On the publication of his new book, Josh Cohen reflects on politics and vulnerability
In 2018, Donald Trump allegedly spurned a visit to Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris to honour 1800 US Marines who had lost their lives in combat during the First World War, because it would have left his hair dishevelled and meant paying tribute to soldiers who, in stopping the German advance towards Paris, had failed to prevent their own deaths.
“Why should I go to that cemetery?” he reportedly said. “It’s filled with losers.”
The visit would have acknowledged the first and last human vulnerability, the fact of our mortality. To be seen at the cemetery would have been to assent to his place in the category of embodied mortals, his inevitable consignment to the same path as the losers buried there.
Perhaps Trump’s crassness conceals an uncomfortable insight: every cemetery, and therefore the rest of the world too, is indeed “filled with losers”.
Mortality reminds us that loss is essential to who we are. And from the vantage point of right-wing populism, there is no surer sign of a loser than an acknowledged vulnerability.
Like the less militarised lockdown protestors in the UK, the rifle-wielding militants who stormed state capitols were united in protest not so much against mandated mask-wearing and social distancing than the insinuation into public life of fear for the vulnerability of ourselves and others.
The lockdown protestors are only the most voluble sign of a cultural assault, echoed in derision towards the “snowflake” and the contempt of the “war on wokeness”, on vulnerability as a humiliating disgrace, the ultimate badge of the loser’s shame. “FUCK YOUR FEELINGS” ran the unofficial but ubiquitous slogan of the Trump 2020 campaign.
Feelings are attacked because they are volatile and unpredictable, because we can never be in command of their rising and falling rhythms.
“FUCK YOUR FEELINGS” assures anyone who’s listening that the speaker will never be made vulnerable to self-doubt or internal division or change, that they have expelled their inner loser and morphed into an indestructible machine.
But when the expelled inner loser returns – say, after an election loss – the machine threatens to break down.
Trump is an avowedly fanatical adherent of the teachings of the pastor of his youth, Norman Vincent Peale, whose famous “prosperity gospel”, a kind of nuclearised positive thinking, preaches that material success issues from the elimination of all self-doubt or “negativity”. The truth about me, on Peale’s account, is whatever I want to believe, a definition which obliges me to deny whatever I don’t want to believe.
The idea that sustained optimism, happiness and self-confidence will ensure the best outcomes is more than pop-psychological orthodoxy. Thinking positive is a central part of the neoliberal apparatus; the unemployed in the UK are required by state job centres to keep diaries of the positive actions they have taken to find work, while the corporate sector has been taken over by the exponential rise of executive coaching and the cult of the management guru.
A 2013 BBC documentary, The Call Centre, featured a manager who begins the working day with a compulsory mass sing-along, sponsored by the nostrum that “happy people sell, miserable bastards don’t”.
Lest we imagine this was a mere diversionary entertainment, the manager tells the TV audience that he sacked two workers who declined to sing.
The logic of positive thinking tacitly coerces us into bathing the world before us in the sunlight of the fulfilled future, conjuring a kind of compulsive distraction from the darkness of the present.
If this is what winning means, if positivity demands of us the perpetual disavowal of our own vulnerability, then perhaps it is well past time we embraced our inner loser.
Losers by Josh Cohen (Peninsula Press) is out now. Buy a copy here.
Watch “Finding Happiness with Josh Cohen: A Drink with the Idler” here.