all the Jews under his control in Europe. Jewish communities in the United States were slow to react and they found little help from the Roosevelt Administration. Countering Hitler’s extermination program or supporting a Jewish state in Mandatory Palestine was, for Roosevelt, secondary to overarching war goals.[1]

In 1943, Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver gave a speech to delegates of the American Jewish Conference, who represented many areas of organized Jewish life. As Aaron Berman relates in his book on American Zionism, this speech proved to be a turning point for Jewish-American popular opinion concerning the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. In his speech, Silver eloquently traces a history of Jewish oppression across Western and Eastern Europe culminating, he claims, in Hitler’s Final Solution. This narrative draws on Theodore Herzl’s account of anti-Semitism in his foundational text “The Jewish State,” published 1896. Herzl locates the cause of anti-Semitism in a persistent state of Jewish homelessness. Other nations hate the Jews because they are part of a people whose allegiance lies beyond any one country. To resolve the Jewish question, Herzl urges the creation of a Jewish national homeland, preferably in Palestine. With a majority of the world’s Jews concentrated in their own state, anti-Semitism will wither.[2]

Over 45 years passed between Herzl’s pamphlet and Silver’s speech. By the 1940’s many Jews were settled in Palestine, owned land, and were busy turning the Zionist idea into reality. Herzl’s narrative, born from European anti-Semitism, became a powerful tool in Silver’s hands. His speech urged American Jews to support Zionism as an answer to Hitler’s atrocities. European Jews might not live to see Israel, but its existence would bear witness to their fate and stand guard against the Hitlers of the future. When Silver finished, the audience stood and spontaneously sang “Hatikvah,” the Zionist anthem. The moment was symbolic but also a watershed in how American Jews thought about themselves in relation to Zionism. Silver’s speech linked three ideas: anti-Semitism’s roots in Jewish homelessness; the Holocaust as an expression of anti-Semitism; and Zionism as the eternal solution to anti-Semitism. From this point forward, American Jewish identity has been connected with the Holocaust through the prism of Israel.

This link is fundamentally ideological, but is has political and moral components. To be an American Jew today means axiomatically to support Israel. We train young Jewish-Americans to represent Israel in their high schools and college campuses. If someone critiques Israeli policy, Jews parry with statements about Israel’s right to exist. And if Israel’s right to exist is questioned, we are to end the conversation and label our opponent anti-Semitic. For those who doubt the narrowness of opinion the Jewish community tolerates on Israel, simply raise the issue of Palestinian self-determination at a Jewish function. You will be met with silence, indicative of the closed ranks American Jews have formed to defend their Zionist beliefs.

Young Jews, myself am among them, have started questioning Israel’s inviolable status. Lessons at Temple or Hebrew School on Jewish values are often the first tool in our arsenal. Defend the oppressed. Stand up for what’s right. Tirelessly educate yourself. It’s not long before young Jews discover that not everyone sees Israel as a victim. We learn that Israeli soldiers kill Palestinians, destroy their homes, and search them at checkpoints. We watch the periodic bombings of Gaza and tally up the deaths—always lopsided in favor of Israel. And we discover that most of the world is sharply critical of Israel. Taught to educate ourselves, we read Chomsky or Edward Said. Perhaps we take a class on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

What we discover is the depth of US support for Israel: diplomatic cover; empty words about settlement construction in the Occupied Territories; Security Council vetoes at the United Nations; billions in annual military aid; US-brokered peace talks that never fail to fail. Beneath this governmental support, American Jewish life is organized around an unceasing and anxious affirmation of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. The Taglit-Birthright program introduces a younger generation to Israel with the aim of establishing deep spiritual and emotional connections with the Holy Land.[3] Across the board, Jewish communal organizations stand by Israel and facilitate public relations campaigns on its behalf. A young Jew questioning her connection with Israel quickly learns that she is going against the grain. From all sides, Jewish communal life is structured to bring American Jews closer to Israel—building networks of social, political, and financial support for its continued existence.

Intellectually, a critique of Israel means identifying its role as an oppressor and colonizing force over Palestinians. It means replacing Israel’s narrative of itself as a benevolent democracy, attacked on all sides from anti-Semitic Arab neighbors, with a starker picture. Zionism has always cloaked itself in high ideals, from socialism to messianic salvation and, more recently, the language of secular democracy and universal human rights. But while these ideals operate historically, they do so only for a select few—the Jewish inhabitants of Israel. Palestinians are excluded from full participation. Zionism is premised on the erasure of Palestinian identity.

One could counter this narrative and assert that Israel has been continually invaded by its Arab neighbors. As a nation under siege, they are doing the best they can. Moreover, Israel faces a continual domestic threat from Hamas and other radical pro-Palestinian elements. How can Israel move ahead with a two-state solution when its negotiating partners do not even recognize its right to exist? In the choice between security and uncertain peace, security must win out. This stance underlies the dominant Israeli narrative that Palestinians are the chief obstacle to peace. Yet historically, the situation has been opposite. It was the Zionists who settled in Palestine, who bought Palestinian land from absentee landlords, who mounted terror campaigns against the indigenous, and who—under cover of United Nations sanction—ethnically cleansed all major Palestinian cities and villages within Israel’s 1948 borders.[4]  Yes, atrocities have flowed from both sides. But Zionism’s very logic sanctions Israel as the prime mover of violence.

