The Unpresident and the Unredeemed Promise

Resolution can come in only one of two ways. Trump’s boast that he can do whatever he wants will have to be imposed by state violence. Or there will be a transformative wave of change.

More outrage is being perpetrated and felt than can be contained within the existing frame of institutions and discourses. The image of things bubbling over, of energies and emotions that can no longer be enclosed, is physically manifest on the streets, as those who have been privately confined for so many weeks spill out into the public realm. But what there is too much of is not just present injustice. There is a superabundance of the unresolved past.

This sudden enlargement of the public sphere is a response to Donald Trump’s mastery of belittlement. For all his logorrheic meanderings and florid hyperbole, Trump’s method is essentially reductionist, with mocking nicknames (“Crooked Hillary”), three-word slogans (“Lock her up!”), and an entire presidency predicated on four letters: MAGA. It is ironic that, on May 29, just as protests at the killing of George Floyd four days before were spilling out from Minneapolis and spreading nationwide, Trump achieved peak concision with a one-word Tweet that contained what was supposed to be his entire strategy for reelection: “CHINA!” While the country he misgoverns was boiling over, Trump was still boiling down. The American crisis could, he evidently still believed, be reduced to this distillate of foreign perfidy.

All of these historical surpluses—the afterlives of slavery, of the deranged presidency, and of the threat of terrorism as permission to set aside legal and democratic rights—have raised the stakes in the present struggle. This mass of unresolved stuff is being forced toward some kind of resolution. That resolution can come in only one of two ways. What has come to the surface can be repressed again—but that repression will have to be enforced by methods that will also dismantle democracy. Trump’s boast that he can do whatever he wants will have to be institutionalized, made fully operational, and imposed by state violence. Or there will be a transformative wave of change. All of this unfinished business has made the United States semidemocratic.

Read the full article in the New York Review of Books.

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Fintan O'Toole is an Irish columnist, literary editor, and drama critic for The Irish Times, for which he has written since 1988.

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