Interview by John Shuck with
Mark Lewis Taylor
Based on an online interview, “Progressive Spirit & Beloved Community: Election 2016”
Photo at right by James Karales (1930–2002), Selma-to-Montgomery March for Voting Rights in 1965, 1965. Photographic print. Located in the James Karales Collection, Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University. Photograph © Estate of James Karales.
John Shuck: Between Trump and Clinton – is there as much difference as we might think? Professor Mark Lewis Taylor of Princeton Theological Seminary says, “There is a difference but they have shared roots in their belonging to a US-led corporate and imperial system of rule.” We will talk about two articles Professor Taylor wrote for Counterpunch, elaborating on a claim he made earlier in the election year that “The Time is Now – To Defeat Both Trump and Clintonian Neoliberalism.” That was the title of a first article appearing in July, but he followed up with another entitled “Fearing Trump and Voting Clinton – Some FAQs.”
Mark Lewis Taylor is the Maxwell M. Upson Professor of Theology and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary. His most recent authored work is a new edition of his book, The Executed God: The Way of the Cross in Lockdown America (2016), with his major theoretical work being published in 2011, The Theological and the Political: On the Weight of the World. Welcome Professor Taylor to “The Beloved Community” radio interview.
Professor Taylor: Thank you John I am glad to be talking to you about this.
Shuck: Well tell me a little bit about your intent for these articles.
Taylor: The first article was released in July and then the second one, which was slightly modified as events changed, came out in September. Ever since Trump began his rise with significant media hype and help, I began emphasizing our need to see Clinton and Trump as sharing some significant common ground. I was trying to make that point against the common assumption that Clinton and Trump only form a binary of opposites. In fact, as I argue in both essays Trump’s authoritarianism and Clinton’s Neoliberalism are actually co-partners in one system of rule. Trump’s authoritarianism is often a bitter fruit of the global political order and rule that Hillary Clinton and the corporate elites of our time structure and defend.
John Shuck: Yes, you mentioned that Trump is really the result, in a sense, of this neo-liberalism of Hillary Clinton and her predecessors.
Taylor: Yes, and here I do want to clarify this notion of “neoliberalism” because it is often used very quickly and easily on the Left. We often do not say what we mean by it. It is a word that has come to stand for corrosive U.S.-led capitalism. This capitalism is not only exploitative in the ways it often is for the sake of profit for a few. It also is an international system, in which economic arrangements are set up between the U.S. and other countries to the benefit of the United States. These arrangements are then buttressed by global military power.
Exploitative development projects are also part of capitalism’s reach within the U.S. The gentrification projects in many urban communities are examples of such projects. And again, because these projects are often resisted as harmful to those communities, force has to be wielded. Domestically, the US police and other security and surveillance forces play the roles that the US military does abroad.
“Neoliberalism,” in brief, we might say here is militarily-buttressed U.S. capitalist exploitation. At home it is police-backed capitalist exploitation of our own working poor and middle classes. The element of force here is often ruthless. It includes the bombings of poorer countries, as Iraqis experienced in the 1990 when it was already under a brutal sanctions policy sustained by Bill Clinton and then US Secretary of State Madelein Albright. It includes also the evictions of unemployed people from their homes. But then also neoliberalism clothes these military and police actions of brutality with nice language. Note the “liberalism” term within the name, neoliberalism. It deploys democracy-speak, freedom language, talk of “humane development,” which leads many in the U.S. to think the global economy works as a kind of nonviolent “free market.” There is really no free market globally. The global economy is managed, brutally, either by powerful transnational elites, or in local regions increasingly, by paramilitary thugs – in drug trafficking regions they are called “cartels” – that often work in tandem with global elites.
So without saying that Trump and Clinton are identical I have been trying to make the point – and it is a difficult one to get lodged in the public mind – that Trump’s authoritarianism, so shocking to liberals, is actually a close partner with the very liberal economic ideology that most U.S. Americans accommodate themselves to. Trumpian authoritarianism and Clintonian neoliberalism are, again, co-partners in this joint system of US imperial rule. (see more on Clintonian neoliberalism).
Shuck: You know, I was thinking it is almost like they are in the same empire with two different faces. If I was coming from another planet to watch last night’s second debate – a kind of a Jerry Springer show – it would seem like we are set up to be duped.