If one accepts this truth, a wealth of counter-narratives to Zionism flower. These narratives trace the historical suffering of Palestinians and their communal efforts at resistance. A critique of Zionism leads many western scholars (such as Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, Ilan Pappé, Judith Butler, and Angela Davis, among others) to support Palestinian self-emancipation. Their intellectual efforts dovetail with a pro-Palestinian political consciousness, culminating in support for various movements from Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions to active resistance of the Occupation. [5]

Most Jews, even if they are critical of Israel, do not arrive at a pro-Palestinian view so easily. Nationally, about one in five people support the Palestinians over Israel, a rise of five percentage points in five years. According to a Pew research report from 2013, around seven in ten Jews feel attached to Israel. The question of how many Jews hold pro-Palestinian sentiments was not even posed. Interpreting these results more closely sheds light on the paradoxical situation of American Jews with regard to Israel. Older Jews are more likely to see support for Israel as essential to their Jewish identity (53% for those 65 and older vs. 32% for Jews under age 30). More starkly, well over 75% of Jews 50 years and older feel attached to Israel; this figure drops to 60% for Jews under 30. The older or more observant an American Jew is, the more likely he or she is attached to Israel. Large portions of Jewish America, its young and secular constituents, feel less attachment to Israel.

This split over Israel has profound political implications. Less observant and younger Jews believe strongly in the prospects of a two-state solution. Yet this same population doubts that the Israeli government is making a sincere effort to bring about peace. So, young and secular Jews feel less attachment to Israel, are less protective the of the Israeli government, yet believe more fervently in a two-state solution than older observant Jews. Their disaffection with Israel does not translate into support for Palestinian causes (as it might for other Americans), but instead remains caught up in the chimera of a two-state solution. Instead of leveraging support for Palestinians in their communities, young and secular Jews double down on their commitment to maintaining the status quo: dead-ended negotiations for Palestinian statehood.

It is worth analyzing Jewish calls for a two-state solution. Again, pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian narratives proliferate over who is to blame for generations of failed peace talks. Many saw the 1993 Oslo Accords as a roadmap for a two-state political settlement between Israel and Palestinians. Palestinians would be granted self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza, the prerequisite for national self-determination. The accord lent legitimacy to the Palestinian Liberation Organization, long regarded as a terrorist group, setting the stage for future negotiations over borders, the status of East Jerusalem, and the all-important question of whether exiled Palestinians had the right to return to their former lands.[6] The second Intifada ended the Oslo agreement’s progress, freezing the West Bank into an unviable maze of settlements, non-Palestinian roads, and military checkpoints. Palestinians elected Hamas in 2006, prompting a civil war between Hamas and Fatah, the dominant party. Israel’s response—in Gaza, where Hamas seized power—has been periodic brutal bombings, bulldozing of houses, and an illegal naval blockade that sabotages an already stagnant economy.[7]

From Israel’s perspective, Palestinian violence has been the major obstacle to negotiating a two-state settlement. Hamas promotes a violent Jihadist struggle against Israel, feeding Israel’s narrative of Arab violence, while Fatah is unable to secure Palestinian rights in the West Bank—playing second hand to Israel in exchange for a share of power. Thus, for Israel, a two-state solution is impossible because of security concerns and reluctance to cede valuable West Bank land. A Palestinian state would be a security threat (Israel is only six miles wide at its narrowest point) and a political disaster for the ultra-right, whose support is perennially needed in ruling government coalitions. Palestinians meanwhile view Israel as an occupying power with no interest in negotiations that would lead to a viable Palestinian state.

Looking beyond each narrative, there are structural factors preventing a peace process in the direction of two states. Most glaring is settlement construction in the West Bank. This amounts to a de facto and increasingly de jure annexation of the West Bank’s best arable land and water resources. Settlements are built strategically to chop off huge parts of a future Palestinian state for absorption into Israel. Strategic settlements built in the West Bank’s heart make it even less likely Israel will surrender the territory; it would be political suicide. Another structural factor is geography. The West Bank shares a border with Israel over a two hundred miles long. Jerusalem, Israel’s cultural and political heart, is also at the center of any future Palestinian state. These borders, if shared by two mistrustful countries, would not be viable for either one. Imagine the 160 mile demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea. Now imagine such a border fully encircling either North or South Korea. It is hard to envision a war not breaking out, just as it is nearly impossible to imagine peace if Israel encircled Palestine over a 200-mile demilitarized zone. Gaza is also a relevant factor. Its population is 1.8 million, larger than the population of Palestinians in the West Bank. Yet there is no contiguous link between these two territories. Again, imagine half the population of North Korea residing inside South Korea’s borders, or the reverse. Politics make a two-state solution difficult, but geography makes it all but impossible.

Finally, the question of Palestinian refugees looms over the two-state debate. These refugees number over 5 million (descendants are uniquely included) and reside in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring Arab countries. Palestinian refugees demand the right of return, which they interpret as a return to their original homes—vacated in 1948. Most Palestinian villages within Israel’s borders were destroyed or transformed. In other words, there is nowhere to return to. The success of a two-state solution depends on Palestinian refugees sacrificing their right of return for a right to Palestinian citizenship in a new state. Imagine Israelis having to sacrifice their right to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the Dead Sea, Masada, and the Western Wall in order to gain citizenship to the West Bank and Gaza. That is what we are talking about.

