Liberal Apologia Concerning the Treatment of Trump Supporters

By Doctor Comrade

Following a Trump rally in California, several of Trump's supporters were attacked as they exited the venue. The reaction from the mainstream media, including numerous left-of-center publications, has been condemnation of the violence. Despite openly supporting a fascist candidate--who regularly incites his crowds to violence--the media and many liberal writers have decided that anti-fascist violence against Trump supporters should not be tolerated in American society. Moreover, they have labeled the anti-fascist protesters as criminals.

To answer these criticisms, I turn again to Michel Foucault, the French philosopher and historian who wrote extensively on forms of knowledge and the way power manifests in liberal societies. Foucault’s seminal study Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison examines the epistemological foundations of prisons in the West by analyzing disciplinary reform movements since the nineteenth century, identifying the discursive structures that help justify and normalize structures of power and punishment. I refer to this work because it will help us understand the modern liberal episteme--the system that defines what are acceptable forms of knowledge--that condemns anti-fascist protesters for engaging in a supposedly criminal activity.

Power’s fluidity permeates society, never confined merely to legal norms but also extra-legal and non-legal norms, reinscribing normality by identifying abnormality.

Liberal societies often must justify their illiberality, the deprivation of rights that emerges from discourses of protecting society. Law enforcement and the punishment of crimes occupy a central space in these debates because the state must be able to justify how and why it punishes those who violate the social contract. Discipline and Punish is a part of Foucault’s larger intellectual project, which is the study of how individuals came to be the subjects of knowledge and how structures of power became normalized. In The Archaeology of Knowledge and The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, Foucault explicates the epistemologies upon which individuals became subjects through the developments of philosophy, intellectual history, and the social sciences from the seventeenth century to the twentieth century. Foucault’s attention in works like Madness and Civilization, The Birth of the Clinic, Discipline and Punish, and the three volumes of The History of Sexuality focuses on how subjects came to be studied and controlled in terms of socially constructed attributes like mental illness, criminality, and sexuality. Through discourse analysis, Foucault theorized that structures of power formulated the means of exerting power through the techniques of knowledge, which developed as the ways to control supposedly deviant behaviors in particular societies. In this sense, power is normalized by defining what is normal--mental fitness, heterosexuality, etc. 

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault argues that “The body as the major target of penal repression disappeared” because the sentences that judges passed were not “activated by a desire to punish; they are intended to correct, reclaim, ‘cure’; a technique of improvement represses, in the penalty, the strict expiation of evil-doing,” (p. 7-10). He attempts to determine how the systems of punishment justify themselves, how this “corpus of knowledge, techniques, ‘scientific’ discourses is formed and becomes entangled with the practice of the power to punish,” (p. 23). In this way, Foucault analyzes how the supposed leniency of punishment--the departure from horrific bodily harm as public spectacle to a system of humanistic rehabilitation--allows historians to “understand both how man, the soul, the normal or abnormal individual have come to… a specific mode of subjection [that] was able to give birth to man as an object of knowledge for discourse with a scientific status,” (p. 23-24). 

Violence, according to liberals, is an unacceptable form of political discourse and therefore must be condemned, even if its implicit messages are correct.

For Foucault, punishment is not about reducing crime through negative repressive mechanisms, but a technique of reinscribing the power to create positive and useful effects, the “corrective” detention that allows criminals to become reformed and productive members of society (p. 25-26, 294). At first glance, penal leniency as a reinscription of power seems paradoxical, yet Foucault argues that because punishment transformed from pain to discipline, leniency constitutes “a great carceral continuum that diffused penitentiary techniques into the most innocent disciplines, transmitting disciplinary norms into the very heart of the penal system and placing over the slightest illegality, the smallest irregularity, deviation or anomaly, the threat of delinquency,” which made “the power to punish natural and legitimate,” (297, 301). From this analysis, Foucault deftly illustrates that the prison is only one technology of power. Power’s fluidity permeates society, never confined merely to legal norms but also extra-legal and non-legal norms, reinscribing normality by identifying abnormality. The prison exists to correct criminal abnormality in the same way that psychiatry exists to correct mental abnormality. Historians should not be fooled by notions of progress that make power less visible; as power seems to recede from overt state-sponsored violence, it functions to create “indefinitely progressive forms of training, not to the general will but to automatic docility,” (169).

Applying this study the question of liberal treatment of anti-Trump protesters reveals that the attempt to quantify the protesters as criminal is equivalent to an attempt to label them as deviant, intolerable, and in need of rehabilitation. Violence, according to liberals (as I've argued before), is an unacceptable form of political discourse and therefore must be condemned, even if its implicit messages are correct.

By continuing to undermine anti-fascist action, liberal apologists reinscribe modes of power that prevent anti-fascists from significantly repressing fascism in America. Free speech, as it is currently viewed by liberals, is not only an absolute right, but it must also be extended to Trump supporters who do not believe that free speech should be given to ethnic minorities, immigrants, women, and LGBT people. This serves only to normalize the distinction between acceptable political discourse--which has allowed fascism to grow and fester in the US--and unacceptable political action--which seeks to engage and suppress fascism in the streets. This is part of the "great carceral continuum" that defines and limits anti-fascist action, which is seen as deviant and criminal. These press accounts of violence seek to "correct" the misguided youth who attack Trump supporters, to control their future actions, to bring them back into the liberal fold. Yet we know that the liberal tolerance of Trump's hate speech--though tacitly accepted as part of the modern liberal episteme--is what has yielded the popularity of Trump in the first place. Moreover, liberals have been too busy condemning the "deviant" and "criminal" anti-Trump protesters to see that anti-Trump protesters are the chaotic necessity to fighting fascism.

It is disheartening to observe liberal critics blast Trump in the press only to turn tail and retreat when his supporters receive the kind of treatment they invite upon themselves. It must be said that Trump and his supporters openly engage in hate speech, openly use ethnic and racial slurs, openly and violently express disdain for people of color and immigrants, and openly declare their allegiance to fascist ideals. In response, when they become the victims of violence, they are instead defended by a press apparatus which only seeks to imbue Trump and his supporters with legitimacy they do not deserve.

Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (Vintage, 1979).

See also: Claire Langhamer, “‘The Live Dynamic Whole of Feeling and Behavior’: Capital Punishment and the Politics of Emotion, 1945–1957,” The Journal of British Studies 51, no. 2 (April 2012).