Yeoman Trump: Saul Steinberg and the fascist politics of outer-borough resentment

Reading  How Fascism Works by Yale philosopher Jason Stanley — which is interesting, though not quite the general theory of fascism that the title promises, but something more like a Prolegomenon to a Theory of Trumpism — I was interested by his discussion of the valorisation of rural life as a fundamental feature of fascism, and of Trumpism.

Fascist politics feeds the insulting myth that hardworking rural residents pay to support lazy urban dwellers, so it is not a surprise that the base of its success is found in a country’s rural areas… Anticity rhetoric had a central role in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections… Fascist politics targets financial elites, “cosmopolitans”, liberals, and religious, ethnic, and sexual minorities. In many countries, these are characteristically urban populations. Cities therefore usefully serve as a proxy target for the classic enemies of fascist politics.

Among the many peculiarities of Trump’s appeal — the lifelong sybarite as hero of self-identified Christian conservatives, the draft-dodger as champion of the military, the man who built an empire off cheating ordinary workers as tribune of the (white) working class — is the profound support that a Manhattan real-estate developer, with an almost comically New York accent, found among anti-cosmopolitan small-town and rural voters.

This is where I think Saul Steinberg’s classic representation of New York psychology can help us. Objectively you might think that the scion of an ultra-wealthy New York real-estate empire is an urban insider. But they were from Queens. Seen from 9th Avenue, Donald Trump was just another outer borough yokel. He might as well have been digging potatoes out on Long Island. McKay Coppins described this well in The Atlantic at the start of Trump’s presidency

Though he was born into a wealthy family, partaking of the various perks and privileges afforded to millionaires’ offspring, Trump grew up in Queens—a pleasant but unfashionable borough whose residents were sometimes dismissed by snooty Manhattanites as “bridge-and-tunnel people.” From a young age, he was acutely aware of the cultural, and physical, chasm that separated himself from the city’s aristocracy. In several interviews and speeches over the years, he has recalled gazing anxiously across the East River toward Manhattan, desperate to make a name for himself among the New York elite.

The most successful politicians have a howling vortex of resentment at their core, that resonates somehow with the resentments of a large fraction of the populace. If there’s anything genuine about Trump’s political persona it is this: He genuinely shares the feeling of the average American that educated elites are looking down at them. And no amount of money or cheering crowds can fill that void.

Londoners pat themselves on the stiff upper lip

The story to date: A petty criminal from Kent committed a murder suicide in the centre of London, killing 4 and injuring 40. The attacker was Muslim, which seems to be enough for this to be classified as a terror attack*, and so the English praise themselves for their fortitude in continuing to carry on with their lives, rather than, I don’t know, hunkering down in air-raid shelters until the sirens announce all-clear. #WeAreNotAfraid, they tweet. Amazing that a city of nearly 9 million people is uncowed by the threat of a scary Muslim (acting on his own, apparently) now deceased, who killed as many pedestrians as non-terroristic London drivers killed with their cars in the whole second half of February. It’s a terrible thing that people were killed and injured, but people in cities all over the world live their lives surrounded by the suffering of others, without hiding in their cellars. The specialness of Londoners in this regard is as delusional as the British deal-making acumen.

Besides which, it’s not even true. While the PM was announcing in Parliament

An act of terrorism tried to silence our democracy, but today we meet as normal, as generations have done before us and as future generations will continue to do, to deliver a simple message – we are not afraid and our resolve will never waver in the face of terrorism,

the London police were trying to pressure pro-EU protestors to cancel their planned march on Saturday, because the unafraid Metropolitan Police with its approximately 30,000 officers couldn’t be expected to simultaneously manage both a criminal investigation AND 20,000 peaceful demonstrators.

Because nothing says WE ARE NOT AFRAID like using a minor terror attack as an excuse to prevent the exercise of core democratic rights.

* Whereas a genuinely politically inspired random murder in New York, intended to “send a message”, is not called “terrorism” and doesn’t inspire any praise for New Yorkers continuing for to live, because the perpetrator was not Muslim.