To sum up, the peace process is deadlocked over not only political but structural factors that make a two-state solution nearly inconceivable. But American Jewry does not accept this. For most of the world, support of a two-state solution follows from sympathy or solidarity with the Palestinians. It is because the Palestinian leadership wants a state that others follow suit. But American Jews think differently. For them, the two-state solution is a holy grail. It represents a solution to Israel’s structural weaknesses and a completion of the Zionist project. If Palestinians have a state, they will no longer be a demographic threat to Israel, or threaten Israel with violence. Israel will no longer be responsible for non-citizen Palestinian subjects in the West Bank. A complete separation between Palestinians and Jews, foreshadowed in the1947 UN Partition Plan, would finally manifest. The two-state solution serves uniquely for American Jews as a fantasy; it fulfills their wish for a Jewish state in Palestine. But beneath this fantasy lies an aporia. A two-state solution would entail national self-determination for Palestinians. Yet Israel will never permit them to militarize, due to security concerns. It would require refugees to sacrifice their right of return—akin to asking Jews to sacrifice their right to Israel. It would configure Palestine as a non-contiguous landmass that Israel surrounds—eaten away by settlements. Moreover, Israel would face a political catastrophe in disassembling settlements too far into the West Bank to be retained.

I am not trying to say that a two-state solution is impossible, or that a reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis is unthinkable. The point is to see how visions of a two-state solution function within American Jewish discourse. We cling to the two-state solution in order not to face a brutal fact: the truth of Israel’s overwhelming guilt regarding Palestinians’ fate. If Israel is in fact guilty of oppressing Palestinians on an existential scale, American Jews would have to do the hard work of constructing alternative political discourses—even identities—than those mainstream Zionism offers. What rights might Palestinians have over Israeli land? How will we stand up for Palestinians while still being Jews? What might we have to give up in order to achieve peace? These are the difficult questions that fixating on a two-state solution allows us to avoid.

Before concluding, let me dwell for a moment on the place of guilt in Jewish-American consciousness. As I said earlier, Jewish-American life is organized around the black hole of the Holocaust. The Holocaust reinforced our already powerful sense of victimhood. Jews, collectively and individually, have felt singled out as lesser than other peoples. Our misery over the centuries inculcated our self-image as historical victims—a vicious destiny we could not escape. Zionism promised to end this cycle, delivering Jews a nation-state where they could be safe and flourish. Many American Jews bought into Zionism’s vision before 1943, but it was the unspeakable and double-binding guilt of the Holocaust that solidified its dominance in Jewish-American life. Double because not only were European Jews been nearly exterminated (confirming our worst nightmares of persecution as history’s “guilty” party), American Jews were unable and unwilling to rescue them. Israel became (and remains) the ultimate fantasy of absolution. Israel exists, strong and vibrant, so that the Holocaust will not have been in vain. If only this were true. Nothing can redeem the horrors of the Holocaust. Zionism is not excepted from morality.

This is a lesson we refuse to learn. Jewish support for a two-state solution rests on the fantasy of its possibility—even inevitability. Just as, in the 1940’s, we hoped Israel could redeem the Nazi’s crimes and our own guilt, so now we pray a two-state solution will divest Zionism of its worst elements, allowing it to fulfill its ideological mission of Jewish cultural and spiritual renewal. Both fantasies belie Israel’s role as prime aggressor towards the Palestinians. We are blinded, in our attempt to redeem the Holocaust, to what cannot be redeemed in this epoch: the destruction of homes, murder of children, the ripping apart of an entire way of life. Our guilt over the Holocaust has erased from consciousness the idea that we might be the perpetrators of horrible crimes.[8]

American Jews must acknowledge that we are capable of inflicting violence on others. In some way, we must come to terms with our inability to save our Jewish brothers and sisters from the Nazis’ wrath. We could not have prevented the Holocaust, and we cannot guarantee such a horror will not befall us again. A painful truth.

Looking forward, American Jews will play a significant role in reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis—or could very well foreclose such a possibility. Continuing to believe in the inevitability of a two-state solution will, I think, only reinforce Israel’s prerogative to dominate Palestinians. But it is not reasonable, in my opinion, to call on Jewish Americans to join Palestinian causes in full solidarity. We must acknowledge our skin in the game: a commitment to Zionism, to a Jewish cultural, political, and spiritual renewal in Palestine. While Israel’s existence is currently incompatible with the aspirations of Palestinian self-determination, it might not always have to be so. It is difficult, but far easier than imagining a genuine two-state solution, to envision new strains of Israeli/American Zionism compatible with reconciliation and justice between Israelis and Palestinians. The challenge for American Jews, but also our prospect, will be to overcome the guilt we have vested in such narrow political channels dedicated to Israel’s material and political support. Only then may we shed the straitjacket of mainstream Zionism and embark on a richer political trajectory, more fully in line with our values as a people.

[1] See Aaron Berman, Nazism, the Jews, and American Zionism, 1933-1948 (Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1990), chapters four and five.

[2] Theodore Herzl, “The Jewish State” in The Zionist Idea, ed. Arthur Hertzberg (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1970).

[3] See “About,” http://www.birthrightisrael.com/about-us-content?scroll=art_1.

[4] See Ilan Pappé, The Ethnic Cleaning of Palestine, (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2006).

