Donald the Trumpet
[First attempt at thinking through the Donald Trump phenomenon. The second part will deal with Trump’s followers and the self-feeding Trump-media nexus. The photo is a Trump billboard in a suburban yard in West Des Moines, Iowa]
Donald the Trumpet
Kierkegaard tells a nice story in his 19th century existentialist tract Either/Or:
“A fire broke out backstage in a theatre. The clown came out to warn the public; they thought it was a joke and applauded. He repeated it; the acclaim was even greater. I think that’s just how the world will come to an end: to general applause from wits who believe it’s a joke.”
Although he is perhaps the epitome of the archetype of the sinister political clown, Donald the Trumpet isn’t the warning clown in this essay, I am.
2.Trump in a Nutshell
Like other right-wing populists, Trump speaks mainly to those materially impoverished or marginalised by the march of neoliberal globalization and its new international division of labour and psychologically overwhelmed by, and resentful of, rapid technological and cultural change and immigration: male white manual workers and others, at least a third of the population.
There is one straight line from Thatcher-Reagan to Marine le Pen and Trump: right-wing populism and proto-fascism are the chickens of neoliberalism and imperial interventionism coming home to roost under multi-critical conditions where people are radically disillusioned with mainstream politics but there is no strong left-wing alternative able to speak to them.
Trump, like most right-wing populists, succeeds by using a standard bag of rhetorical techniques: appealing to fears, resentments and inferiority complexes, deflecting attention from the most powerful order-giving elites in the corporations and the military, ethnic scapegoating and stereotyping powerless minorities, using cultural and identity politics to forge a patriotic/nationalist pseudo-unity beyond classes (‘the people/nation’, ‘the silent majority’) and providing simplistic and authoritarian ‘strong man’ solutions.
A key feature of both right-wing populism and outright fascism, and thus of Trump, is the way they can also incorporate some aspects of seemingly ‘left-wing’ critique of capitalist globalisation and the established system into their xenophobic, nationalist, often even misogynist and racist mix: the moribund political system, big banks, tax breaks for hedge fund managers, free trade, capital and job export and even some military alliances and interventionism (the latter albeit as well-intentioned ‘mistakes’). He has spoken in favour of protecting social security and welfare and planned parenthood. Much of right-wing populism’s working class appeal is to be found precisely in these apparently left-wing elements mixed in with right-wing fairy tales, fears, resentments, conspiracy theories and prejudices.
Take Trump’s apparent anti-globalisation/-free trade rhetoric:
“She [Clinton] does not understand trade. Her husband signed, perhaps, in the history of the world, the single worst trade deal ever done. It’s called NAFTA. We’re going to bring back our jobs and we’re going to keep our jobs. Let me tell you, the miners in Pennsylvania and West Virginia are going to start to work again. You’re going to be proud again to be miners.”
“We’re going to love each other, we’re going to cherish each other, we’re going to take care of each other, and we’re going to have great economic development.”
Such feel-good fairy-tale rhetoric of (white) love and cooperation is then embedded in right-wing racist or xenophobic fairy-tale rhetoric, e.g. of building walls to keep the dirty and dangerous Others out of the regenerated America Great Again fairy tale:
“Now, we have to build a fence. And it’s got to be a beauty. Who can build better than Trump? I build; it’s what I do. I build; I build nice fences, but I build great buildings. Fences are easy, believe me.
I saw the other day on television people just walking across the border. They’re walking. The military is standing there holding guns and people are just walking right in front, coming into our country. It is so terrible. It is so unfair. It is so incompetent.
And we don’t have the best coming in. We have people that are criminals, we have people that are crooks. You can certainly have terrorists. You can certainly have Islamic terrorists. You can have anything coming across the border. We don’t do anything about it. So I would say that if I run and if I win, I would certainly start by building a very, very powerful border.”
Trump is the post-modern, tragi-comic expression of an empire in decline. The more the bread/job becomes insecure, the more circuses and dog-whistling ‘mavericks’ to keep the masses deflected from the real issues. The less mass legitimacy the established system can produce, the more space is opened up for ‘mavericks’, buffoons and demagogues simulating ‘anti-establishment’, ‘outsider’ and ‘rebel’ status.
