America in the Undertow of Anti-Politics

Trump hates “Black Lives Matter” and the African-American activists hate the Republicans’ designated presidential candidate. Both thrive on a loss of trust in America and are thus symptoms of the same unease. A commentary.

America is agitated. In addition to jihadism, the country apparently has to deal with another type of “lone wolf.” Two African-American extremists have committed what amount to suicide attacks on police inside of two weeks. The murderers of Dallas and Baton Rouge seem to have considered themselves anti-racist revolutionaries.

The activists of the civil rights movement “Black Lives Matter” emphatically reject the crimes. They do not, however, refrain from vocally protesting police violence. They block freeways and yell at police to “stop killing us.” In this dark mood, Republicans are celebrating a shameless agitator in Cleveland this week as their presidential candidate.

Since the murder of five police officers in Dallas, Donald Trump has been campaigning as the “law and order candidate.” On Twitter, he ridicules Barack Obama, because the president called for sober-mindedness following the ambush in Baton Rouge. Where Obama appeals to the people in nuanced words to transcend the trenches, Trump disparages his country as a “divided crime scene.” He blames the president for the murders: “How many law enforcement and people have to die because of a lack of leadership in our country?” he asked after the shocking news came out of Louisiana.

As often happens, Trump did not explain his logic. In any case, his Twitter followers and the audiences of right-wing political talk shows are familiar with the presumed connection. Because Obama complains about excessive police violence and legitimizes the concerns of Black Lives Matter, he supposedly has stabbed the police in the back. According to them, the slogans “Black Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” are mutually exclusive. Police uniforms are blue.

Symptoms of the Same Malaise

Trump and Black Lives Matter mark opposite poles. Both phenomena—the rise of the authoritarian populist and the uprising of African-Americans—are symptoms of the same malaise; however, many Americans have lost faith in mediating authorities. On the national level, at least, there is no hope for a compromise, let alone for a solution to the issues.

Protesting blacks may still be invoking Martin Luther King. But they no longer believe in the methods of their predecessors. Street protests and civil disobedience are no longer threats that can be deployed by leaders of well-organized groups to wring concessions from politicians in negotiations.

Black Lives Matter is not an organization with fixed structures, but rather a hodge-podge of autonomous activist groups. They do not have a common board or directors, spokesperson or list of demands. It no longer matters to most of these demonstrators whether a Jesse Jackson or an Al Sharpton is invited to the White House. They sense collusion and corruption where others struggle pragmatically for solutions. In an age of Instagram and Twitter, the indignant need no prominent pastor and no umbrella organization to make themselves heard.

In the same way, Donald Trump does not need the backing of the Republican Party to secure the presidential nomination. In comparison with the grassroots activism of Black Lives Matter, Trumpism is purely about the cult of the leader. Both target the soft underbelly of democracy. They preach mistrust against the so-called political class. And all too often the common good is indeed left behind when representatives of the people and lobbyists start bargaining. The backroom deals of the democratic process tend not to satisfy people entirely. But they keep democracy running.

No Patience for Solutions with Baby Steps

As is the case with so many major questions, there is no simple remedy against police violence and racism—especially not one that “the politicians,” with their incompetence and egoism, could prevent, as the populists would have the people believe. In the ’60s, blacks led by King were still able to bring about major laws that unhinged the legal apartheid system in one fell swoop. Obama correctly notes that America has made enormous progress since then.

Today, where there is racism in people’s minds and blatant social inequality and a propensity to violence in a country chock full of firearms, politicians can only try to dampen the crisis with baby steps. These must include the training, armament and transparency of police, the right to bear arms, proper treatment of the mentally ill, education opportunities for poor people, and even more. But many citizens do not want to hear about trifles. Campaigners legitimize them with their disgust of “Washington” and the political process.

In this way, countless politicians of those stripes have dug their own graves. With master builder Trump, this grave has reached never before seen lows. The undertow of anti-politics is pulling the whole country under. The heirs of Abraham Lincoln in the Republican Party are either watching this phantom in Cleveland or are looking away.

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