Taylor: Well, in a way, yes. I was thinking about the second debate between Trump and Clinton that we saw last night, speaking as we are on the day after that debate. On the video screen you saw one candidate Hillary Clinton delivering her position with a kind of wonkish efficiency and then returning to her cushioned stool to sit politely, for the most part, waiting her turn to speak next. In contrast, you also saw on the video screen a menacing prowler figure, Donald Trump, often in the background and with his familiar jutting jaw. I don’t recall him sitting down once.
This video image may seem like a study in contrasts to many U.S.-Americans. However, for many poor countries abroad, and for poor communities within the United States also, that combination of the poised talker with an authoritarian rogue stalker is neither an unknown combination nor a contradiction. The two together represent the fusion of smooth-talking profiteers with baton-wielding enforcers that subjugated peoples have known so well and for so long. This is why I had argued in these essays that we need to defeat Trump and Clinton together, even if the strategies we choose for doing that will change over time.
Shuck: One difficulty though is that there are many voters – whether devotees of Clinton, or former Sanders supporters who say, “Well, we have to get rid of the really bad one first. There is no time to develop a third party option now. We have US Supreme Court justice positions at stake” – so the claims go. “Trump is the greater evil.” What do you say to those arguments?
Taylor: I say, first of all, that I understand them. I am not one who ridicules the person who feels like the authoritarianism of Trump is the greater evil. In my view, though, I think that the greater and more massive evil is the neoliberalism that continually deploys Trump-like rogues, usually to rule and repress other countries. Now neoliberals face one of their own rogue creations, Donald Trump, loosed upon the US mainland. Not surprisingly he has called out to white supremacist groups and preyed upon the fears of alienated white working poor. It is, I grant, a fearsome thing. So if someone thinks they have to throw a Clinton vote at Donald Trump to take out someone who increasingly becomes identified with the worst elements of US society, I can understand that. Let them throw their Clinton vote against Trump. But then on November 9 after the elections, we need to begin working, with a vigor like never seen before, to build movements for taking down Clinton and the neoliberalism she sustains.
Shuck: I am speaking with Mark Lewis Taylor who wrote a couple of articles for Counterpunch one being “The Time is Now to Defeat Trump and Clintonian Neoliberalism” written in July, and the other following in September entitled, “Fearing Trump and Voting Clinton – Some FAQ’s.”
At the beginning of your first article you posted a quote by Mumia Abu-Jamal, which read as follows: “If Trump is the price we have to pay to defeat Clintonian neoliberalism, so be it.” I am wondering this, questioning it somewhat, especially since now in the remaining weeks before the election, you seem to be saying that you understand if someone “throws a Clinton vote against Trump to stop him.” Aren’t you in fact now admitting that Trump is, or has become, “a price too high” for defeating Clintonian Neo-Liberalism?
Taylor: Yes, good question. I like it. I think it is important to remember, though, as I said in my first essay, that these issues and our positions have to be subject to change. There are not only the changes occurring in the orbit of electoral contestation. There are also changes in the formation, or lack of formation, of other political and social movements and forces in the wider society. Often these latter remain unmentioned by the media. So, as I said in my July essay, my writing on these topics ultimately will be “completed” only by history. History has the telling voice and our always-provisional claims need to respect that.
In this regard there are two major developments that have occurred since my July essay, which have led me to qualify some of my claims.
First, we have seen the movement of many Republican corporate elites and donors over to the Democratic ranks of Hillary Clinton. This has weakened Trump’s alliance with the corporate establishment. This has forced Trump to take a new tack, an even more destructive and brutal stand. No longer can he pose under the deceptive umbrella of democracy-speak and development-talk at which neoliberal elites, even some Republicans, are so adept. He now increasingly can mainly consolidate the white “Alt-Right” and other white supremacist “secret organizations,” as Du Bois referred to such groups, the organizations that industrial profiteers and corporate elites usually prefer to keep out of sight. Trump is ready to bring them out into the open.
I acknowledge that these white supremacist groups and their reactionary Right agendas, in both religious and secular circles, have been growing strong under the George W. Bush and Barack Obama presidencies too. But in those periods, while reactionary supremacist groups were growing, they did so under the cover of neoliberal democracy-speak and humane development discourse. To a certain extent these groups were kept in check by those who would appeal to “democracy and development” ideals. Trump of course throws dispenses with almost all of that. There are few neoliberals, even among the Republicans who can give him the cover of that ideological language. So, again, I understand if many increasingly today resort to a Clinton vote in order to block him. I would suggest, however, to any such voters: “Know what you are doing. You, and any of us who may go this route are playing a very dangerous game in voting for Clinton to block Trump. Paradoxically, voting for Clinton with this motivation means pledging to work against her presidency should she be elected.