Trump is a walking media ‘simulacrum’, a persona of Reality TV absorbing reality, the fake reproduction of a fake persona faking maverick ‘authenticity’ (anti-political correctness, ‘telling it like it is’). Trump expresses and strengthens the fragmented incoherence and narcissistic emptiness of the media and millions of not only American minds, most of them absorbed in the totally mediated second ‘reality’ of screens. In this mediated world of the totalised spectacle, Trump can be incoherent or contradict himself at every turn, it no longer matters. Words, texts, truthfulness, no longer really matter (especially those longer than a tweet). What really matters in the ‘adrenalizing fodder of the 24/7 attention machine’ (Tom Engelhardt) called ‘the media’ or ‘the news’ is the image, the media persona.
Although his property developer father more closely fits the model, Trump is still the classic ‘new money’ parvenu, the nouveau riche property developer. Psychologically, he is the ‘little man’ overcompensating for his deep insecurity, inner emptiness and sense of inferiority with extreme narcissism and image/status consciousness, boasting of his bigness (wealth, deal-making, buildings, penis), trophy wives, bling and thin-skinned anger ever ready to explode at the slightest perceived affront to his image. We can only guess what repressed deep wounds of early non-validation drive his blatant narcissism.
Although embedded in very different cultural contexts, Berlusconi, Putin, Duterte and Australia’s Clive Palmer are very similar overcompensating ‘little men’ who have risen to the top of the wealth and/or power pyramid. That so many working class white men, and some women, can obviously identify with such a narcissistic boss figure and successful spray-tanned fake as Trump (just as some impoverished black young men may identify with ‘powerful’ gangsters and pimps) says a lot about the authoritarian, impoverished and disempowered ‘little man’ psychologies of these socially marginalised, suffering men and women who have nothing else to believe in. The iron law of capital accumulation, now expressed in globalized movements of capital and labour/migration and in increased technological rationalization (automation, service society), has found them expendable and thrown them on the scrapheap of history. Trump is the authoritarian projection screen and demagogic carrier of their resentful, ‘little man’ reaction to the loss of their ‘American Dream’ and social dignity. He seems to at least validate their hurt.
(Strong-acting, right-wing ‘iron ladies’ like Margaret Thatcher, Pauline Hanson, Sara Palin, Marine le Pen may of course also fill the bill where needed: strong mummy may replace strong daddy figure).
The Trump-alternative, Clinton, is the strong mummy figure but a close ally of the ‘old money’ class, and thus like Obama before her the favoured establishment candidate, the candidate of Wall Street and the military-industrial-security-entertainment complex. These prefer a certain amount of political-imperial stability and predictability as the needed framework for capital accumulation and securing the transnational interests of their national security state and the transnational order. Even most of the old money Republican establishment and their main corporate donors would prefer her to wild card and new money parvenu and populist ‘maverick’ Trump.
Could there be a new sociological category in the making, ‘buffoon fascism’, a post-modern blend of the worst phantasies of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, of post-liberal police state and surveillance authoritarianism and totalised consumerism? First Silvio Berlusconi and, in a more old-style, scowling, KGB-sinister way (plus bare-chested-hero photo-ops of course), Vladimir Putin, more recently the short and hilarious career of Australian billionaire industrialist Clive Palmer, the new Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte who jokes about raping women and personally killing alleged criminals to mass applause, and now: Donald Trump.
This would be the kind of authoritarianism appropriate to the post-modern version of panem et circenses, an age in which the previous already precarious division between media (‘technology’, ‘devices’) and reality, indeed between humans and machines, has increasingly blurred and human reality has increasingly become totally mediated by the socio-economic system, a form of Reality TV. With digitalisation and the smartphone, the advanced capitalist spectacle has become totalised, addictively internalised by large sections of the populations in the ‘post-industrial’, post-modern nations at least.