Plaque assay

I was just in Paris for a few days. Walking past the Lycée Simone Weil, in the 3rd arrondissement, I noticed a plaque, such as one sees quite commonly on public institutions:

À la mémoire des jeunes filles, élèves de cet établissement, autrefois école de couture die la ville de Paris, déportées et assassinées de 1942 à 1944 parce qu’elles étaient nées juives, victimes innocentes de la barbarie nazie avec la complicité active du gouvernement de Vichy.

Plus de 11400 enfants furent déportés de France dont plus de 500 vivaient dans le 3ème art de Paris.

Ils furent exterminés dans les camps de la mort.

Les élèves du Lycée Simone Weil ne les oublieront jamais.

[To the memory of the girls, pupils of this establishment, which was then the Paris School of Dressmaking, deported and murdered from 1942 to 1944 because they were born Jewish, innocent victims of the Nazi barbarism with the active complicity of the Vichy government.

More than 11400 children were deported from France, of whom more than 500 lived in the 3rd arrondissement of Paris.

They were exterminated in the death camps.

The pupils of the Lycée Simone Weil will never forget them.]

As I read it, the formulation seemed to me strikingly perfect. The text avoids all the pitfalls that similar texts have been criticised for, whereby they seemed to either be minimising the horror, or pushing away blame, or somehow alienating the victims. The victims were “jeunes filles”, “innocent victims”, “murdered because they were born Jewish” (thus emphasising that it was a purely racist crime. They were “exterminated”, they lived right here, and then this somewhat wishful phrase at the end, usually attached to heroic martyrs, “The pupils will never forget them.” Most striking was the attribution of responsibility to “Nazi barbarism with the active complicity of the Vichy government.” They clearly were concerned to make absolutely unambiguous that they were not minimising French responsibility. Not just “complicity”, but “active complicity”. (Though it wasn’t the “French government”, but only the “Vichy government”.)

I was impressed first, then irritated. Precisely because they managed to tick every box and engrave such a perfect text on the plaque, it made it clear what a formulaic activity it is. (Perhaps the final sentence, unassailably high-minded just as it is clearly not true in any meaningful sense, also drove that point home.) It’s not that they did anything wrong, and I’m glad that they put all these plaques up. There’s just a limit to what you can achieve with a plaque, and perfecting the art of the memorial plaque in some ways undermines the spirit that it is meant to express.

The Return of the Ampelmännchen

I’m in Berlin now, for the first time in ten years. I lived here for much of the 1990s, and much has changed since then. But the change that I found most striking is in the Ampelmännchen, the anthropomorphic red and green traffic signals that tell you to walk or not walk. When I was first in Berlin, the backlash against Western triumphalism was just starting. With the unification of Germany, all kinds of things that had been standardised within each of the former countries now needed to be standardised between them. In principle, this would have involved some sort of consultation and compromise between the two sides. In practice, the East was treated like a colony, and the western standards were simply imposed. (I wrote a long essay at the time about my perceptions of the resentment in East Berlin.)

The resistance converged on the Ampelmännchen. The East had sort of jaunty 1950s-era conspicuously male figures, while the West had sleek, modern, gender-neutral figures. They looked like this:


By the time I arrived, quite a few signals had already been changed in East Berlin, and the Rettet die Ampelmännchen campaign (“Save the  Ampelmännchen“) was fighting to stop the losses. They distributed stickers with images of the Eastern Ampelmännchen, and hoped to slow their destruction. It was an inspired choice, since these Eastern Ampelmännchen are just so adorable. The arguments for the others — in particular, gender neutrality — may be convincing, but it is hard to contemplate their utter extinction without a pang.

Now, 20 years after the struggle broke out, I find that the Ost Ampelmännchen are everywhere in Berlin, even in the West. So, something has been saved. The rulers of the GDR vowed to create a Neuen Menschen (new man), but their only enduring success was the creation of a Neues Ampelmännchen.