A second development since my July issue is also important. As the election has worn on, the US-American people, in a sense, have already “paid the price of Trump.” They have paid this price and secured a certain defeat of Clintonian neoliberalism without Trumph even having won the presidency. He has the entire electoral process, even mainstream media types, talking about a so-called “Ick factor.” Having an admitted sexual predator like Trump near the presidency, and with debate talk returning to Bill Clinton’s own series of affairs – all this has forced Clinton also into an abyss of personal reference and new challenges to her character. And it is not just Clinton who has paid a price for this. It is also the public that pays a high price because key political issues of the day – climate change, mass incarceration, just to name two examples – are discussed in no depth at all.
I should stress here that as outrageous as Trump has been, he has scored some valuable and important points. However inexcusable may be his own record of sexual assault, and however outrageous it is that he would brush it off as mere “locker-room talk,” he has been right to point out that neither is the neoliberal house arranged in some “decent order.” There is, for example, Bill Clinton’s record of abuse and scandal. He may be as Nation magazine put it, “the Misogynist-in-Chief.”
Trump has been right on other points. He’s been right (although without much evidence) to claim, as Vijay Prashad documents strongly and with more nuance, that the Obama and Clinton foreign policy has created ISIS. He was not wrong in pointing out that Hillary Clinton’s corporate donors also take advantage of the same tax loop-holes that he does, and that she will be protecting them if she gains the presidency. Her donors will expect her to maintain those tax loop-holes if she goes into the oval office. All that is to say that Clintonian neo-liberalism has taken some much-needed hits. True, the American people have paid both a psychic and political price in watching Trump rampage across their electoral stage, but they have been awakened to the bogus claim of a certain white feminism that cozies up to Clintonian neoliberalism.
Note that while Trump’s revealed record of sexual assault has certainly angered those from all groups of women, the reaction to the revelation of his assaults has been driven by Twitter campaigns and media coverage that foregrounds, above all, the voices and rage of white women. My response here is to ask: Where were these voices and this rage on behalf of women when it was the women of darker and poorer nations abroad who suffered the sexual and life threatening conditions worked by neoliberal wars and covert operations? Clinton’s own policies in Honduras, legitimizing a military coup there in 2009, have resulted in increased sexual assault, torture and violation of Honduran women, their families and many others.
The daily sexual assault and torture that make up the business-as-usual practices of Clintonian neo-liberalism abroad seems not really to matter to most white people in the United States. It is only when a rogue figure like Trump stands up and shows his ugly assaultive behavior against mainly US white women victims that a US media fire-storm is provoked. So, Trump has exposed a selective white ethic at work in the neoliberal (supposedly “feminist”) defense of women. He has forced to the surface what he himself has not named but which many can now maybe see better, namely the white racism at work in deciding who counts as a victim worth grieving and morning and who does not. In this way too, then, the US electorate has already paid a kind of price to have Trump where he is in this electoral season. But it is a price paid that has helped weaken Clintonian neoliberalism.
Shuck: Mark Lewis Taylor, my guest today, is Professor of Theology in Cultural at Princeton Theological Seminary. Talk about aspects of your life experience that may be shaping the kind of claims you are making here about these political issues.
Taylor: Well, I suppose it is relevant to point out, first, that I am a kind of theologian reflecting on narratives of Jesus that, as I have long emphasized in my teaching and writing, must be resolutely political – “political” in the sense of looking at structures that empower some and often at the expense of disempowering other groups. As a theologian my political thinking pivots around a particular understanding of the crucifixion of Jesus as itself a political event. The crucifixion was the way Roman powers killed, dispatched, the politically inconvenient, the rebels, those opposing the religious and political regime of Roman domination. Thousands of those in Judea and throughout the empire were subject to this kind of imperial torture and execution. I stressed this in my 2001 book, The Executed God. Professor James Cone of Union Seminary strikes an analogy between lynching and the cross in his 2010 book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Both of us cite New Testament scholar Paula Fredrickson who clarifies that the cross was a kind of “public service announcement” from Roman imperial authorities (and I paraphrase a bit): “If you act up, this crucifixion experience will be what happens to you.” All this means that political issues are not tangential to what I understand a theologian’s work to be, especially if one works as I do, with a sense that the stories of Jesus’ imperial torture-death are central to what being a follower of Jesus is all about.
