From The Man in the High Tower: “Make America Manichaean Again”

The histories of great American cities have been fundamentally shaped by waves of immigrants. New York City is and remains the archetype of this key portion of the American experience. Off the New York City shoreline is Ellis Island’s immigrant inspection station (now a museum, but an open and active immigration center when my mother passed through it, in 1951). Nearby, Liberty Island’s iconic Statue of Liberty cradles Emma Lazarus’ famous New Colossus sonnet, which is on a plaque, mounted on the inside of the pedestal of the statue. The world-famous words of Lazarus’ poem promised a home to the dispossessed, to the refugee, and often was the last and best hope to those who had nowhere else to go:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.[1]

And often it has been so, although Lazarus’ pledge has been unevenly honored, subjected to the periodic and intense bouts of paranoia, racism and xenophobia that are equally a part of the American temperament and its history. In the U.S, the most pronounced rejection of Lazarus’ pledge came in the period following the end of World War I: The American response to the immediate chaos and disorder at the end of post-Napoleonic Europe was to take a sharp turn away from the active, multi-lateral engagement advocated by Wilsonian internationalism. Concurrently, as a domestic political ideology, Progressivism collapsed, in the period between 1917-1920, a collapse made complete by the election of Warren G. Harding.[2] Finally, the politics of anti-internationalism and anti-urbanism culminated in the National Origins or Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, which sharply limited immigration of such “undesirables” as Jews and Asians. The crude and overtly eugenic language of the Act set restrictive, ethnic-and-race-based quotas, based on the 1890 (rather than the 1920) Census,[3] with preferential immigration status solely for Northern Europeans.

Much of that global and American historical moment (from the early 1920s to the mid-1930s) has strong echoes in the contemporary Zeitgeist. One of the most evocative expressions of our Zeitgeist is Amazon Studios’ re-imagining of Philip K. Dick’s 1962 dystopian alternate history novel, The Man in the High Castle.[4] Much of the overarching theme of Season One is made plain in the visuals accompanying the opening credits of the series. In particular, in an eight-second black-and-white sequence during the opening credits, we see that the Statue of Liberty has been physically removed from a place of legitimacy, visibility and prominence in New York City’s harbor and landscape. Encased in a dark-gray cinder block-like enclosure, we see a few rays of light enter from a small window to the southeast, and fall upon the face of the exiled, imprisoned and seemingly tearful statue.[5] Symbolically, the removal and quasi-imprisonment of the Statue represents the death of the American Experiment, in both its melting pot and multi-cultural forms. The sequestering of the Statue of Liberty from public view was a gesture meant to erase the ideals of formal equality, social mobility and individual attainment, regardless of ethnicity, race, religion or sexual orientation, from individual American psyches, the national narrative and the global imagination.

In the visuals accompanying the opening credits, the Statue of Liberty (and similar icons) are replaced by the icons of the victors: Swastikas are prominently embedded, replacing the customary stars, on American flags. The female icon of the Brandenburg Gate replaces Lady Liberty in public displays along the East Coast. On the West Coast, the Japanese Imperial flag, the Rising Sun, becomes the dominant official symbol. Freedom of expression disappears. In its place is an everyday society of fear, with cooperation, compliance or resistance as the three options for the subjugated American. Jews, African-Americans, those of mixed race, and others are always in danger of arbitrary arrest, detention, torture and death via micro-gas chambers. White women of child-bearing years, who cannot conceive, along with the disabled and economically non-productive, are condemned, in the lexicon of the series, as “useless eaters,” as candidates either for expulsion to the hinterlands of the Neutral Zone or for individualized eugenic extermination. A zero-sum racialist, eugenic-based society, which had been, prior, a significant strand of American political culture, particularly during the first three decades of the 20th Century, becomes, in the wake of defeat and occupation, the cardinal social and political organizing principle of Occupied America. This is the Totalitarian America that the series initially depicts.

At another point in time, The Man in the High Castle might have found a small but cultish audience. However, in the current Zeitgeist, even with distribution limited to the U.S., Germany and Austria, it has already become the most popular series in the Amazon Prime stable.[6] My initial questions are these: Given that Philip K. Dick’s novels continue to have a very long cultural reach, what drives both the popularity of The Man in the High Castle and its salience in the long shadow cast by the dawning Trumpian Presidency?

