Two Cycles That Will Redefine America
My commentaries since launching TDC eJournal last year have been an unfolding meta-narrative overview of our cloven time. In that harsh and enlightening moral tale from our school days, “A Tale of Two Cities,” the opening line applies today to a degree I have not experienced since the Cuban missile crisis. Never have we enjoyed more progress and advancement in so many areas of endeavor. The reason is that more young people are pursuing their education than ever before (despite the cost of tuition), and so many of them do so with great purpose and direction. My impression is that this group constitutes a hefty number, probably a generational majority. But at the same time, repressive, revanchist tendencies are surging to impede our evolution — not to mention our very survival.
My purpose from the start has been to construct a meaningful explanation for what both America and the world is going through — a period only too reminiscent of the rise of fascism in the 1930s. From 30,000 feet there are two important differences that offer hope, and for strikingly distinct reasons. First, we are grounded in a far stronger economy and infrastructure, and we boast a generation of young people who are far better educated and dedicated to public service, not just self-service, than the cohort of a century ago. Second, our capacity for self-destruction is far greater, and could be caused by only a small group of bad actors. A worst-case scenario today would also most likely be brought about by the very country that rescued the world from the worst excesses of the most destructive regime in history, the German Nazi Party. Therefore, as American citizens we assume a special responsibility.
A growing awareness of the stakes is beginning to show up in polling data. That growing swell of political understanding, of course, includes those of us in the art world (and other creative disciplines). So many creatives are developing innovative solutions to large problems through aesthetics, by directing the rhetoric and messaging of their art to influence their viewers, and by using their art to help raise money to support important causes.
This goes far beyond the art world; indeed, most of the heavy lifting involves more prosaic sectors. The art world’s role is adjunctive for the most part. I have theorized for many years that the long-term benefits of aesthetic thinking and visual modeling play a significant role in who we will be generations from now. A well-placed tweak here and there, executed with proper vision and attention to detail, will reverberate as positive change far beyond any immediate functionality.
NFN Kaylan, “Ai Weiwei Brushes his Teeth,” 2021, oil on canvas, 32 x 21”. Courtesy of Band of Vices, Los Angeles, CA
The massive short-term leverage exerted by Congress, the auto, energy, and pharmaceutical industries and other sectors is no doubt far greater, but dissipates more rapidly and completely. The long-term leverage of our creatives exceeds that of these other sectors — but we do have to survive to get to that future. If most bodies of creative work are lost to the sheer volume of history, the amalgamated effect together, led by a very small number of signifiers, is what yields a convincing byproduct. Whether the objects produced by Rembrandt, Picasso, Warhol, or Kerry James Marshall remain familiar to coming generations or not, the shape and character of that future will be informed by their aesthetics. And aesthetics is necessarily a collective enterprise.
Jeff Koons, “Train,” maquette, 2003. Courtesy of Jeff Koons
In this time and place there is no ground to be given between the continued success and progress of the post-WWII period and nuclear or climate self-annihilation. And nothing will guarantee the latter outcome with greater certainty than the Trump malignancy, which has infected more than the Republican Party, but also an estimated 20-30 million rank and file Americans. The example of this man’s conduct goes far beyond electoral politics, even as the sustainability of our free and fair elections is essential to our survival as a democratic republic. The scofflaw, the schoolyard bully, the organized crime boss are the role models that many more aspire to now than a mere decade ago (I remain delighted with Barack Obama’s nerdy influence). It is Trump’s sustained ability to avoid accountability, his one genuine talent, that has truly inspired a mutant cast of the corrupt, the dogmatic, and the outright homicidal to come out of the woodwork.
Beyond any question of governance and policy, there is a moral dimension to our politics that has degraded the remarkable, if uneven, success story that is America. The catalyst and living example is the singular Mr. Trump. But, as has been written on numerous occasions by now, there was a posse eager to ride with him, and millions of suckers happy to be fleeced. He did not just take advantage; his bizarre skill set was uniquely suited to do so.
If you listen to Trump’s speeches and to comments frequently made by the Congressional members who form the front row of his entourage, they persistently and quite loudly repeat characterizations that best describe themselves, or are just over-the-top fantasies: Democrats are about to plunge America into a one-party dictatorship. Democrats are ultra-extreme left-wing socialist communists. Democrats are baby killers. Cities and states run by Democrats have blood running in streets you cannot walk through without at least the protection of a gun. Democrats throw open our southern border in order to usher in murderous gangs and drug cartels. Democrats are trying to replace YOU. Democrats routinely steal elections. Democrats are evil.