Second, in terms of my own life experience, I would have to refer to my prison activist work, in which I have been involved since the 1970s. In that early period I was a young seminary intern investigating prisoner complaints in the Virginia State Penitentiary of Richmond, VA, so that the Virginia State Office of the Attorney General could marshal their responses to prisoners. In those days prisoner complaints stood a better chance of being adjudicated and toward real redress. Well, this experience kept my mind and activist being tilted toward the destructive experience that the prisons are for the confined and for all society. I have written on one definitive event from my Virginia prison-work years, in my book The Theological and the Political: On the Weight of the World (35-43). So, as the US prison population exploded across the 1980 and 1990s and up to the present I have had to think constantly about how this imposed confinement on largely poor and racially-constituted populations serves broader economic elite interests. Consequently this prepared me for a study of how neoliberalism operates nationally to control repressed “surplus populations” and in the process has created a veritable “Prison Nation” or “Carceral State.”
Third, I would cite my years of work in Mexico and Central America. In my early years, I had been with my family in the Mexican state of Oaxaca as my anthropologist father worked in indigenous Zapotec communities. This oriented me later in life to work and study in South Mexico and especially in Guatemala – this from the 1980s through to the present. I was particularly committed longer-term and repeated dwelling in areas of Guatemala and South Mexico. This enabled me better to observe and study the long-term effects of US neoliberal governance on communities of indigenous and other working poor communities. Both US economic exploitation and the US’s use of brutal military regimes became quite clear to me.
Shuck: This program is called “The Beloved community.” That name is crucial to Martin Luther King’s vision. It is an ideal that is a resource for activist theory and Christian practice. I wanted to ask you about that ideal. Could you contrast King’s vision of “The Beloved Community” with Clintonian Neoliberalism?
Taylor: This is a good question especially if one notes how often the Clintons and other Democrats like to show up in Black churches, often invoking the legacy of Martin Luther King and so polishing up neoliberalisms’ shiny surface with their alleged solidarity with black struggle. Democratic neoliberals like to project such a solidarity outward for US media to display.
To my mind, there is huge difference between King’s vision of beloved community and Clintonian neoliberalism. Especially by the time of King’s 1967 Riverside Church address where his critiques of white racism included an anti-Vietnam War critique and opposition to US-led economic plundering of societies – especially by that time, I emphasize, the contrast between neoliberalism and his beloved community ideal could hardly be starker.
With neoliberalism the agendas for change are set largely by the elites of the global North and their proxies across the global South. It is top down development that usually leaves those most economically and politically impacted without voice and without an empowerment that makes for equality and the flourishing of their lives.
In contrast, King’s vision of the Beloved Community works from the other direction. As Cornel West stresses in his book The Radical King, the beloved community starts not with any top-down community dynamic, nor simply with a call to build community with everyone (“Can’t we all just get along?”) No, King’s vision of a just and beloved community starts, as West emphasizes, with love for the “radically unloved” in society. In other words, beloved community proceeds from, with and for those bearing yokes of socially-imposed suffering, but also those who are resisting their dispossession. Being transformed with and by those dispossessed by the neoliberal regimes today is the way we build beloved community. Beloved community rises from a solidarity with the movements for the radically unloved. Clintonian liberalism does not do that. Yet, there is a powerful force here that can erode empires’ power through the deep and wide working power of resolute and creative peoples. The “radically unloved” mark the suffering of the beloved community but also bring the power of resistance and liberating change that all society needs.
John Shuck: Finally, let us imagine that it is Wednesday after the November 8 election, and Clinton is elected, as many think likely at this point. What is the action that then will need to be taken to stop the terrific toll taken by ongoing Clintonian Neoliberalism?
Professor Taylor: Well, it is difficult to say at this point. But what is clear to me is that we need to work every angle possible for creating political movements from and for the “radically unloved” in the US and abroad. And we need to do this in a way that can generate new parties to rival our two-party oligarchy, the “duopoly” as some term it. This means working with the remnants of the Sanders supporters, wherever they may have gone. It means seeking to link them into the various protest groups striving to become new social movements and maybe also new parties among the movements for black and brown lives, in unity with African-, Asian-, Latinx, American Indian, Arab-American and white working communities. All of us together must keep our focus to contest the neo-liberal capitalism that though weakened, still holds sway in our time. But we must all walk forward in ways that create new political pathways, routes that take us toward a new liberating future beyond the stale and repressive visions of the Trumps and Clintons of our day.