In late summer of 2014, all the news programs were showing a just-released interview, conducted by Vice News, featuring the heavily bearded visage of Abu Mosa, press officer for the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. Abu Mosa defiantly announced to the West that the Islamic Caliphate had now been established and nothing was going to stop it.
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“Send your soldiers, the ones we humiliated in Iraq. We will humiliate them everywhere, God willing, and we will raise the flag of Allah in the White House,” he declared, as animation showed the black ISIS flag being raised over the White House.
Amid the prevailing media atmosphere then, this frightening prophecy looked almost realistic. The West is weak and hesitant, analysts agreed at the time, while radical Islam is on the rise. ISIS already controls a significant chunk of the Middle East, and is advancing toward a conquest of Europe. Obama’s America is next in line, warned some right-wing commentators in Israel and elsewhere.
Two years later, the panic inspired by ISIS seems a bit overblown. The menacing Abu Mosa was killed sometime in Syria and is barely remembered anymore. Nonetheless, some of the earlier predictions have come true: The White House has been taken over by a dark and scary force. Not by fanatical, radical Islam, but by fanatical white supremacy. And the obsessive preoccupation with the danger of terrorism is largely to blame.
One day, in retrospect, terrorism will likely be seen as having been the biggest distraction in modern history – a laughable threat that people like Benjamin Netanyahu have been dripping into our brains since the 1980s. If you just widen the perspective a bit, you see that the terror threat was always a fantasy. In the fall of 1977, many thought that the greatest danger to Europe was from communist underground groups like the Baader-Meinhof Gang or the Red Brigades. Today, these groups are nothing more than answers to trivia questions and fodder for period action films. It’s quite likely that, in the future, Islamist terror will be looked upon in the same way.
It’s been said before that peanut allergies pose a bigger threat to the safety of American citizens than terror attacks do. Even a victory in the war on terror, if such a thing is possible, won’t solve any of the fundamental problems faced by the coming generations – social upheaval, the environmental crisis and the problem of debt. Once again, history has cunningly pulled a fast one on us: For years we’ve been inundated with bleak prophecies about the decline of liberal Western democracy, which will soon be done in by its enemies. Now, in just a few turbulent months, a whole new political picture has arisen: Western democracy is indeed facing unprecedented danger, perhaps the gravest danger it has confronted since World War II. But the hostile power that has seized control of its power center has come from within – in the alliance of whites, Christians and capitalists embodied by Donald Trump and his gang. Yes, the liberals were pushovers, but only in the sense that they failed to stand up firmly enough to the darkness gathering in the heart of the West. One needn’t be a Marxist anti-imperialist to recognize this.
As the Cold War came to an end, political scientists like Francis Fukuyama asserted that capitalist democracy was the winning model in human history. Then the theory of Samuel Huntington, that the modern age will be shaped by a “clash of civilizations,” rose to prominence. Now it appears that Fukuyama and Huntington were both wrong. Neither envisioned the real danger to freedom and democracy emanating from the West itself. But now Washington is becoming the capital of an Evil Empire. Those analysts will have to alter their way of thinking.
The danger of normalization
The events of the past two weeks have been mind-boggling. It’s hard to contemplate this assault – a veritable blitzkrieg – by a chief executive on civil liberties and democratic values lasting for months or even years. A lot of people are dreaming that Trump will somehow end up in a tailspin and be driven from the White House. However, barring impeachment and conviction (the latter of which would be unprecedented), a U.S. president cannot be removed from office before completion of his full term.
The humiliation of the Mexican president, thanks to Trump’s declarations about building a wall that the neighboring country to the south will pay for, the hasty action to repeal Barack Obama’s health-care reforms, the attacks on the media and on the right to an abortion, and of course, the order barring many Muslims from entering the United States – each one of these moves alone was dumbfounding. But as usual, Trump ensures the normalization of each of his wild moves by following it with an even wilder one.
The events we’re witnessing are so foreign to our collective experience that we can hardly grasp them. As the philosopher Slavoj Zizek recently wrote, in a different context, “An extraordinary social and psychological change is taking place right in front of our eyes — the impossible is becoming possible (once the catastrophe occurs, it is ‘renormalized,’ perceived as part of the normal run of things, as always-already having been possible).”
In his 1992 essay “The Fascist State of Mind,” psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas writes about the tendency of humans to fall in love with awful people. Citing familiar attempt to excuse their sins with lines like, “You know, she really is quite a lovely and kind person,” or, “You know, removed from her pulpit, she really is quite a different person,” Bollas points out that with such reasoning, the good parts of the self are being used “to excuse the destructive parts of the self.” He argues, forcefully, that, “When we excuse the destructive behavior of anyone by citing their humanity, we commit a crime against the function of humanity. When we distance ourselves from collusive responsibility for the destructive effects of the vicious person by turning them into a joke of sorts, we pervert the truth.”
Presumably, President Trump will have some less hyperactive weeks ahead. And that might well be enough to reassure his opponents. He may even succeed in presenting himself as basically likable. But such normalization would pose be the greatest danger of all.