The Layers of 21st Century American Manichaeanism

Fundamentally, a common legitimating discursive frame of nationalist, ethno-nationalist and totalitarian politics is a profoundly dualistic, inherently Manichaeanism. In the Manichaean political narrative, there are two fundamentally separate, totally opposing, clashing and roughly equal forces, the primordial forces of “good and evil.” Or, as the Bush speechwriter David Frum infamously put it, in 2002, the ontological enemy were rogue nation-states that formed “the axis of evil.” (Whatever the rhetorical flourish, the forces of Evil are always presumed to be equal in force or have a bit of an edge over “the good.”) In the original theological version of Manichaeanism, “The Kingdom of Light” must always contend with invasions from “The Kingdom of Darkness.” And this contest is eternal, requiring perpetual re-dedication and a paranoid hyper-vigilance.[7] Over the last forty years, garden-variety American political Manichaeanisms, often self-identifying as a Kingdom of Light, has tagged different actors as Kingdom of Darkness. Early in Ronald Reagan’s Presidency, for example, his Kingdom of Darkness was the Soviet Union. In the mid-1980s, as Reagan and Gorbachev smiled and cracked jokes, signed a treaty and held press conferences, the Japanese economy also peaked. Given the then rising economic status of the Japanese, they briefly supplanted the Soviets as a Kingdom of Darkness. After Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, Hussein’s Iraq became a prominent Kingdom of Darkness. In the post-9/11 environment, stateless terrorists such as al Qaeda and ISIL, themselves profoundly Manichaean in discourse and action, became the most prominent Kingdom of Darkness. Prior to 9/11, there has been a peripatetic quality to Kingdom of Darkness designations, particularly in the post-Cold War period. Having said all of that, the specifics of these Manichaean narratives were not attached to a hard-edged Totalitarian political frame. U.S. domestic and foreign policy has had its multiple and significant and severe problems, but the U.S. was not, at least for middle America, a totalitarian state, through this period.

More recently, as the post-World War II institutions of security and economics have buckled under the fury of a fierce, tactical right-wing populism, fueled, in part, by globalization and metastasizing income inequality, the political vehemence expressed by such sites as Breitbart.com and Infowars.com has set its sights on a nexus of internal national and external international political and cultural Devils. For Breitbart and Infowars, the list of Kingdoms of Darkness begins with the non-white foreigner, most specifically Mexican migrants and immigrants, Syrian refugees, the Chinese, and the 1.6 billion Muslims across the planet. Then, there are the auxiliary Kingdoms of Darkness: Domestic secularists, multiculturalists, American cosmopolitans and their cabal, proponents of climate change and others (such as Democrats) who are claimed to be diabolically, conspiratorially in concert with global, Davos-type elites. The entire nexus of these actors constitutes their preferred web of actors in a conspiratorially Manichaean Kingdom of Darkness. While, in a relatively healthy democracy, the “stickiness” of conspiratorial assignations as a Kingdom of Darkness is often not durably viable, or is clearly a contestable phenomenon. In fascist and totalitarian states, the process hardens into a hegemonic, internally terroristic element of governance. A fascist or totalitarian society, such as Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s U.S.S.R., takes a Leader’s “definition of the situation” not as a claim to be investigated or challenged, but as an official and actionable social fact. It is true “because the Leader said so.” (And what follows, often, is fabricated propagandistic pseudo-science and claims of “alternative facts,” all of which provide the Leader and his coterie with some useful cover, via prescribed and paid for bureaucratic propaganda). All the while, the older Kingdom of Darkness designations may retain some of their potency, or be remixed in new Kingdom of Darkness narratives, as the fluid nature of the political situation requires. Hence, Trump spokesperson Kellyanne Conway’s recent statement that U.S. citizens should not listen to Trump’s words (which would offer some denotative constraints), but, instead, to see what is in his heart (as if there was no relationship between the two).[8]

While it is true that proto-political Manichaeanism has a long history, traceable back at least to the Inquisition and the Crusades, as a recognizable rhetorical frame, it has assumed a particular mass virulence in turbulent periods of economic, technological and demographic transformation, particularly during the 20th Century. For example: An entire generation of post-Bolshevik small-scale farmers, inventive and successful, were labeled as anti-Soviet kulaks, who then were deemed deserving of being marched, beaten, worked and starved to death. Jews were depicted as rats, in the Nazi propaganda narrative, to be gassed with Xyklon B. More recently, the forced exodus of unprepared urban masses into a countryside, unprepared for their arrival led to the agonizing death of millions in the Khmer jungles, the Killing Fields, over a short period. Pol Pot rationalized this as just “burning old grass, [so]… the new grass will grow.” [9]