[5] Edward Said, as a Palestinian exiled in 1948, leveraged his personal history and identity when it came to resistance, in addition to his intellectual production. For others such as Chomsky and Butler (both Jewish), pro-Palestinian sentiments are part of a wider support for indigenous resistance against colonization and imperialism. While there is a spectrum of ways to support the Palestinian cause, my point is that these all involve, to some extent, accepting that Israel is the prime mover of violence.

[6] See “The Oslo Accords and the Arab-Israeli Peace Process,” https://history.state.gov/milestones/1993-2000/oslo.

[7] See Noam Chomsky, “Nightmare in Gaza,” https://chomsky.info/20140803-2/.

[8] This point is deeply connected to the psychoanalytic theory of trauma. The Holocaust functions as a trauma on the Jewish people. Our inability to mourn for its victims results in perpetual guilt. Israel promises to absolve us, but ends up replicating the Holocaust’s violence. Unless we learn to mourn the Holocaust, we will never leave the grip of violence.

What Trump Means

On this past election day we witnessed an event. The philosopher Alain Badiou defines an event as a total rupture with the existing situation. Something is named and brought into being that was previously unpresented. Events are born of contingency and become necessary only after they occur. Nothing in a given situation prepares us for an event. The event’s site does exist in a situation, but what the site contains is strictly unimaginable—existing within a void.[1] Because events can only be recognized after they occur, one must work to interpret them. The work of interpretation involves, according to Badiou, an active fidelity; we commit subjectively to an event and bring it fully into existence.

Donald Trump’s presidency is an event for several reasons. Most palpable is that his victory is wholly unprecedented. Each passing day of news coverage reminds us that we are in uncharted waters. Trump Tower, once a symbol of New York opulence, has transformed into a political fortress besieged by angry protesters. Steve Bannon and Mike Pence, two very different incarnations of the radical right, are positioned to wield great power in the new administration, along with a growing coterie of conservatives. Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell—powerful men in Washington and their own party—are quickly adjusting to the reality of working with a man each deemed unfit to be president. The Obama legacy on issues of diplomacy, climate change, healthcare, and defense is in jeopardy. And on January 20 Donald Trump will lead the most powerful military in the world and have direct access to nuclear launch codes.

All this was literally unimaginable in the weeks leading up to election day. For months, commentators in the political, business, and media elite lined up to vilify Trump and tout the inevitability of Hillary Clinton’s victory. The revelations of Trump’s sexually offensive comments were, according to many journalists, the final nail in the coffin of his broken candidacy. Racial bating, alleged sexual assault, pathological lying, outlandish threats, endorsements from the Ku Klux Klan and Islamic State, there was nowhere lower for him to go. Trump plumbed the depths of depravity, and liberals and elites mistook this for signs he was weakening. In literally hundreds of polls conducted in the weeks and days before the election, Clinton’s lead was assured. The Times statistical team put her chance of victory somewhere between 80 and 90 percent in the week leading up November eighth. Bernie Sanders and Barack Obama were doing daily campaign stops for Hillary. Academics, policy leaders, journalists and media outlets—large swaths of the country’s elite—supported Clinton and made her triumph seem assured. Right up to election night, when contrary results were flowing in faster than pundits could process them, everyone believed she would win. She had to, there was no alternative.

There is one group for whom Trump’s victory was not an event: his supporters. They believed he would win. For them, his cause was righteous. Trump was speaking truth to great powers. He was going to restore American domination of the world along with the national glory that entailed. The return of good middle class jobs, dismantling a broken healthcare system, standing up to finance capital, projecting United States power around the globe. True believers were not surprised on November 9 because the knew he would win. Meanwhile the entire infrastructure built around Hillary’s unstoppable victory was left dangling after her stunning loss. Well regarded pollsters and journalists were wholly and completely wrong. The elites had to eat their words, and quickly too, because the man who they had castigated and humiliated was poised to hold the most powerful office in the world. It’s the stuff of Aesop’s Fables. Time will tell whether the elites will fully submit to Trump’s reign or whether large contingents will hold out in the hopes of a presidential change in four years. My personal guess is that elites will silently do penance and, however much they badmouth Trump in public, they will do little to obstruct his path.

Though Trump’s triumph was not an event for his supporters, it was a profound one for his detractors. Like all events, one must judge this one by its consequences, which are still being played out. I argue that the way we understand these consequences will determine the horizon of national politics for years to come. This is because Trump’s election is an event both for the Democratic party and the Left more generally (which is largely excluded from the political process). It represents a moment of truth for those who believed a Clinton presidency, however distasteful, was inevitable. Obviously it is not. Given this fact, the Democrats may either shift to the right, or shift fundamentally to the left. A third, highly likely option, is that they will simply rebrand themselves with no substantial change in policy or membership. But if a Democratic candidate loses to Trump again in 2020, this option will be far less viable. I believe a space has opened to argue for a more inclusive and left-leaning Democratic party. Given the event of Trump’s victory, however, an even stronger case could be made for abandoning the party as we know it and concentrating on constructing a progressive alternative. Unfortunately, this latter prospect has already been foreclosed by Bernie Sanders, the national leader of progressives. His call in a recent New York Times editorial was for a restructuring—not abandoning—of the Democrats. I think this effort will be uphill. The power is with the moderates and liberals, not the progressives. Sanders’ only weapon is Trump’s victory. If he and others can pin the blame firmly enough on the Democrats’ failed policies and platforms, then perhaps they can leverage more control over the party moving into the 2018 elections.

