Mitt v Newt: Triumph of the Negative Will

Conventional as well as exceedingly well-grounded wisdom holds that, even after a Gingrich victory in South Carolina’s primary today, Mitt Romney would remain the overwhelming favorite to win the Republican nomination.  Yet we can still squint hard enough to glmpse more interesting if genre-novelistic possibilities, typically built around the “massive external event” that upsets all conventional calculations, though turns out not to have been “external” or even an “event”:  Is there a true scandal lurking in those tax returns Mitt gets flustered about half-promising to reveal?  A behind-the-scenes cabal of billionaires ready to recall their malfunctioning Mittbot?  Could an entire party become so nauseated by Mitt’s bizarre combination of appalling dishonesty and superficiality so superficial it can hardly even be discussed, that, rather than go forward with him and his him-lessness, it would rather tear itself apart, abreact a “deadlocked” convention or some other self-destructive expression of its psychic wounds?

If the entire Republican party, even including a lot of the people turning out to vote for Mitt today, becomes convinced that he is going to lose, and that fighting for and with him would just be too damn boring, pointless, and painful, then it would still be within the party’s power to destroy him and itself along with him, but in both respects the act would be redundant, meaningless non-gesture of a motionless movement fully reduced to the non-essence it’s been struggling to reveal ever since the Fall of 2008: Fanaticism of the negative will that can never be satisfied with any positive articulation, and that must destroy each successive form it is condemned to take  (for further up-to-the-moment coverage of the 2012 Republican primary, see ELEMENTS OF THE PHILOSOPHY OF RIGHT, Para 5, incl. remarks) .

Romney’s strategy has been to be utterly transparent to this negative will, in a manner that’s indistinguishable from simply waiting out the extended collective tantrum while pretending to sympathize. For his own part he embodies little more than the abstract and annihilating negativity of capital, the universal equivalent.  As the shapeless incarnation of “private equity,” Mitt can freely assume whatever seemingly convenient Obama-negating pose, but the closer he comes to having clinched, the more his residue of humanity, the resistance provided by the material being he is at least rumored to possess, finally becomes negatable…

..and that’s when the bearer of even more absurd tidings can step in:  Trump, Bachmann, Nein-Nein-Nein, Santorum, and finally Newt, not the most singularly absurd, but the greatest, most grandiose and protean in-gatherer of absurdity.  Bomb-thrower from way back, his greatest political skill is assaulting others (especially the media) for their incivility, while his second most typical gesture is the friendly nod toward the rival or enemy for whose decapitation he will call tomorrow or maybe in a few seconds: Newt embodies negation actively, unlike Mitt who merely channels it, but they end up, as we see, in almost the same place. Newt’s famous promiscuity, the embrace of new, scandalously liberal infatuations to negate unwanted prior attachments, is the negativity of the particular, the universal non-equivalent.  Infinitely permeable, Romney is nothing, so can be anything.  Newt is anything, so is nothing.  (As for the Kenyan Alinskyist Socialite, the most we need to say about his position for now is that it has him singing of love.)  The sheer hopelessness of Newt’s project prevents its implicit and irresolveable contradictions, its essential unrealizability, from presenting a problem.  He’s not going anywhere, so he can’t be stopped.  Romney, on the way, can go no further.

To re-state more precisely the theme of a post written during the previous Newtening, the further Gingrich seems to go, the more the “massive external event” must be considered to have already undermined the position to which he ascends. He already represents crisis within the Republican Party: Newt’s nomination would tend to confirm that the crisis had in fact self-terminated with extreme prejudice some time ago, that the party as we knew it, and the system of which it was a part, really was already dead, but that’s probably the story for some other future Newtening, under some other Newt.  Until then, Romney’s very probably nothing enough.

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  1. Romney is about enough to prevent the Republican Party from flying apart and keeping it from overt capture by forces of fundamentalism and of futile rejection. Running Romney will prevent the real Republicans and the realistic ones from fleeing and will allow the F-troopers to proclaim that the coming defeat was all because the Party ran a man not sufficiently pure.

    When it’s over, they can look defeat in the eye and not feel that it’s a window into their own pure souls.

  2. The problem with living satire is that you can never be sure what too absurd for fiction plot devices will turn out not only to be possible but necessary once the story has unfolded to the degree it has because there’s no option of throwing up one’s hands, throwing the book across the room, leaving the theater because a kind of political quantum entanglement has taken hold where ordinary causality has been defrenestrated leavng only a creepy spookiness, that we experience like an unrecognized reflection we recognize as confusion.

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Noted & Quoted

TV pundits and op-ed writers of every major newspaper epitomize how the Democratic establishment has already reached a consensus: the 2020 nominee must be a centrist, a Joe Biden, Cory Booker or Kamala Harris–type, preferably. They say that Joe Biden should "run because [his] populist image fits the Democrats’ most successful political strategy of the past generation" (David Leonhardt, New York Times), and though Biden "would be far from an ideal president," he "looks most like the person who could beat Trump" (David Ignatius, Washington Post). Likewise, the same elite pundit class is working overtime to torpedo left-Democratic candidates like Sanders.

For someone who was not acquainted with Piketty's paper, the argument for a centrist Democrat might sound compelling. If the country has tilted to the right, should we elect a candidate closer to the middle than the fringe? If the electorate resembles a left-to-right line, and each voter has a bracketed range of acceptability in which they vote, this would make perfect sense. The only problem is that it doesn't work like that, as Piketty shows.

The reason is that nominating centrist Democrats who don't speak to class issues will result in a great swathe of voters simply not voting. Conversely, right-wing candidates who speak to class issues, but who do so by harnessing a false consciousness — i.e. blaming immigrants and minorities for capitalism's ills, rather than capitalists — will win those same voters who would have voted for a more class-conscious left candidate. Piketty calls this a "bifurcated" voting situation, meaning many voters will connect either with far-right xenophobic nationalists or left-egalitarian internationalists, but perhaps nothing in-between.

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Understanding Trump’s charisma offers important clues to understanding the problems that the Democrats need to address. Most important, the Democratic candidate must convey a sense that he or she will fulfil the promise of 2008: not piecemeal reform but a genuine, full-scale change in America’s way of thinking. It’s also crucial to recognise that, like Britain, America is at a turning point and must go in one direction or another. Finally, the candidate must speak to Americans’ sense of self-respect linked to social justice and inclusion. While Weber’s analysis of charisma arose from the German situation, it has special relevance to the United States of America, the first mass democracy, whose Constitution invented the institution of the presidency as a recognition of the indispensable role that unique individuals play in history.

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[E]ven Fox didn’t tout Bartiromo’s big scoops on Trump’s legislative agenda, because 10 months into the Trump presidency, nobody is so foolish as to believe that him saying, “We’re doing a big infrastructure bill,” means that the Trump administration is, in fact, doing a big infrastructure bill. The president just mouths off at turns ignorantly and dishonestly, and nobody pays much attention to it unless he says something unusually inflammatory.On some level, it’s a little bit funny. On another level, Puerto Rico is still languishing in the dark without power (and in many cases without safe drinking water) with no end in sight. Trump is less popular at this point in his administration than any previous president despite a generally benign economic climate, and shows no sign of changing course. Perhaps it will all work out for the best, and someday we’ll look back and chuckle about the time when we had a president who didn’t know anything about anything that was happening and could never be counted on to make coherent, factual statements on any subject. But traditionally, we haven’t elected presidents like that — for what have always seemed like pretty good reasons — and the risks of compounding disaster are still very much out there.

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