Back and Forth with The Back Row Manifesto

As you might imagine, us left-leaning bloggers all hang out, wearing our silk smoking jackets and puffing on pipes while swirling snifters of brandy, discussing Marcuse, and listening to Gang of Four. (Secret handshake optional.)

Among that club, one of my very great friends, Tom Hall, writes the trenchant blog The Back Row Manifesto. Last week in his post “Trauma” (January 19), he called for a public acknowledgment of our shared national trauma, writing: 

The battle for how we remember, process, understand, and overcome the trauma of Trumpism will define how we triumph over it. The first and most crucial step in the formalization of post-traumatic collective memory is to invest in transparency and truth.

No truer words. 

That call also included a critique of Biden on that point:

Transparency begins with Joe Biden, and yet his calls for unity and the focus on his agenda has frustratingly ignored the lingering impact of the trauma of the Trumpist years. Biden has laughed off Trump and ignored every ridiculous indignity, instead focusing on building his own transition process with seriousness and determination…..I’m not sure he understands how deeply the nation has been injured. We need to be heard, to be understood, and to share in the validation and legitimization of our experience….

Tom also raised fears the Biden will “appease a movement hell-bent on establishing authoritarian, anti-democratic power in the hands of Trumpist Republicans,” and that he seems to share the Trumpist call to “put the past aside, to forget and move on.”

While I am in agreement with the main point about the need for reckoning, I had problems with this preemptive critique. I would not say that Biden has failed to understand or acknowledge the nation’s wounds, nor do I think he is pursuing a policy of appeasement, or asking us to forget the past and move on—even though there are strong forces that would like him to do so. In any event, it’s far too early to render that verdict.

But I do think he’s walking a tightrope. 

No one is more open-minded and ready to have a dialogue than Tom, so I wanted to discuss it with him. But rather than confine our conversation to the bloggers’ private bar over those brandy snifters, we decided to make our emails about this matter an open exchange of letters. 

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THE KING’S NECKTIE: Tom, I couldn’t agree more about the need for accountability— a reckoning, in fact—after this criminal administration. I’d also agree that the calls for “unity” from the right wing are disingenuous at best, an attempt at inducing mass social amnesia (as you cogently explained) and dodging responsibility for the shitshow they presided over and its lasting damage. I’m hopeful that most thinking Americans won’t be suckered in, despite the longing for a return to normalcy. As I wrote some weeks ago, there can be such return, because “normalcy” is long gone, if in fact it ever existed. The “normalcy” some want to go back to is the very thing that the George Floyd protests were about putting an end to.

But I take issue with your critique of Biden on that front. Let me throw this over to you first, in the interest of conversation, and then I’ll detail my complaints.

THE BACK ROW MANIFESTO: Thanks, Bob. With the Trump “transition” (aka sedition) and the acknowledgment of our experience of living through the trauma of the Trump years, I think President Biden was put in yet another difficult position. On the one hand, he was forced to focus his time and attention on preparing to become president in a vacuum of Trump’s making, and on the other hand, he wanted to set a tone that he would unify the country and stand above the pettiness of Trump’s refusal to acknowledge the election results. In fact, when asked about Trump’s refusal to accept the election results, Biden laughed for a moment and said “He will.” 

That moment really troubled me because it underlined for me Biden’s rock solid faith in our institutions, institutions which, for the most part, have been shown to be deeply flawed and have, in innumerable instances, failed us during the Trumpist era. 

I call it the “Trumpist” era; I won’t call it the “Trump era” because the catastrophe of the last four years would have been impossible without the enabling of the Trump Administration by so many people across multiple sectors of our lives. 

TKN: I like your rationale for the term “Trumpist era” versus “Trump era.” (It’s catchier than my sobriquet for it, Hell™.) Although by that logic, it ain’t over, because Trumpism is still with us even though Trump is gone. And I am soooooo ready for the post-Trumpist era. 

To that matter of Biden laughing off Trump and his sins: I think when Biden is nonchalant and makes light of Trump like that, he’s not being dismissive so much as tactical. In line with his chosen role as Unflappable Grownup Who Will Make Everything OK, I think he is trying to minimize Trump’s power and knock him down a peg and take away his impact as a bogeyman. That is very different than not holding him and his accomplices to account. 

As you know, Ferne and I spent a lot of time wrestling with this issue of laughter/ridicule/satire and its power (or lack thereof) as a weapon against tyranny, and with that, the risks that it poses. One of the risks, of course, is underestimating the enemy by treating him/them as mere clowns and not genuine dangers. I can’t believe that after all the horrors of the past four years anyone on the Biden team, from the top on down, is that blithe or naive. I really think it’s a strategy—the way one learns in grade school never to let a bully know that they have ever gotten under your skin. 

