“Lock Him Up!” Putting Trump in Prison
The desire, which is understandable, of wanting to put Donald Trump in jail, to “lock him up,” as some chant, reflects a misconception about the problematic character of Trump. That Trump is a criminal may be true, but it isn’t what is most troubling about him and his politics. What is most troubling about Trump is how he reflects some of the worst aspects of American politics and society. That is, what is most troubling about Trump is the fact that although he may be a criminal, he is through and through an American. People who ignore this fact are unable to appreciate how flawed, how defective our politics and society are. They are also unable to counter Trump and the dangers he represents. In a strange way, they even help to perpetuate Trump’s popularity.
Trump’s famous claim was “MAGA,’ Make America Great Again. Leaving aside the details of how Trump would accomplish this, it is necessary to ask a question most Americans haven’t asked: Is making America great again desirable? That is, generally speaking, what’s involved in making America great? What does it require? What does it promote? Of what is national greatness composed?
Obviously, the first thing that comes to mind, is “nationalism.” That is, to make a nation great requires that that nation embrace nationalism. More precisely, it requires that such a nation see itself as exemplary, as exceptional. And it is interesting that underlying many critiques of Trump’s nationalism – thought to be of “white nationalism” variety – is an embrace of a resurgent nationalism, a resurgent embrace of the feeling that the United States is in fact exceptional. In fact, it is this feeling, it seems to me, that feeds much of the irritation, the intense dislike of Trump: He has undermined the feeling that we are an exceptional people. And this feeling has been inculcated in us at least since the Reagan presidency, when it was “morning in America” again and Reagan told us that we could “make the world anew.” And it is this feeling of exceptionalism that has helped justify our response to the attacks of 9/11, during which we and our allies have contributed to the deaths of more than a million people throughout the world.
But is this feeling really what the United States needs today, whether on Trump’s terms or on the terms of his enemies? Richard Nixon once gave a speech in which he argued that not only was the United States living in a world where it would be impossible for it to maintain its hegemony, but also that this was a good thing. In other words, Nixon, unlike most other politicians of his day and now of ours, thought it would be a good thing if the United States did not seek greatness; that is, did not seek to impose its hegemony on the world. As Nixon knew, it was that desire, the desire for greatness, for hegemony that led to the war in Vietnam, a war Nixon always knew was not only a lost cause but even irrelevant given the undeniably forthcoming hegemony of China in Asia.
Once Nixon was disposed of, along with his policies of détente with the Soviet Union and his opening to China, then we could get back to fortifying US hegemony in the world under Reagan and then under Papa Bush’s “New World Order.” Reagan and Bush’s agenda for fortifying US hegemony, fortifying its greatness, was continued by Bill Clinton and most forcefully by George “the Shrub” Bush and Dick Cheney. And even Obama did nothing to even hint that perhaps Richard Nixon was correct and that the time of America’s greatness was over and that this could be a good thing. Trump is merely playing the same old song, although it has a different beat since Obama and others are gone.
Whether Trump committed criminal acts fades into insignificance in light of these questions: Should the United States seek national greatness? Is the continuation of America’s hegemony possible any longer? Even if possible, is that hegemony good for American society, with all the dislocations it requires in terms of government policies, which amount to the existence of “a national security state” with pervasive powers allowing for repression of dissent and the loss of privacy? We have spent trillions of dollars on our national security state while denying health insurance to millions of children and other Americans, even during a pandemic. Is this really how we want to live? Is it really how we should live? Is it really just to live this way? Trump, in his desire to make America great again, never raises these questions; but then many of his enemies also don’t raise these questions either. And, so, guess what? There is very little justice in the United States which feeds the demagoguery that surrounds us. And, of course, in that environment, Donald Trump, being a demagogue, has acquired a status that seems unexplainable to many decent folks. But it is explainable because Trump is just playing that “same old song, just with a different beat since [Reagan, et. al.] are gone.” But now it’s time to start playing a different song.