A U.S. identity built on state fantasies

Donald E. Pease is professor of English and Avalon Foundation Chair of the Humanities at Dartmouth College. He is author of The New American Exceptionalism.

My book is primarily concerned with the irreconcilable rifts within U.S. political culture that opened up during the lengthy period of transition from the termination of the cold war to the inauguration of Barack Obama, and with the disparate state fantasies that emerged to organize U.S. citizens’ relations to these antagonisms. Such fantasies should not be construed as disposable representations of the state’s procedures of governance. The fantasies through which a population takes up a different juridico-political order constitutes an essential dimension of the order’s symbolic efficacy. The so-called “birthers” movement supplies a good example of a state fantasy that discloses the difference between the fantasmatic structures of the Bush and Obama administrations.

In declaring a global war on terror as the state’s response to 9/11, President George W. Bush accomplished what his father had not. This apocalyptic event enabled him to bring closure to one epoch and to install a very different order of things. President George Herbert Walker Bush had attempted to inaugurate a New World Order in the form of a restricted war with Iraq. But at the conclusion to that war, U.S. citizens were still lacking the imagined presence of an internal enemy who could re-instate the dynamic structure of American exceptionalism as a collectively shared state fantasy. All that changed after 9/11. The buildings that were the targets of the attacks—the World Trade Center and the Pentagon Building—were icons that represented the people of both covenants.

The Clinton administration had correlated the international war against Islamic extremists with the Christian Fundamentalist and militia movements, which it represented as the seedbeds for domestic terrorism. But the Bush administration recruited the apocalyptic imagination of the Christian Fundamentalist to supply higher authority for the state’s war against Muslim extremists. The administration then hired paramilitary forces from the Blackwater Corporation to carry out special military operations under banners like “Operation Infinite Justice” (later named “Operation Enduring Freedom”) that turned foundational tenets of scriptural belief into the authorization for the use of deadly force. If Christian Fundamentalism was made to represent the superiority of U.S. political theology to Islamic fundamentalism, the members of the Blackwater militia turned that surplus righteousness into the legitimation for the extra-legal violence they directed against Islamic extremists. Having transformed Christian Fundamentalism into the theological dimension of the Reason of State and having incorporated the militia movement into a legitimate expression of state force, the Bush administration went on to represent the nation in whose name it fought as a homeland whose members were united through their collective participation in the newly declared Global War on Terror.

The homeland security state fostered a symbolic pact whereby the citizenry confirmed its primary linkage to the state through a willingness to surrender their civil rights and political values in the name of national security needs. This imagined act of collective sacrifice effectively realized the image of a totalized national community. It also effected a symbolic economy whereby the security state compensated the citizenry’s willingness to substitute their democratic rights and democratic values in exchange for the illusion of collective biopolitical security.

It was the state’s description of the weapons which endangered the aggregated population as “biological” that in part authorized the state’s biopolitical settlement. After President Obama redescribed what the Bush administration called the global war on terror as overseas contingency operations, the state lost the fantasmatic power to project insuperable political contradictions onto a universal enemy—the Terrorist. As a consequence of the Obama administration’s dismantling of this fantasy structure, the paramilitary movements and the Christian Fundamentalists that President Bush had subjected to the imperatives of the Homeland Security State have re-emerged with a collective fantasy of their own.

The so-called “birthers” and “teabaggers” who disrupt town hall meetings, propagate fantasies of death panels and demand state secession have refused to give up their psychic attachments to the global war on terror. The “birthers” propagation of the belief that Obama lacks a valid birth certificate re-imagines him as an illegal immigrant whose endangerment of the people’s biopolitical welfare will be accomplished through the formation of “death panels.”

This fantasy has also tacitly constructed President Obama as himself a “terrorist,” an enemy of the state whose health care policy threatens the biopolitical security of the homeland.

The Obama administration cannot successfully combat this fantasy structure without supplying its biopolitical contract with a newly forged state of imagination.


Donald E. Pease is professor of English and Avalon Foundation Chair of the Humanities at Dartmouth College.

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