Brazilian academics Mayra Marques, Mateus Pereira & Valdei Araujo, from the Universidade Federal de Ouro Preto analyse the discourse around US & Brazilian history in the current political climate.
We had followed the conventions of the Democratic and Republican parties in the United States that decided for the candidacies of Joe Biden/Kamala Harris and Donald Trump/Mike Pence, respectively. As expected, at both speeches there were mentions to Black Lives Matter street protests and the overthrow of statues.
In November, we will know whether U.S. voters will choose either to live in their constantly updated present, as Donald Trump’s almost magical speech promises; or will they choose to continue the imperfect and inconclusive story that Barack Obama described in his speech at the Democratic convention:
“I’m in Philadelphia, where our Constitution was drafted and signed It wasn’t a perfect document. It allowed for the inhumanity of slavery and failed to guarantee women — and even men who didn’t own property — the right to participate in the political process. But embedded in this document was a North Star that would guide future generations; a system of representative government — a democracy — through which we could better realize our highest ideals. Through civil war and bitter struggles, we improved this Constitution to include the voices of those who’d once been left out. And gradually, we made this country more just, more equal and more free.”
In a context where historical characters are at the center of controversy, Obama carefully chose the place (the American Revolution Museum) at the corner, dedicated to the writing of the Constitution. The immediate intention was to reinforce the diagnosis that Trump poses a risk to the foundations of American democracy. The portrait that appears in the background panel was not well sketched, although one could delete it from the image with a simple change of angle. It shows James Madison, considered the father of the Constitution and president of the United States between 1809 and 1817. Madison’s positions on slavery were far from being advanced for the period. Like other Founding Fathers, he was in various ways involved with the infamous institution. The presence of Madison in the background of Obama’s scenario well illustrates the imperfection of the Constitution to which he refers in the speech, and a willingness to celebrate History without concealing its flaws.
Even if we can criticise Obama by confronting his discourse of equality progress with the pitiful and contradictory results of his two terms, one can recognise the success of his effort to recover some aspects of the past that still seem useful to his History. In this case, the democratic, revolutionary legacy and the awareness of racial injustice, aspects that may be associated with the American Revolution and more advanced names in the critique of slavery such as Alexander Hamilton from any grounded historical analysis. This case is an example of how we can raise our ethical and political demands concerning the past and yet still find elements of future guidance in it.
There is a rhetoric exploration of times of crisis, out of normality, and therefore, decisive for the future on both sides of the political spectrum in the US today. Some analysts call this an existential rhetoric language, in the sense of producing a climate that is the very survival of a lifestyle at stake in the elections. These analysts regret that this atmosphere has emptied the campaigns of debate of topics directly linked to the everyday problems of most citizens.
The recent dispute around filling another vacancy in the Supreme Court has aggravated the polarization. But, unquestionably, Trump is still the one who has best explored the language of an existential threat: “despite all our greatness as a nation, everything we have achieved is now threatened. This is the most important election in the history of our country.”
Obama’s speech, and to a lesser extent Biden’s, promote a liberal vision of transformative progress from an ambivalent historical legacy, evil and good inscribe in American History, light and darkness, it is up to each generation to choose the right path. In one of the most crucial moments of his speech, marked by images of light and darkness and a struggle for the soul of the nation, Biden States: ” History has entrusted us with yet another urgent task. Will we be the generation that will finally clear the stain of racism from our national character?”
Speaking a few days after Biden, Trump would respond to several points of his opponent’s speech, painting a much more simplified and homogeneous picture of History. In his mythical vision, the United States and its people are the greatest and perhaps the only source of greatness, justice, and freedom in the world, all of which are guaranteed by divine election. There is no trace in his speech any criticism of the past, History emerges as something uniform, and the struggle is not Internal, between angels and demons in the same soul, but between the true America and its detractors. Good and evil here represent opposite and uniform poles: “we understand that America is not a land plunged into darkness, America is the torch that illuminates the whole world.”
While the narratives of history presented by the Democrats are easily framed in the repertoire of modern historical thought, in Trump’s speech the appeal to history is something magical, time is presented as the updating of a miraculous essence of the American being. The only alternative to this upgrade is its destruction by external forces to its essence. Therefore, in his speech, we hear incessantly the promise of more of the same, there is no transformative principle or a field of possibilities, only more America for true Americans, led to a ” greater and brighter future.”
“What united past generations were the unshakable confidence in American destiny and unshakable faith in the American people. They knew that our country is blessed by God and that it has a special purpose in the world. It was this conviction that inspired the formation of our Union, our expansion to the West, the abolition of slavery, the approval of Civil Rights, the Space Program and the overthrow of Fascism, tyranny, and Communism.”
As it turns out, for Trump the historical principle (like the representative government and democracy in Obama) does not guide the History of the United States, but the divine election. In place of transformative progress, History is only the updating of this expanding destiny- always more.
This is the reason why he refuses in various dimensions the theme of Biden’s rescue of the American soul. God is the only guarantee of national purity. The Democratic moral crusade transforms into a cultural war that aims to conform the population to a unique form of thought, subjecting them to new codes of language and behavior that would be essentially alienated to the true American soul: “We need to regain our independence from the repressive mandates of the left. Americans are exhausted from trying to keep up with the latest list of approved words and phrases, and increasingly restrictive political decrees. Many things have different names now, and the rules are constantly changing. The goal of the cancel culture is to make decent Americans live in fear of being fired, expelled, embarrassed, humiliated, and excluded from society as we know it.”