At this point, I think it is worth parsing the narratives emerging about why Trump won the election. Whether political struggle is waged within the Democratic party or outside it, our crucial weapons are interpretations. First, consider the argument that the election results are invalid because Trump lost the popular vote. This is, of course, true. A majority of American citizens voted for Hillary Clinton to be president. Yet according to election rules, the electoral college picks the president on a state-by-state basis, with delegates awarded according to that state’s population. This situation creates a perverse incentive: candidates are encouraged to campaign only where they have a chance of winning. In states where victory or defeat is assured, they don’t show. In essence, when we elect a president of the United States, we do not elect a national representative. We elect a representative of our nation’s states. Whether or not one agrees with the electoral college system, keep in mind that if Hillary Clinton had won the presidency while losing the popular vote, the mainstream media would not be debating election reform. A few words might be mentioned on the subject, but they would be drowned out by the overwhelming chorus of self-congratulation and grand visions of the future. I think this debate over election reform, while valid, misses the point. Whether or not Trump was elected by a majority of citizens, he won according to the rules. We recognize him as the winner in order to even have this discussion. The most pressing question is not whether his win is legitimate or fair. Instead, the question is why he won, and what his victory means for those who do not support it.

If the electoral college narrative is a dead end, what about discussing third party candidates? The reprimand goes like this: if just a few hundred thousand voters had picked Hillary Clinton instead of Jill Stein or Gary Johnson, she would have won. Therefore, third party candidates (and those who voted for them) are to blame for Trump’s win. This argument contains a fallacy. It is not straightforward that if voters had picked Hillary over Stein and Johnson she would have defeated Trump. In fact, it’s a narrative that only works if she lost. Imagine Hillary had defeated Trump by a significant margin in the electoral college. There would be no mention of third party voters, other than perhaps to recognize them for voting their conscience and begrudgingly admit the value of alternative candidates. Now imagine she had defeated Trump by the slimmest of margins—only a few thousand votes. Still, liberals and media-elites would refrain from criticizing third-party voters because in the end they did not matter; the anointed candidate would have won. It is only in the actual scenario—Hillary losing narrowly to Trump in several key states—that pundits bring out their critiques of third party politics.

Just like the electoral college narrative, the third party debate misses the point. Yes, millions of third party voters did not vote for Hillary. So did tens of millions of Trump voters! Large sections of the population simply didn’t vote. Given the complexities of a presidential election, there are no shortage of groups, individuals, factors, rules, and contingencies to blame when you lose. But the nature of cause and effect dictates that these groups can only be blamed retroactively. I am not convinced that third party voters lost Hillary the election. I agree with Glenn Greenwald that primary causal agents are the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton herself.[2] Moreover, the premise of democratic elections is that for votes to be made freely and fairly, their contents (and thus the elections results) cannot be known beforehand. Blaming third party voters amounts to demanding that they vote the right way—a fundamental violation of democratic principles.

Finally, consider the argument put forth by many that a different candidate (namely Bernie Sanders) could have defeated Donald Trump. Sanders would have undoubtedly brought many strengths to bear against the Republican candidate. His outsider credentials are far more believable than Hillary’s. He espouses populist social and economic policies that are attractive to the middle and working classes. Young people—the same crucial constituency that showed up to vote for Barack Obama in 2008—came out for Sanders in droves. Most importantly, Bernie Sanders is a genuine politician, able to inspire voters on an emotional level. For all the vitriol thrown at Hillary Clinton, perhaps the most devastating critique one can make of her is an utter lack of political instinct. Though Hillary made all the right moves and said all the right things, somehow she always fell short of genuine inspiration. Of course, the argument that Bernie Sanders would have defeated Donald Trump (and therefore that the Democratic Party is to blame for shutting him out) is flawed on several counts. First off, it is a counterfactual. No one knows whether Sanders could have defeated Trump, just as almost no one in the media establishment predicted Trump’s win. Secondly, Sanders had flaws—big ones—that would have hindered him in a national election. These include his singular focus on economic issues, excluding the cultural and social, and his relative silence over issues of foreign policy. But, let us say that Sanders would indeed have beaten Trump. This narrative pins the blame for Trump’s victory on Hillary and the Democratic Party and takes us away from examining the social forces and political ideologies that propelled him to victory. Rather than looking at how Clinton lost, we need to examine why Trump won.

This means seeing Trump’s victory as an event. If we only think about reasons why Hillary lost, then we are confining ourselves, revisiting Badiou’s terms, to the existing situation. But the situation was not able to predict Trump’s political coup. Quite the opposite: every dominant term was aligned in Hillary’s favor. When we examine her loss, all we see are these terms reflected back upon themselves, mirroring a reality that no longer holds weight. If we analyze Trump’s ascendency, something different appears. The election outcome ruptured with the existing state of things. Donald Trump became the expression of a movement far exceeding him in scope—a symbol of mass discontent. Whether Trump is a racist, an assaulter, an egomaniac, or a crook (and he is all of these), his victory still functions as an event, sowing novelty in the heart of our political and social order. I argue that the election result signifies a profound disconnect between presentation and representation. The way things appeared to us: that Hillary would win; that Barack Obama’s legacy was secure; that racism was no longer a national political force; that neoliberalism was dominant; that young people and people of color would decide the future; all of this was thrown into question. All of these former terms were presented in the situation. That is, they were part of what exists. But there was a term present in the situation that, until this moment, had gone unrepresented. That term is the despair of poor whites.

