The Political Thrill of Having an Enemy

Knowing what you’re against has a way of clarifying the mind and sharpening the focus.

A worker walks past graffiti denouncing the Interior Ministry and the Egyptian uprising.
A worker walks past graffiti denouncing the Interior Ministry and the Egyptian uprising near Tahrir Square in Cairo, on November 18, 2013.  (Amr Dalsh / Reuters)

I didn’t have a cause to die for. If I was at a sit-in protesting government repression, and the military threatened to come in and “clear” the square, I’d probably run for the hills. The one time I was citizen-arrested by a cab driver and quite literally dragged into a Cairo police station, I felt a sense of dread that I haven’t felt since. As someone who studies Islamists who are often willing to die, this inability on my part presented a conundrum. I felt that I understood most things about them, but not this, whatever this was.

I remember a conversation I had with a Muslim Brotherhood member who had been arrested after the Rabaa massacre and imprisoned for several months, before fleeing Egypt. In one of our conversations, he told me: “I want to break the international order. No matter how hard it is, this is the goal I want. That’s what I’m living for, even if I die in the process of fighting for it.” I asked him if he really wanted to be waging such a struggle for the rest of his life: He didn’t want to have a family and live a “normal” life, taking a step back from the disappointments of political activism? He didn’t hesitate: “Why am I entering this conflict? Not because of this life but because of the next.”

I remember during the Egyptian revolution in 2011 almost feeling a certain envy. I was in Tahrir Square on the day longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak fell – but as an observer and as an outsider. As Egyptians danced in the streets, I wondered what it would feel like to be part of a revolution, to be denied freedom your entire life and then to feel even a whiff of it.

One thing the Muslim Brotherhood member I spoke to never had to worry about was boredom. Liberal democracies, meanwhile, are supposed to offer precisely that: the luxury of being bored by politics. Experts—or at least somewhat reasonable politicians—could be entrusted with day-to-day governing. The world wouldn’t fall apart (or end) while you took a short nap. The government, for the most part, wouldn’t intrude on your personal life. In this age of relative boredom, you would be free to pursue pleasure and contentment.

To have an authoritarian personality as your president is to live a different kind of life. As Andrew Sullivan writes, the dictator “begins to permeate your psyche and soul; he dominates every news cycle and issues pronouncements—each one shocking and destabilizing—round the clock. He delights in constantly provoking and surprising you, so that his monstrous ego can be perennially fed.” This applies to Dear Leaders, but it also applies to people like Trump. This sounds unappealing, but, on an either conscious or subconscious level, many Americans, even vociferous Trump opponents, seem to like it. Whether it’s Washington residents going to bars at 10 o’clock in the morning to watch former FBI director James Comey testify to Congress, or the somewhat unlikely phenomenon of “Comey yoga” in Los Angeles, this was politics at its most combustible and exciting. And in a time of unprecedented polarization, the political became personal. It became part of who you were.

There was now something to fight for and to believe in. As the New Yorker’s Alex Ross wrote (before Trump even took office): “The latent threat of American authoritarianism is on verge of being realized.” The more President Trump seemed to be destroying the country, the more Trump’s opponents could cast themselves as unlikely revolutionaries. As David Frum warned in these pages: “What happens next is up to you and me. Don’t be afraid. This moment of danger can be your finest hour as a citizens and an American.” It wasn’t hard to join “the resistance,” and sometimes, like after the white nationalist march in Charlottesville, it really did seem like much—too much—was at stake.

As Kevin Rozario, author of The Culture of Calamity, writes: “We know we’re in the presence of history when things are blowing up. There’s an intensification of emotions when you’re living in historical times, as if it’s more real.” Carl Schmitt calls this the romance of “the occasion.” This is not a new idea, but it’s one that many of us have had to rediscover on our own.