The Man in the High Castle shows us how the aftermath of one iteration of such a Totalitarian world might be normalized in the context of mid-20th Century American life, a period of the post-World War II Pax Americana that is, itself, a cultural form recognizable across the globe. For Americans, there’s a shock of recognition, both about the sudden installation of a totalitarian state and about the role of human agency in enabling, resisting or transforming such a state. The stark contemporary resonance of The Man in the High Castle is borne from the radical political Manichaeanism of this decade, and the success that Trump and his alt-right allies have had in their very active process in reshaping American society toward something that looks and feels ominously like the dystopian America portrayed in The Man in the High Castle. The political Manichaeanism of the Trumpists is at the heart of this effort, and as such, I will look at a bit of “the spread formation” of Trumpist Manichaeanism, as constitutive of a nascent Trumpist totalitarian state.

The Manichaean Others

Personalistic: A key nugget of Trump’s personal, very “Lord of the Flies,” philosophy came in a 1981 interview: “Man is the most vicious of all animals, and life is a series of battles ending in victory or defeat. You just can’t let people make a sucker out of you.”[10] (Trump’s many disagreeable business and governmental interactions, along with his popular TV series, The Apprentice, ceaselessly exemplify this basic predisposition). There has been a prominent strand of Hobbesian rhetoric in Trump’s pronouncements on Mexicans, Muslims, inner cities, elitist conspiracies, Democrats, the media, Hollywood, other Republicans and the like. Regardless of the shifting and immediate objects of his wrath, the über message remains much the same: “Death, destruction, terrorism and weakness,” Trump proclaimed, were (and are) the wolves that surround all the doors and windows of the wrongfully besieged American home, which too often produced what Trump called, from the Inaugural dais, “American Carnage.”[11] Such evocations of Kingdoms of Darkness were and continue to be repetitively invoked from the 2016 campaign to the present and, no doubt, the future.

The Trumpist Manichean Blueprint: Generally, many of Trump’s key choices for his cabinet and top advisory positions share a recognizable variation of his Manichaean Weltanschauung. For example, Trump’s CIA director, former Kansas congressman Mike Pompeo, is an unreconstructed, simplistic LeHayean Manichaean. Consider these few statements, cited by Slate, in the context of a 2015 Pompeo speech at a “God and Country” rally:

In June 2015, Rep. Mike Pompeo headlined a “God and Country Rally” at Wichita’s Summit Church. “To worship our lord and celebrate our nation at the same place is not only our right, it is our duty,” he began. Pompeo’s speech was a mishmash of domestic culture war callouts and dark warnings about the danger of radical Islam. He cited an inflammatory prayer that a pastor named the Rev. Joe Wright once delivered before the Kansas State Legislature: “America had worshiped other Gods and called it multiculturalism. We’d endorsed perversion and called it an alternative lifestyle.” Pompeo lamented government efforts to “rip faith from our schools” and then segued immediately into a discussion of the jihadi threat: “This evil is all around us.” Pompeo concluded by describing politics as “a never-ending struggle… until the rapture.”[12]

A more intellectually sophisticated Manichaeanism was proffered, in 2014, by chief tactician, propagandist and ideologue, Steve Bannon, via Skype, in the context of remarks delivered to a fringe-right wing conference within the Vatican, sponsored by The Human Dignity Institute. For Bannon, atheists, multi-culturalists, free-traders, secularists, state-sponsored capitalists, libertarian capitalists, “personal freedom” capitalists, in fact, any forms of capitalism and the state that were not subsumed by the Church (Bannon is a Catholic) corrupts and simultaneously weakens capitalism, the state and society. So, while Bannon’s pitch is more intellectually sophisticated, Bannon, like Pompeo, seeks to remake America, under Trump, into a Judeo-Christian, theocratic capitalist state, a Totalitarian Christendom. And, like Pompeo, Bannon’s approach is to describe the failures of contemporary capitalism in need of immediate correction, not primarily for social justice, but as critical preparation for a Holy War:

And we’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict… [and if] the people in the church, do not bind together and really form [a] church militant… but to fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity… [Islamic Fascism will] completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years… We are in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism… We are in a crisis of the underpinnings of capitalism, and [in] the beginning stages of a global war against Islamic fascism… When capitalism was at its highest flower and spreading its benefits to most of mankind… capitalists were strong believers in the Judeo-Christian West…[13]

Both globalism and centralized government are, in Bannon’s formulation, playing directly into the hands of ISIL, the Taliban, al Qaeda and other fanatical terrorist groups, and only right-wing populism can restore faith, capitalism and the sacred sovereignty of states, as a prelude to a Manichean war:

The central thing that binds that all together is a center-right populist movement of the middle class, the working men and women in the world who are just tired of being dictated to by what we call the party of Davos… you’re seeing a global reaction to centralized government, whether that government is in Beijing, Washington, D.C., or Brussels.[14]

And while critical of Putin, describing him as a kleptocrat, Bannon also casts common ground, in terms of the dissolution of the post-World War II international order, and the reconstitution of white ethno-nationalist states as the primary political form of the 21st Century:

Putin is standing up for traditional institutions [as] a form of nationalism… people want… [primary] sovereignty for their country, they want to see nationalism for their country. They don’t believe in a pan-European Union or… in the centralized government in the United States. They [want] a state-based entity… where freedoms were controlled at the local level.[15]

Trump’s declaration of NATO as obsolete, his description of the U.N. as “a club for people to have a good time,” in his support of Brexit, in the oft-stated threat to withdraw from NAFTA, in Trump’s unequivocal praise of a nationalistic Putin, who is also busy destabilizing transnational institutions such as the E.U.; all of this is consistent with Bannon’s frame of argument.[16] Also consistent is the ideological stance and Congressional testimony of prominent Trump cabinet nominees, who clearly and explicitly “don’t believe in the [functions of the] centralized government of the United States.”[17] For Bannon, Pompeo, Trump and the rest of the Trump Tower crew, the world order will be reshaped as a Manichaean one, one where the multi-cultural, multi-racial, multi-lingual and the globally-connected elements of the U.S. sabotage, just by merely existing, the very black-and-white moral and political boundaries that Trump, Bannon and their coterie must construct, in material, demographic and ideological reality, to support their particular theocratic-capitalist vision. To do so requires an internal reconfiguration of American domestic space, American demographics, American values, the American psyche, the American role in the world and the place and stance of the great urban centers of the U.S. Over the next four years, Trump, the Man in the High Tower, and his wrecking crew will be busy, attempting to break and then remake America in their own image, as they lay the groundwork, if Pompeo and Bannon are to be believed, for their version of the next Crusades, their attempt to regenerate a 21st Century Aryan Christendom in Capitalist Garb.

 

Notes
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[1] Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus,” Liberty State Park, http://www.libertystatepark.com/emma.htm (accessed on 20 January 2017) .

[2] Harding ran on an anti-Progressive, anti-regulatory and anti-internationalist platform, rarely leaving his Ohio residence during that election season.

[3] “Johnson-Reed Act,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immigration_Act_of_1924 (accessed on 20 January 2017).

[4] In the alternate historical timeline of both the novel and the video, the 1933 assassination of Franklin Roosevelt led to a “too little, too late” response to Axis aggression (the invasion of Poland, to the East and France, to the West) from Roosevelt’s two-term successor, President “Cactus Jack” Garner. Garner was not as dynamic or as politically adept as Roosevelt. As a result, the country was considerably more isolationist and far less economically robust, in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Ergo, when the U.S. entered World War II, after an even more devastating attack on Pearl Harbor, Garner’s America mounted an inadequate wartime mobilization of resources. In this alternate history, as set forth by the video series, December 11, 1945 marked the day that the Nazis dropped the first A-Bomb on Washington, obliterating the Federal Government. Conventional Dresden/Toyko-like bombing campaigns and massive ground assaults on coastal cities ensued, from Boston and New York (by the Nazis) to San Francisco and Los Angeles (by the Japanese). By 1947, only pockets of resistance remained, and the Axis declared victory. The continental U.S. was divided into three parts: The Greater Nazi Reich (the Eastern two-thirds of the American landmass), a narrow strip dubbed “The Neutral Zone” (the Rocky Mountains and adjacent areas), and the western “Japanese Pacific States,” occupied by a less technologically developed (than the Nazis) Japan. Across the occupied continent, a racialist totalitarianism was normalized (with tensions), with daily displays of Arendt’s prophetic “banality of evil” much in evidence, everywhere, across the plot lines. The subtotal of the overall portrait: The uniquely American economic, political, demographic and democratic experience (1776-1947) had been relegated to the proverbial dustbin of history, by the totalitarian governments that had emerged out of the ashes of World War I. This is the point where the series begins.