Let me elaborate. In the tsunami of post-election analysis, everyone is trying to build a narrative of Trump’s win. Democrats tend to examine Hillary’s loss, which I parsed above, heaping blame on everyone but themselves. Conservatives tend to hail the election as a confirmation of the justness of their cause. They view the outcome as a mandate to implement arch-conservative policies at the economic, cultural, social, and international level.[3] Meanwhile the Left holds two competing viewpoints on how to interpret the stunning election results. Bernie Sanders’ op-ed in The New York Times represents the first view. In the article Sanders calls for radical transformation of the Democratic Party. He wants the Party’s base to include young people, working class people, immigrants and people of color, and to abandon its establishment ties with Wall Street and Big Business. Piercingly, Sanders recognizes that class played a role in Trump’s victory. People voted for Trump, according to Sanders, because they were fed up with a political system that “put wealthy and corporate interests above their own.” Working families are struggling in the wake of decades of outsourcing and financial deregulation. An anemic recovery from the Great Recession has done little to ease Americans’ anxieties or make them more economically secure. Americans turned to Trump because he expressed their precarity. He promised a return of good manufacturing jobs, to take on Wall Street and corporate interests, and to fight government action impeding American enterprise. In Trump, Sanders sees the inverted expression of a ringing truth: the United States is the richest nation in the world yet most Americans are struggling to get by. However distorted and malignant, Trump’s rhetoric sounded this truth in everyday Americans, and they voted for him.

This viewpoint is refuted in a recent article from Jezebel titled “Please Stop Saying Poor People Did This.” The author argues that class is absolutely not a factor in Trump’s win. She interprets data from the New York Times showing that Trump beat out Hillary in every income bracket except the lowest, individuals making under $30,000 per year. Her point is that Americans earning the least (where people of color tend to fall) voted for Hillary whereas white Americans, whether they were rich or poor, seemed to overwhelmingly support Donald Trump. Thus, the election was about race, not class: white Americans chose Trump because he would restore white supremacy and put African-Americans and immigrants back in their place; people of color overwhelmingly supported Clinton to advance the gains made under Obama and prevent rollbacks.[4] The Jezebel author then chews out Bernie Sanders for, essentially, thinking white voters chose Trump for class-based reasons rather than racism.

There is a problem with the data, as well as the author’s overall argument. The Times poll analyzed voting by race and by income level (an approximation of class) but there was no sub-category linking the two. It is impossible to see how a Latina voter making $100,000 per year voted compared to a Latina voter making $30,000. As far as I have seen, no exit polls list voting results broken down by class and race. The closest approximation is the “Education by Race” category, which shows how whites vs. nonwhites voted based on their education levels. Nonwhites, both with and without college degrees, voted for Clinton by overwhelming margins, supporting the Jezebel author’s claim that the election was about race. And Trump led among educated whites by four points while his lead among non-educated whites was 39 points. This figure represents a 14 point increase over non-educated whites who voted for Mitt Romney in the 2012 election. If we take education as a loose marker of economic class (a move that carries interpretive risk) then a curious trend emerges. Educated whites did indeed support Trump, perhaps because of his anti-establishment credentials and undoubtedly because of his racial demagoguery. But their support was actually10 points down from Romney’s support in 2012, according to New York Times data analysis. In contrast Trump gained 14 points among uneducated whites compared with Romney in 2012; he got 67% of their vote compared with Clinton’s 28%.[5] Both educated and non-educated whites supported Donald Trump. But within these numbers, one discerns a definitive shift among uneducated whites, who fled the Obama coalition in large numbers and chose Trump to represent them.

These statistical data, imperfect as they are, call both the Sanders and the Jezebel positions into question. No, the election was not just about class. Hillary won the lowest income brackets, with the higher brackets more or less tied. But one can attribute this class polarization in favor of Clinton to the fact that people of color tend to make less money, and that Hillary carried 88% of the black vote and 65% of the Latino vote. Missing in the Jezebel analysis is impossibility of isolating race from social class. And yet, race is not the sole factor either. Though whites supported Trump by a margin of close to 20 points, this figure is barely changed from 2012. And the evidence indicates that college-educated whites went over to Hillary in large numbers. The site of real change this election was neither race nor class. Rather, it was their peculiar intersection in the figure of poor whites. Asserting the intersectionality of race and class (along with gender and sexuality) is nothing new. However, academics often focus on intersecting identities of oppression. By no means am I negating these efforts. But this election was clearly about an intersection of privilege and powerlessness. Poor whites saw themselves reflected in Trump’s persona, his plans, but most importantly his tireless assault on the establishment, right down to its politically correct mores. Their dream is represented in the now iconic call to “Make America Great Again.” America was great once—in the revolutionary period when it stood for freedom against tyranny, in World War II when it saved the world from the Nazis, and in the postwar years, when the middle class rode waves of unparalleled growth to financial and social security.