In other sections of the speech, Trump repeats his belief that the United States is unique and superior to any other nation, reinforces the myth of the land of opportunities for all, regardless of its origins. We would say, the land of opportunity, but not of possibilities. In this mythical pact, your success or failure depends only on how much you have decided to be like every American elected by God. Its failure can only be a sign that he could not be American enough, as there are no flaws in the national project. Trump’s description of the conquest of the West is emblematic. As in a magic step, some adventurers have gathered their belongings, the Bible, and, occupying the unlimited lands, opening cities, industries, and commerce – no word about the massacre of Native Americans, only the magic sentence: “Americans build the future, we don’t destroy the past!”. Whose past and future, pale-face?
Although in his speech today at the UN, Bolsonaro has moved away from the anti-globalization rhetoric and made small gestures to global governance bodies, his discursive matrix and his appeal to History have unambiguous structural similarities with Trump’s imaginary. Nowhere else is more evident than in his closing words: “Brazil is a Christian and conservative country and has the family in its basis”. All Brazilians who are different from this description are not Brazilian enough, are probably candidates for enemies of the nation, under constant threat of extermination. Any Brazilian story that can be told from this definition will be a violent and exclusive piece of fiction. The roots of the success of these authoritarian illusions need to be sought in the failure of neoliberal policies and the immense crisis of social cohesion that has left us.
How can this choice affect the future of the left-wing?
Our crisis of social cohesion has real causes presented in our daily lives: the increase in the prison population, for instance, is one of them, especially of black youth; this shows that the past-present of slavery and racism is not only a sensitive memory/past but a structural presence in Brazilian and American social life. Also, the COVID-19 pandemic showed that during a health crisis, poor and black people become more vulnerable. Without solving this structural problem, the cultural dispute has its limits.
The debate over the statues and History is important to reveal this past-present, and not only to dispute representations about a supposed dead past. The experienced solidarity crisis results from the failure of national projects to achieve their promises to the majority of the population. There is a lack of employment and opportunities; income inequality reaches unprecedented levels; there is still no equal treatment for men and women, white and black, rich, and the poor. These ideals and values, as well as incomplete and imperfect, even seem to recede in our time.
At a time when dogmatic and naturalizing criticism or praise of a generic “Western project” has entered in today’s agenda in the political dispute, there is a need to reinforce more careful evaluations. Against those who, dressed as new Crusaders, celebrate the sacredness of Western civilization and devote either Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro as their new Paladins, we do not have much to say. But in the field of those who, in good faith, seek ways to face the great challenge of defending democracy, it is worth insisting on the need to differentiate two matrices of criticism of the modern-Western project. There are fundamentally authoritarian, racist, and aporetic elements in the project that must be revised and abandoned, but there are also values and ideals that can still serve us, that need to be deepened and updated instead of being left.
Part of this “new Undemocratic sentiment” and the frustration caused by social inequality is the result of the failure to realize these modern values, especially democracy, at least not satisfactorily: the promised equality by universality, the fraternity promised by the recognition of merit, and freedom, not only remain as promises not fully fulfilled but have been distorted to legitimize projects of oppression. These values must update in a proper historical sense to attend the demands and the learning from the streets.
The future of the left is to face the loss of social solidarity, opened by the crisis between capitalism and democratic values. In particular, to attack the causes of income concentration and the worsening in social indicators, and to advance in the understanding of the modes of production of disinformation, to broaden the social control of the sources of production and circulation of information, fighting the denial of History, science, and ethical values.
That should lead to a citizen occupation of the new structures of the public sphere and expand the opportunities for a frank and honest debate as a way of mediating conflicts and producing new solidarities. As long as we can take rise to the challenge of making the intersectionality of gender, race, and class; respecting and also aware of the limits and potentialities of living and experiencing the social place of speech and action. After all, according to Géssica Guimarães and Amanda Danelli, ” within the discourse for equality, there must be room to respect diversity and to fight against the structural oppressions that still devastate the lives of so many people nowadays”.
Therefore, surviving the anxiety and the nostalgia of “updatism”, as well as to be able to get out of the continuous flow of violent appropriation of the past and the future by present narratives, it is necessary to create possibilities of out-of-date and own updates, which is more than slowing time. Oscillating between the current and the unexpected is to understand that we can still have a role in the future, through decisions that we can collectively make.
Mateus Pereira and Valdei Araujo are history professors at the Federal University of Ouro Preto in Mariana. They are also authors of the book Atualismo 1.0: como a ideia de atualização mudou o século XXI and the organizers of Do Fake ao Fato: (des)atualizando Bolsonaro, com Bruna Klem. Mayra Marques is a Ph.D. student in History at the same institution.
Mateus Pereira, Mayra Marques and Valdei Araujo wrote the Almanaque da Covid-19: 150 dias para não esquecer ou o encontro do presidente fake e um vírus real.
This article was translated by Andre Luan Nunes Macedo, who is a Ph.D. student in History at the same institution.
We thank Márcia Motta and the Proprietas Group for their support and dialogue in this project.
Andre Luan Nunes Macedo is a Ph.D. student in History at the same institution.