To your point about Biden’s faith in our institutions, you wrote: 

After years of gaslighting and the demolition of belief in the ability of our institutions to stand up to their debasement at the hands of Trump, we need more than just the truth; we must demand that our shared experience is validated and, most importantly, we must see vindication for our belief that our system is still capable of delivering equal justice under the law.

I’m with you there. I don’t have any truck with the oft-heard, self-congratulatory cry that “the system worked!” The system only worked because of Team Trump’s haplessness and because a handful of people of good faith happened to be in key positions that came under attack. With a better demagogue or weaker local officials in crucial roles, “the system” would have collapsed like wet cardboard.   

BRM: Biden’s bemusement at Trump’s childish petulance, his almost disbelief that American leadership could have fallen so low, stands for me as a symbol of the failure of institutionalism to imagine the impact of Trumpism on every day life in America. What has been unleashed has, as many have pointed out, always been there, and Trumpism is just saying out loud what we have refused to acknowledge as a nation, etc. 

But it was also normalized, it was framed by fealty to the office of the Presidency and institutions of government as being the official business of the nation. I call the effect of this sort of official normalization the “Haberman-ization” of Trumpism, but it is an undeniable fact; the people of America have been forced to live under a deeply corrupt, venal, and cruel sociopath for four years, and that experience has lead to a deformation of normalcy, of institutions, of what America actually is.

TKN: I don’t think it’s a failure of imagination. I think it’s a pose—in a good way—and an attempt to stir (positive) patriotism, along the lines of, “We’re better than this.” Even though the past four years suggest that we very much are not. 

The normalization of all that shite is indeed one of the most terrifying aspects of this nightmare. We shall see how much of it sticks now that this eminently decent and norm-respecting President is in office. (I hesitate to use the word “institutionalist,” now that Bill Barr has utterly devalued the term.) 

I agree with your assessment of the tough spot Biden was put in. That gets to the heart of my aforementioned quibble. I think Biden is trying mightily to set a reassuring, measured, non-incendiary tone…..I think he (rightly) sees his job as Uniter-in-Chief. That said: unity is not a suicide pact. As Rev. Al said recently when this question was posed to him, unity vs. accountability is a false choice. There can be no unity without accountability. Now, that’s a great bumper sticker, but what does it really look like? I think it looks like prosecuting the motherfuckers. I think it looks like impeachment, conviction, and barring from public office. I think it looks like not letting Trump’s enablers pretend like it’s postwar France and we were all in the Resistance together. I do NOT think it means reaching across the aisle and making nice with racists, misogynists, fascists, and their sympathizers

BRM: I don’t think Biden is being disingenuous when he calls for “unity”, as you and I rightfully understand those calls from Trumpists and their apologists on the right. But while I think his belief in the country framed his response to Trump, the reality of our collective experience has not yet been acknowledged properly. Until that happens, calls for unity, no matter how well-intentioned, ring hollow. 

TKN: This is the crux of my pushback to your last blog. As I’ve said, I totally agree about the need for accountability, which includes not only legal consequences for the lawbreakers, but also the kind of moral rehabilitation you describe. But I think Biden is correctly cautious about his role in that, particularly on the first point, but also on the second, which is a real minefield.

On the first, I’m sure Biden is among those who are justifiably nervous about establishing the precedent of an incoming President prosecuting his or her predecessor, banana republic style. The problem is, what do you do when the predecessor is genuinely a criminal whose actions rightly demand that kind of beatdown?

I think Joe is keen to stay out of it and above it, and leave that to Letitia and Cy and Merrick. I don’t think that’s a bad approach.

But the second aspect of this national rehabilitation is trickier. We do need the new President to preside (yswidt?) over a kind of truth and reconciliation process. Biden has to wield his moral authority here, but he can’t do it in a way that feels partisan or merely vindictive. I think that now he is in power, he may be a little freer in doing that…..and I think that his natural style lends itself to that sort of eminence grise kind of thing. 

But per above, I totally agree that, as I wrote some weeks ago, “normalcy” is dead and buried. But for that very reason, we now have an opportunity to address some really deep, entrenched, systemic problems and possibly affect real change. (To build back better, some might say). It will be ironic if Joe Biden, a creature of Washington and near-embodiment of the sclerotic Old Guard, can re-invent himself, seize the opportunity, and be the one to lead that revolution.