But for some, America is great no longer. Since the 1970’s, economic deregulation has outsourced jobs and gutted the US manufacturing industry. A series of financial crises, most notably the 2008 recession, concentrated wealth in a tiny fraction of individuals and corporations. Things that most Americans once took for granted—decent, long-term jobs, healthcare, affordable education, and homeownership—are simply not available for everyday people. This causes real harm, and it also fosters a constant state of anxiety. Young people know very well that their future is not secure. On an international level, the United States has seen its power decline, offset by emerging geopolitical hubs such as China, Latin America, India, and of course the Middle East. For citizens of other countries, I think this diminution in power is viewed positively. The US is now forced to re-think some of its more brutal and exploitative practices, lest it lose the support of far-flung allies. Still, American imperialism endures, and with Trump as president, another war in the Middle East is within the range of possibility. Restoring greatness on the domestic front will be paired with forceful foreign policy, aimed at compensating for a lack of absolute power with paranoid violence.

Historically, two readings have prevailed of America’s loss of greatness. On one side is the argument that America was never great to begin with. This is the dominant Leftist view. Yes, the US implemented modest social reforms during the Great Depression (largely dismantled now), and yes the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Rights Movement, and other struggles have brought a measure of equality to our nation’s social fabric. But America has always been a capitalist, imperialist, and fundamentally racist nation—no different from other world powers in history. The Left thus seeks a political, social, and economic alternative to American hegemony and American capitalism. But so far they have been unable to fully imagine this alternative, let alone realize it.

On the other side one can argue that America is an exceptional nation whose hallmark is human freedom enshrined in the rights of the individual. But since its creation, America has been threatened both without (from rival nations and blocs) and within by those wishing to overthrow American imperialism and privilege social reforms over protecting the constitution. This, of course, is the conservative view. These two positions, leftist and conservative, are irreconcilable. The question is not which position is correct, for this would assume some neutral middle ground from which one could observe and decide rationally. No, the fundamental question is how both positions relate themselves to Trump’s election. In other words, how does this event in American politics resonate within leftist and conservative discourses. What consequences does it provoke, both at the level of official policy and ruling ideology, but also at the level of political and ideological resistance?

Here, I reiterate my claim that Trump’s victory was an event for everyone except his supporters. It has plunged the conservative elites into a frenzied struggle for power. Many conservatives who denounced Trump, either for his political incorrectness or his ever-shifting policy views, are supplicating themselves in order to receive government appointments. Trump is making great promises, both on the domestic and international fronts. But he seems to be drawing appointees from the old guard, establishment conservatives who are radical on social issues but faithful to free-market principles. In other words, one might gather from Trump’s recent pronouncements (and the tenor of his campaign) that America is on the cusp of drastic social, economic, and political changes. Despite the rhetoric, the fear, the talk of Muslim registration, and the comparisons to Hitler, it is difficult to outline the contours of a political revolution in Trump’s nascent administration. Certainly, we will be treated to more demeaning language and incitement to racial violence. Obamacare will probably be repealed, or at least curtailed significantly. US foreign policy may become more hawkish, leading perhaps to war with Iran or the invasion of Syria. Both of these represent monstrous disasters which, whatever one’s philosophical leanings, must not be allowed to happen. But I do not think Trump’s victory will change much in everyday life. Trump’s presidency will reveal many existing elements of our society more starkly. These include structures of racial and sexual violence, Islamophobia, government surveillance, class stratification, divides between the educated and uneducated, rural and urban, liberal and conservative, and so on. But if his presidency throws these elements into sharper relief, it will not abolish them or massage them into the periphery.

***

According to Alain Badiou, events leave a mark on human subjects in the shape of an active fidelity. To recognize something as an event is to invest it with subjective faith. This faith becomes the basis for interpretive thought and intervention. We, not Trump, will write the historical consequences of his presidency. Earlier, I claimed that poor whites were the site of Trump’s surprising win. That is, poor whites were presented but not represented in the situation. Trump won because he was able to represent himself as a champion of poor whites and as the key to restoring their economic and racial greatness in America. The double bind of economic insecurity and racial anxiety had gone without representation in our political scene. By giving voice to these dual concerns, Trump’s name emerged from obscurity, ascending to heights of political power. Trump may try to fulfill his promises and the expectations of his supporters. But he will not succeed. The weight of existing institutions and power structures is simply too strong. Moreover, the double bind of poor whites speaks to their symptomatic position; restoring both economic and racial security is not tenable or possible in our current political situation. It would require a counter-revolution equivalent to 20th century fascism. And while this prospect is frightening, I do not believe Trump’s presidency will draw it much closer into being.

Despite the specter of fascism that leftists cultivate, a faithful response to Trump’s presidency does not mean a return to 20th century forms of political resistance. These relied on the premise of a real choice between two different versions of capitalism: social-democratic or state-fascist; with the supplement of a state-socialist form. But as Alain Badiou points out in a recent discussion, today we have no choice. There is simply neo-liberalism, executed with different degrees of social control and varying respect for individual and civil rights. It has become fashionable since Trump’s election (and the Brexit vote) to claim that neo-liberalism is dead. But this would mean that Trump and Brexit represent a real alternative to neo-liberalism. Neither phenomenon will be able to dissolve the symptom of poor white despair. The most Trump can hope for is to give poor whites an ersatz solution in the guise of a war or some over-hyped domestic campaign (e.g., repealing Obamacare or constructing new oil pipelines). The deadlock of poor whites will remain, calling Trump’s presidency into question even as he embarks on experiments in ultra-conservative policy.

