What the President Wants

Trump has done terrible things that have damaged important institutions and, more importantly, individual human lives and the environmental preconditions of our civilization. Our public discourse, however, is dominated by outrage at what Trump wants. Most recently, he joked that he would like to imitate Chairman Xi and become president for life. This is supposed to be outrageous, chilling, etc. In reality, I can picture any recent president making the same joke. Trump has not proposed actually abolishing term limits, nor has he even made any serious moves toward rehabilitating his reputation so as to actually win reelection in 2020. Similarly, we are asked to feel outraged, chilled, etc., by Trump’s stated desires to censor unfavorable press coverage — even though he has done literally nothing to restrain press freedoms. His very desire condemns him, all the more, it seems, when it is an impotent desire.

It is interesting to contrast this situation with Obama and Bush. In both cases, their presumed desires were supposed to make us give them the benefit of the doubt. Bush just wanted to keep the country safe, and if he made some mistakes, it was in pursuit of that worthy desire. Similarly, for his liberal defenders, Obama ostensibly wanted all the right things, but sadly came up against the persistent obstacle of political reality. The same might be said for Bill Clinton, who got credit for liberal desires even while running a deeply conservative administration. From the other side, those same liberal desires led to demonization: never mind the moderate, even conservative results of their actual politices, Clinton and Obama want to impose gay Islamic socialism on hard-working Americans!

I have no interest in positing an equivalency between right-wing demonization of Clinton and Obama and center-left demonization of Trump — clearly we are dealing with two very different phenomena, most notably in the outright lies and conspiracy theories that attached to both Clinton and Obama. What I am interested in is the political function of the president’s desire. In Bush’s case, his ostensibly sincere desire to keep America safe served to paper over and normalize an administration that really was extreme and dangerous. With Clinton and Obama, their sincere liberal desires helped to make up for the betrayal of their liberal followers’ hopes. Meanwhile, demonization of Clinton and Obama’s liberal desires served to mask their substantive continuity with their Republican predecessors — and we might say that the demonization of Trump serves to mask his substantive continuity, not only with previous Republican administrations but with Obama (on the matter of aggressive deportations, for example).

Is it that the president’s desire always steps in to save us from uncomfortable questions? The liberal apologist for Clinton and Obama puts forward their desire as a screen to prevent them from seeing that they’re being taken for a ride, and the right-wing demonizers project exaggerated hatred of Clinton and Obama to keep from admitting that, at the end of the day, they have nothing to complain about, that they’ve already won. And the sincere desires of George W. Bush shield the entire political establishment from recognizing that they have been complicit in terrible crimes, crimes that are continuing unabated even now.

From this perspective, the reasonable centrist has to demonize Trump, to excoriate his evil desires as though they were already realities, because if Trump wasn’t a horrible abberation, they might have to admit that they have never really had their desired dancing partner for bipartisan solutions. Or on a deeper level, the Democratic Party hack has to demonize Trump’s desires to cover over the fact that they have no desires of their own, that they neither want power nor know what to do with it. Every fantasized power grab by Trump, every outrage is, as our sage social media scolds warn us continually, a distraction — from the fact that there effectively is no opposition, no alternative vision, nothing but a desire for a return to the normality that was always slowly killing us and would have continued to do so throughout the Hillary Clinton impeachment trial.

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