Try injecting real emotion into delivering these lines. It takes practice and nerve. It is both a method of brainwashing and a pitch for money. The lies and the grift are most effectively slung not in the dead of night but in full daylight. But the very worst of it was summarized in Cassidy Hutchinson’s testimony before the January 6th committee: “They’re not here to hurt me.” This embrace of political violence as a tool to seize power crossed the final red line. Should this tactic not result in indictment, trial, and incarceration it could very well serve the goal of Trump regaining political power. With political violence serving as a tool to intimidate his way back to power, I must ask: where would such violence stop? What social or institutional force would stand in the way of a full “deconstruction of the administrative state”? And what would be the character of the kind of state that would replace it?
President Biden very much stands in the path, and he has proven formidable despite some mistakes (the Afghanistan withdrawal) and poor luck (inflation was simply not his doing) that have pressed down on his approval rating for a full year. Many liberals felt disheartened last year when Biden was unable to bring Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema on board to get voting rights across the finish line. That failure may still cost Democrats (and the country) dearly. But during August positive economic trends have softened the political effect of inflation, and Manchin at last decided that he was in position to play Mitch McConnell and still come out ahead politically. Biden then timed the forgiveness of student loans perfectly: just as colleges and beginning their school year (has no one noticed that?). Responding to Republican complaints that the $300-500 million will be inflationary, he pointed directly at their 2017 tax act that threw over four times as much money at the already wealthiest Americans, increasing the national debt by nearly $2 trillion; from that, the Covid pandemic and Mr. Putin’s war of aggression comes the bulk of current inflation. What Biden is doing now has the look of a well-conceived strategy.
Robbie Conal, “Supreme Injustices,” 2022, poster, 35 x 24”. Courtesy of Robbie Conal’s Art Attack; get your own poster
Why, then ,did Biden pull his punch by calling Republicans “semi-fascists”? Keep in mind that America’s fascist media, when not busy calling Democrats communists, paradoxically call the Democratic Congressional majority fascists. They then fan operatives out to complain how rude and unhelpful Biden was to deploy such an insult. But “semi-fascist” is only semi-accurate. The Republican Party now IS the Fascist Party, prepared to extend Trump’s personal legislative power, should they gain majorities, in the tradition of Germany’s Enabling Act of 1933. Listen to Trump at his rallies; he is demanding just this authority. I have no doubt that he would make the trains run on time.
I find it particularly hilarious to hear Republican candidates claim to support small government when they support Big, BIG government to control the personal and private lives of people over whom they would otherwise exercise no control. Many of us, myself included, do worry about Biden’s age. But not at the mid-term; he is providing savvy leadership. His age is a pragmatic matter to be resolved in the following year as the 2024 cycle draws into view. He is now drawing on his decades of political experience to oversee a political turnabout that makes perfect sense, but which is also rare in our history. Should Democrats increase their majority in the Senate, that will bode well in certain but limited respects, not least of which will be a continued restocking of the federal judiciary. There is now also a path by which Democrats retain their House majority. That would not only be a significant political achievement but would also present a clear path to achieve what could not be done in 2021: Voting rights reform. Should they fail to retain it, the Republic will surely survive the next two rocky years, and there will be a second opportunity, in 2024, to quickly regain control of both chambers. If Democrats number 52-54 in the Senate, Manchin and Sinema would probably be rendered irrelevant; and perhaps then they could be persuaded to help join in changing the filibuster rules a bit.
Financial Times’ editor Edward Luce recently observed of today’s Republican Party that he has “never come across a political force more nihilistic, dangerous, and contemptible than today’s Republicans. Nothing close.” Former CIA Director Michael Hayden added: “I agree.” I will not be surprised, but I will do my best to be shocked, as right-wing extremist violence continues to escalate in America. These people have assumed a state of war to exist based on a fantasy narrative of recent history. The party to which they are loyal has brainwashed many of them in this most odious of ways. They know there is no basis for a state of war to exist; but they know the threat of violence intimidates political adversaries. Trump’s brazen lawlessness and immorality not only emboldens such people, it provides them with a quasi-religious focal point for such inspiration: Trump himself, or rather his willingness to try to get away with, well, anything.
Humaira Abid, “Woman in Black,” 2022, carved pine and mahogany, gouache and pigment on handmade wasli paper and Plexiglas, 62 x 24 x 12”. Courtesy of Greg Kucera Gallery, Seattle
That is why I have and will continue to assert that these two election cycles are our final opportunities to non-violently curtail and defeat fascist political violence and control by brute force here in the country once most responsible for the defeat and prevention of exactly that. Voters are awakening to the vast contrast in these two political worlds, one of which will willingly welcome back a reformed Conservative party rejoining the legitimate debate to win elections, but this time on behalf of the entire country and without resorting to anti-democratic cheating, tricks, and most of all political violence.
Gabriel Dawe, “Monument to Futility Study No. 2,” 2022, found
puzzles, 16 x 14 x 14”. Courtesy of Talley Dunn Gallery, Dallas, TX