BRM: I think you are missing my point. Your argument keeps coming back to Biden’s political tightrope walk as President between holding Trump accountable for his crimes and his desire to unite the country. But while I am of course thinking of how to best hold Trumpists accountable for their crimes, I have to first think about the way in which our collective trauma is acknowledged. 

Without a fundamental agreement about the impacts of Trumpist criminality on the country, on us as a people, the will and pretexts for justice become impossible. In other words, if we cannot acknowledge the pain and suffering of the victims of Trumpism, there is no moral argument for holding him to account, and the discussion immediately pivots to the politics of accountability, erasing the experience of the people. If we don’t acknowledge our shared trauma, we erase it.

It is hard to talk about this in context without drawing comparisons between historical examples that far outweigh the social damage of Trumpism, and because so many legitimate far-right comparisons are contemporary (thanks for nothing, global surge of far-right government!), I struggle to point to an efficient analysis of how this works. I won’t make Nuremberg or Truth & Reconciliation in South Africa or Rwanda references, because the scale of those crimes and the level of that trauma is incompatible with our own experience in America under Trumpism, and I don’t want to diminish those examples by way of comparison. 

That said, they are examples of taking deep, systemic trauma seriously, of using trauma as a form of “moral standing” to prosecute crimes. But more than just a mechanism for accountability for the criminal, acknowledging trauma also empowers and validates those who have suffered. It makes the crimes real, it makes justice moral. 

For all of the credit he has received for being the “empath in chief,” for knowing loss, Biden’s personal losses are the result of tragedy and not the result of willful victimization at the hands of the state. Democrats need to begin making the case immediately that Trumpist crimes have consequences, not just for Trumpists, but for all of us. They need to articulate those consequences, not just their impact on our institutions, but on us as people.

TKN: Yes, Biden’s personal tragedies were not the result of state-sponsored crimes, but that doesn’t make him any less empathetic. And I am definitely concerned with the political tightrope he has to walk. But this is not just inside baseball stuff, or shortsighted partisanship. It’s critical to the success of our effort. 

To that point, I fear you’re asking for something abstract (and universal) that may not be there. Lots of Americans thought it was great to rip children from their mothers and cage them. 

The acknowledgment of trauma only speaks to the 66% of the country that is in its right mind. I don’t think it is hard for Biden to do that. The bigger question is how to manage the other 33%. Maybe there is a way for Joe to be the president for all while still definitively repudiating what we just endured. Ironically, like I said above, his model-of-moderation, comforting-old-white-dude persona may make him the perfect guy for that job. 

BRM: The failure of institutions doesn’t mean that cold, government buildings collapse; institutions are people making decisions, making choices. In government, those choices are meant to serve the people.  When the power we bestow upon those institutions is used to traumatize the people they serve, we need more than just a reckoning for the decision-makers, we need proactive repair—acknowledgement and support—for those impacted by the decisions; Orphaned children, 400,000 dead, families on food lines, a militarized police culture unleashed on peaceful demonstrators, the dismantling of the already threadbare safeguards against discrimination, a Capitol attacked with the intent to eliminate democracy as we know it, all driven by a daily, hourly flood of lies intended to deny the legitimate experiences of those who were the targets of state power.

So, for me, the discussion doesn’t begin with the mechanics of accountability, it begins with the acknowledgement of the trauma, which will legitimize and drive accountability forward. This is how justice works.

TKN: I’m down with that, and I concur about the need for proactive repair, but we may getting into a battle of semantics here. 

What, in your view, does an “acknowledgment of the trauma” look like? To me, it is inextricably connected to the mechanics of accountability, which is why I am fixated on that. I understand your point that acknowledgement of the trauma legitimizes and drives accountability, and you might say that I am skipping that step. But to me, that acknowledgment is implicit (if we prosecute Trump for inciting a riot, or bring civil suits for his willful malfeasance in responding to COVID-19, or whatever) and at the same time difficult to formalize.

I fear you are looking for something more profound and poetic than we as a nation are able to summon. I will settle for indictments.

BRM: Accountability is a remedy, but there also has to be an acknowledgement that this experience was real, that it happened, and those who suffered because of it must be given priority in the media, in our narrative, to have that experience validated by consequences. 

I think justice is essential, but I don’t think trauma is solved solely through justice. I see signs, multiple, aggravating signs, that the Republican narrative machine is going to be effective in re-shaping this conversation to avoid dealing with the actual pain that people experience. I do not just mean the pain of COVID, I mean the daily feeling of fear that ICE will come and deport you, that people seeking to protest will be battered and arrested by right-wing police that don’t live in their communities and who want their union to back the President who encouraged their brutality, that disaster management would leave you without help, that white-supremacists and nationalists would be allowed free reign in American cities to act out their violence and be publicly venerated by the President, that our system and institutions would be bent, consequence-free, to attack you. 