It’s rare that public figures admit to boredom-aversion as a motivation for casting a ballot, but billionaire investor and Trump supporter Peter Thiel did precisely that. “There’s a point where no corruption can be a bad thing,” he explained. “It can mean that things are too boring.” In a 2016 GQ feature on undecided voters, an unnamed Washington reporter made a similar admission: “So for me, four years of Trump, selfishly, sounds a lot more enticing, just because it's going to be a dumpster fire. And a Clinton administration would be more of what we're seeing now, which is carefully orchestrated speeches, behind-the-scenes Wealthy McWealthysons going in and out of the White House, and really horrible transparency with the press.” Matt Gertz of Media Matters responded to this by wondering “how such a nihilistic opinion could be held by an actual person.” Yet the fear of being bored, and the fear of not feeling sufficiently passionate about anything in particular, drives us in any number of other pursuits—in relationships, sports, religion, our jobs, even in our wars—so why shouldn’t it at least play some role in our political preferences? Especially since we know that our one vote won’t actually alter the final outcome?

I remember the night of the election. As the night progressed, gallows humor was replaced by a genuine sense of fear and panic. I left the election party I had gone to. My brother called me at midnight and started crying. “I’m not so much worried about us. I’m worried about mom and dad,” he told me. When I heard him put it like that, after what had become a long, depressing night, I started to cry as well—the first time I can remember crying about politics in my life. But the following day, and in the following weeks, I felt something I can’t quite remember feeling before. It’s a cliché, but I don’t know how else to describe it: I felt more alive, but I also saw it in so many of my friends and colleagues, particularly the ones whose lives would change in more profound ways. They changed jobs; they went back home to get more involved in local politics; instead of moving to the Middle East to fight for others’ freedom and equality, they realized they had to fight for their own.

Even as he declared the end of history, Francis Fukuyama coyly wondered whether the end of ideological competition was really something that we as humans beings, because of who and what we were, could ever truly accept. “Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again,” he wrote in the articles’ final sentence.

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Some people are “political romantics,” particularly writers, poets, and artists. One of the great romantics of recent decades was Christopher Hitchens. In his review of Hitchens’ last book before he succumbed to cancer, David Runciman said of the romantics that “they want something, anything, to happen, so that they can feel themselves to be at the heart of things.” Romantics can be in the thrall of the divine, often to destructive ends, but romantics, as in Hitchens’s case, can also come to loathe God. “Above all, in place of God they substitute themselves,” Runciman writes. Riffing on Runciman, The New York Times’s Ross Douthat writes that “every true romantic needs a great foe, a worthy adversary, a villain to whose destruction he can consecrate himself.”

Most of us aren’t “political romantics” in the fullest sense. Most normal people are, well, normal. But political romanticism can seep into our thinking, even if we don’t quite realize it. After all, most of us want something to stand for and to struggle towards. Understood this way, America and Europe’s brief era of ideological malaise, lasting for much of the 1990s and 2000s, was more an aberration than a sign of things to come. Before Trump, Brexit, and the resurgence of our own modern “tribalism,” writers like Eliane Glaser were offering their own laments. “I miss history, just as I miss my own history, and my childhood visions of the future,” she wrote. But Glaser only seemed to discover this sentiment in the face of the emptiness of market capitalism. In predictably romantic prose, she wrote in the same essay: “In my grander moments I feel like an embodiment of Slavoj Zizek's Living in the End Times, meandering mournfully around Spotify and fretting about the left's intellectual bankruptcy.” (Zizek, another person who seems to be constantly bored with boredom, endorsed Trump, in part, because it would be “a kind of big awakening.”)

An adversary, whether it’s the status quo (capitalism), a person (Trump), a religion (Islam), a religious ideology (Islamism after September 11th), or a secular religion (communism during the Cold War), can be a nice thing to have. It’s difficult to understand yourself, or what you believe in, in absolute terms. Knowing what you’re against has a way of clarifying the mind and sharpening the focus. Few, for example, would have characterized the great French scholar of Islamism Gilles Kepel as a romantic, but, like a growing number of liberal intellectuals, he finds himself feeling revived. In his recent articles and books, including La Fracture, he has become an increasingly outspoken defender of laïcité, France’s aggressive and often uncompromising interpretation of secularism. La Fracture features Kepel’s face on the cover against a stark black background. He looks quite dour. “This is why I put my face on the cover: If you want to kill me, kill me. This is resistance,” he told The New York Times’s Robert Worth.

It’s difficult to know—or to remember—what exactly “French identity” or “Western civilization” are unless they’re being threatened. Under President Trump, our very democracy is—or at least seems to be—under threat. Being in a constant state of alarm, wanting to be alarmed, can be unusually thrilling.