If this deadlock forecloses a fidelity to Trump’s presidency itself, what modes of intervention are open to those who call his election an event? This is basically the question of responding to Trump’s election from a position of non-support. Already, there is no shortage of options. The Democratic party is quickly positioning itself as a bulwark against the worst effects of a Trump administration (much as Republicans dug in their heels after the 2008 election). Progressive elements in the party, most notably Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, are hoping to gain power and push the Party to the left. Outside these efforts, leftists of all stripes are protesting Trump’s election and preparing for battles over major social issues—reproductive rights, gender equality, immigration, climate change, etc. But with conservatives firmly in power and the Democratic party weakened, many of these struggles seem like lost causes. At this point, I believe that Trump himself foreshadows the most effective means of resistance (and thus fidelity) to the event of his presidency. His genius is an instinct for provocation, which unifies his core supporters while splintering the opposition. In representing poor whites, Trump split conservatives and frayed the left into an apolitical mass. In attempting to put him to rest, each opposing group isolated itself and doubled down on its parochial commitments. Thus, women’s rights groups, the environmental movement, working class struggles, immigrant groups, and Muslims are (despite a veneer of common protest) far less united against Trump than they were towards the Obama administration. There is no consensus on how to proceed, resist, or develop a unified alternative. But Trump is his own worst enemy here. By provoking the left into a sectarian struggle, he risks the possibility of its resolution. If the event of Trump’s presidency has created the chance of something new, I argue it is the prospect of a political moment on the US Left.

Such a moment is difficult to imagine and impossible to forecast. It will not be discovered, I argue, in the simplicity of a united front against Trump. Protesters and commentators have already taken up this superficial “no” as a rallying cry. But the simple negation of Trump does not indicate any genuine alternative, just more of the same. We saw the result of negating Trump in the Hillary coalition—Wall Street, leftists, Democrats, and many Republicans banded together to prevent his election at all costs. Their banner was (and is) nothing more than neo-liberalism, a reproduction of ideological and state power, and the violent maintenance of empire.[6] While we should be wary of shallowly negating of Trump’s presidency, the moment also requires that we refuse to normalize it. This is part of what thinking Trump’s election as an event means. The state (Badiou’s term for centers of ideological power) will quickly coalesce around the new reality; it will portray Trump’s election as explainable, even inevitable. A thousand experts will be conjured to reinterpret the data and prove that Hillary, in fact, had no chance of winning. Here, it is crucial to insist on the event’s rupture with its situation, and the total lack of relation between the two. To interpret Trump’s victory as an event is to maintain its radical contingency. Only after the fact does his victory become necessary; beforehand it was a hidden, seemingly impossible chance. Thus, I argue that our political situation irrevocably changed on election night—not because Trump won, but precisely because the possibility of his victory wove itself into being. It simply was not possible, before November 8th, to imagine Trump winning.

This incommensurability between situation and event has an implication. It is important to resist normalizing Trump’s win because doing so erases the very contingency it was predicated on, transforming history into mere necessity. If we want to think a way out of Trump, the place to start is the utter impossibility of his administration. Perhaps the truly correct denunciation of Trump—far from ridiculing his persona—is to maintain that his victory was absolutely by chance. It was not inevitable, and holds no more claim to existence than what we allow it. But this contention is not enough, on its own, to dissolve the power of the executive. Only the expediency of a political moment can replace sameness (in the guise of a plot twist) with its unpresentable alternative. Trump’s administration may serve as our moment’s provocation, but its form depends on staging the particular as false universal. True politics, on the other hand, always wagers the universal in the guise of the particular—a strategy to remedy the fractured, identitarian resistance Trump is banking on.

 

[1] For Badiou, the void is what cannot be presented in a given situation. In other words, what doesn’t exist. However, a crucial part of his philosophy involves demonstrating that the nonexistent does, in fact, have a place within being in the form of events.

[2] But, as I will argue, the factors contributing to Hillary’s loss are not the same as those responsible for Trump’s win.

[3]  Of course, Trump’s own behavior may undermine their crusade. So far, he seems to be towing the ultra-conservative line in his choices for senior staff and cabinet positions. But the conservative forces Trump has elevated may well come into conflict with one another, and with Trump’s own volatility.

[4] Intentionally missing in the author’s analysis is the impossibility of isolating race from social class. Saying Trump’s victory is solely about race is refusing to fully understand it.

[5] These statistics are given more play and context in a recent Upshot article in the Times. However, my overall point in this essay is that how one interprets statistical data is much more important than the data itself. Before the election, all interpretations pointed towards Hillary’s victory. With this option quashed, we need new interpretations to make sense of what happened.

[6] Trump is often compared, explicitly or through juxtaposition, with Hitler, as an echo and repetition of the Nazi rise to power. This comparison, however stirring, is flawed for several reasons. First, Trump stands precisely as an apolitical expression of discontent, not a genuine alternative. The difference is that Trump represents a false universal—the white, middle class America that no longer exists. Second, while Trump’s election is portrayed as a sweeping into power of highly irregular elements, he is stocking his administration with ultra-conservative members of the establishment. There is no indication, so far, that his administration will represent a crisis of executive power. Finally, the conditions in which Hitler rose to power are fundamentally different from those of contemporary America. The most volatile factor here may be the economy. If it crashes while Trump is president, America could look slightly more like interwar Germany, though the disparities are unbridgeable.