It may seem poetic and profound to say that the stories which we give priority matter, but they do; they frame everything. 

Look at the insurrection itself: It is not even three weeks since the mob attacked US Capitol at the order of the President to physically prevent lawmakers from certifying a free and fair election. The most obvious, blatant lie, that the election was “stolen”, told precisely and reinforced by a network of propaganda on TV and social media, was a narrative that, after the failure of the mob, was still supported by over 150 lawmakers in Congress. They voted to overturn the election results in multiple states. The result? Nothing. No consequences. And they immediately pivoted to typical Republican obstructionism and seeking to shame Joe Biden for acting to implement his agenda as somehow not being about “unity.” And they get away with it, because “both sides.” And so, the media have already turned to profiling Biden as “divisive,” interviewing Trump supporters to find out how they feel about Biden uniting the country….Kevin McCarthy this weekend said that “everybody across the country has some responsibility” for the insurrection at the Capitol….Newt Gingrich going on Fox News saying Democrats want to “exterminate” Republicans….Josh Hawley saying he ever wanted to overturn the results of the election….Rand Paul claiming Biden was sowing division by calling out white supremacy. 

TKN: I think it remains to be seen what the consequences are. I’d like to see Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley removed from the Senate, and the 150 House members too. At a minimum I’d like to see them censured, stripped of committee memberships, and more intangibly, made pariahs except in Alex Jones World. I’d like see them criminally prosecuted for inciting violence. Maybe some of that happens or maybe none of it does. It’s up to us to keep the pressure on.

In the mean time, there’s no doubt about the Republican gaslighting, and the Big Lie at its cold black heart. But I don’t view those pieces—from reliably mainstream outlets like CNN or MSN, let alone a progressive outlets like Mother Jones or Towleroad—as evidence that the media is promoting the right wing spin, as long as they are properly framed and not presented as “parties differ on shape of planet.” We can’t expect right wing troll world to stand down, at least not voluntarily; the question to me is how do we best combat it?

To that end, banning Trump from Twitter increasingly looks like the best thing since sliced bread, despite its dangers and complexity. Can you imagine if we had to deal with his running commentary and infusion of toxic bullshit into the collective bloodstream 24/7, the way we have for the past four years? 

This is a slightly different discussion about the wisdom of bringing back the Fairness Doctrine, and combatting fake news a la HyperNormalisation, the dangers of weaponized social media, a la The Great Hack or The Social Dilemma (or Feels Good Man).  

BRM: This is what “moving on” looks like, a narrative that gives a platform to deniers and liars, that will likely allow Trump to once again claim he was “exonerated” by spineless Republicans in the Senate, and will never allow us to fully come to terms with the avalanche of criminality of the Trumpist years. How will we ever tell the truth about the past and build a future if there is no priority given to really grappling with trauma, with using every avenue to tell the story of what happened truthfully? That is the narrative that can deliver justice. No. We need a full reckoning, we need the full experience of life under Trumpist rule to be validated, we need to fight to tell the truth of every single thing we know to be true, in their entirety. We need the truth to triumph and make the “lie” obvious in its insanity.

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As Tom is my guest here, I’ll give him the last word there (not counting this epilogue), and because I concur with his dire warning about not letting the right control the narrative, not accepting the euphemism of “moving on” as cover for impunity for Trumpist crimes, and the general need for reckoning, which is where this whole discussion started. 

Opinions will differ on how President Biden handles these delicate but urgent matters, and the inevitable Republican gaslighting and disinformation blitz. It’s the earliest of days, so plenty of material for that debate (and his performance evaluation) is yet to come. In the mean time, we can all agree that Republican calls for “unity” are as credible as the claims of George Floyd’s killers that they’re the real victims. It remains to be seen if rational voices rise up to call out that vile absurdity, and that hypocrisy, and if the American people will listen.

More to come on the reckoning with the sins and damage of Trump and Trumpism in a future post.

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Check out The Back Row Manifesto.

This blog also available on Substack and Medium.

6 thoughts on “Back and Forth with The Back Row Manifesto

  1. “I think Joe is keen to stay out of it and above it, and leave that to Letitia and Cy and Merrick. I don’t think that’s a bad approach” is, imnsho, where it’s all at – that is, when wondering why Biden seems to be staying out.
    EXCELLENT dialogue !

    Liked by 1 person

  2. An interesting exchange. Is Biden being dismissive or tactical? Does the system need change as a ramification of the past four years? I think so, but progressive change does need to be careful or could be circumvented by nefarious interests.

    Like

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