[5] “The Man in the High Castle, Main Title.” Vimeo. https://vimeo.com/116896397 (accessed 20 January 2017).

[6] Natan Edelsburg, “The Man in the High Castle takes the top spot as the most popular digital series in the U.S.” The Drum, 9 January 2017, http://www.thedrum.com/news/2017/01/09/the-man-the-high-castle-takes-the-top-spot-most-popular-digital-series-the-us (accessed on 31 January 2017).

[7] Alan Wolfe, Political Evil: What it is and How to Combat I, (New York: Knopf, 2011), 50.

[8] Matthew Rosza. “Kellyanne Conway wants people to look into Donald Trump’s “heart,” not “what’s come out of his mouth,” Slate, 9 January 2017, http://www.salon.com/2017/01/09/kellyanne-conway-wants-people-to-look-into-donald-trumps-heart-not-whats-come-out-of-his-mouth/ (accessed 20 January 2017).

[9] Brian Fawcett, Cambodia: a book for people who find television too slow, (New York: Grove Press, 1988), 72.

[10] Lee Wohlfert-Wilberg, “In the Manhattan Real-Estate Game, Billionaire Donald Trump Holds the Winning Cards,” People Magazine, 16 November 1981, http://people.com/archive/in-the-manhattan-real-estate-game-billionaire-donald-trump-holds-the-winning-cards-vol-16-no-20/ (accessed on 31 January 2017).

[11] Partial transcript and full video of Donald J. Trump’s nomination acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. Jeff Poor, “Trump: Hillary Clinton Legacy ‘Death, Destruction, Weakness,’” Breitbart News, 21 July 2016; http://www.breitbart.com/video/2016/07/21/trump-hillary-clinton-legacy-death-destruction-weakness/ (accessed 31 January 2017); James Fallows, “‘American Carnage’: The Trump Era Begins,” The Atlantic, 20 January 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/01/american-carnage-the-trump-era-begins/513971/ (accessed 31 January 2017).

[12] Michelle Goldberg. “This Evil is all around us,” Salon, 12 January 2017, http://slate.me/2jHNqYy (accessed on 20 January 2017).

[13] J. Lester Feder. “This is how Steve Bannon sees the entire world,” a complete transcript of his Skype address to a 2014 gathering at The Vatican. Buzzfeed, 16 November 2016 https://www.buzzfeed.com/lesterfeder/this-is-how-steve-bannon-sees-the-entire-world?utm_term=.du28q6xjo#.psx9YLkqo (accessed on 20 January 2017).

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Cyra Master, “Trump Tells German Paper, NATO is ‘obsolete,’” The Hill, 15 January 2017, http://thehill.com/homenews/administration/314432-trump-nato-is-obsolete (accessed on 31 January 2017); Juliet Ellperin, “Trump calls U.N. ‘just a club’ for people to have a good time,” The Washington Post, 27 December 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2016/12/26/trump-calls-u-n-just-a-club-for-people-to-have-a-good-time/?utm_term=.eb45938ecd62 (accessed on 31 January 2017); Sam Levin. “Donald Trump backs Brexit, saying that the U.K. will be ‘better off’ without the E.U.,” The Guardian, 5 May 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/may/05/donald-trump-brexit-uk-leaving-european-union (accessed on 31 January 2017); The essential argument is that the Trumpian/Bannon position is one that professes not Christianity but a white, male European Christendom, an Aryan Empire, particularly given the fact that all of Trump’s commonly cited Manichaean threats are non-white, such as Syrian refugees, Muslims, Mexicans and the Chinese.

[17] Nominees and/or confirmed cabinet members that fit this camp include Rick Perry, Betsy DeVos, Mike Pompeo, Scott Pruitt and Ben Carson.

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Dion Dennis is a former Associate Professor of Criminal Justice and current Online Visiting Lecturer at Bridgewater State University (MA). Dennis’ essays have appeared in CTheory, as well as a variety of other digital and print media publications.

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