Is a form of ‘infotainment fascism’ conceivable in which the individualist fragmentation and spiritual emptiness of Huxleyan consumerism merges with the traditional demagogic ‘anti-establishment’ and ethnic scapegoating techniques of fascism and the Orwellian surveillance and police state? Perhaps this kind of post-liberal authoritarian state has, at least for the moment, no need for outright concentration camps (although CIA global ‘black sites’ and the huge US industrial-prison complex provide templates) and storm-troopers kicking in doors (although in the US rural working class militias could stand at the ready). Trump and other right-wing populist demagogues may be providing the first sketches of an answer. Here is Conor Lynch on Trump as a ‘fascist’:
“Donald Trump, whether he knows it or not, is a fascist (or is at least acting like one). Much like Mussolini and Hitler, Trump is a demagogue dedicated to riling up the people (particularly conservatives) with race baiting, traditionalism and strongman tough talk – and, according to polls, it’s working — for now. Tucker writes: ‘Trump has tapped into it, absorbing unto his own political ambitions every conceivable resentment (race, class, sex, religion, economic) and promising a new order of things under his mighty hand.’ No doubt about it, Donald Trump has decided to stir the pot, and, as Tucker says, he seems to be running for a CEO position, rather than president of a nation. Trump discusses Iran and Mexico as if they were competing corporations, and says that, as president, or CEO, he will drive them into the ground, make them file for bankruptcy — something Trump legitimately knows a thing or two about.” […]
“The thing is, his ‘style’ — full of race baiting, xenophobia and belligerent nationalism — is not unique to Trump; he is simply the most blatant and vocal about it. There’s a reason he’s leading in the GOP polls: the party’s base likes what he’s saying. The people are angry about illegal immigrants murdering white women (anyone who has followed Bill O’Reilly over the past week knows what I’m talking about), homosexuals destroying the tradition of marriage, and so on. Much like fascism reacted to modernity and social progress in the early 20th century, right-wingers are reacting angrily to social progress of the new century” (C. Lynch, “Donald Trump is an Actual Fascist,” Salon, July 25, 2015)
3.US Empire’s Decline as Last-Gasp Comedy Version?
Karl Marx notes in the introduction to his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843): “History is thorough, and it goes through many stages when it conducts an old social formation to its grave. The last stage of a world-historical social formation is its comedy.”
Is buffoon fascism our stage of ‘comedy’ as the US Empire goes into further decline and mega-industrial capitalism starts hitting its growth limits?
Marx then continues, quite touchingly, optimistically: “The Greek gods, already once mortally wounded in Aeschylus’ tragedy Prometheus Bound, had to endure a second death, a comic death, in Lucian’s dialogues. Why should history proceed in this way? So that mankind can leave behind its past gladly.”
When the empire runs out of bread/jobs for the proles, dial up the circuses. Bring in the clowns. Something new, a terra incognita, may be arising as we continue to amuse ourselves to death. Trump, however, is both a new phenomenon and just the current epitome of systemic tendencies and trajectories that have been going on for many decades. As Tom Engelhardt summarises:
“This is not war as we knew it, nor government as we once understood it, nor are these elections as we once imagined them, nor is this democracy as it used to be conceived of, nor is this journalism of a kind ever taught in a journalism school. This is the definition of uncharted territory. It’s a genuine American terra incognita and yet in some fashion that unknown landscape is already part of our sense of ourselves and our world. In this “election” season, many remain shocked that a leading candidate for the presidency is a demagogue with a visible authoritarian side and what looks like an autocratic bent. All such labels are pinned on Donald Trump, but the new American system that’s been emerging from its chrysalis in these years already has just those tendencies. So don’t blame it all on Donald Trump. He should be far less of a shock to this country than he continues to be. After all, a Trumpian world-in-formation has paved the way for him.
Who knows? Perhaps what we’re watching is the new iteration of a very old story: a twenty-first-century version of an ancient tale of a great imperial power, perhaps the greatest ever — the “lone superpower” — sinking into decline. It’s a tale humanity has experienced often enough in the course of our long history. But lest you think once again that there’s nothing new under the sun, the context for all of this, for everything now happening in our world, is so new as to be quite literally outside of thousands of years of human experience. As the latest heat records indicate, we are, for the first time, on a planet in decline. And if that isn’t uncharted territory, what is?”
With the hitting of various ecological and economic limits, the old democratic legitimacy spectacle of parliaments and elections just isn’t working properly anymore. When politicians are widely seen as the most untrustworthy, fake people in society after salesman, you might just as well vote in the salesman, the property developer, the ‘deal-maker’, the snake-oil merchant, the reality TV Boss who enjoys firing people, the resentful, insecure, spray-tanned and bouffant comb-overed, puffed-up buffoon, the corporate insider fake faking the role of the authentic ‘outsider’ to what he calls ‘the special interests’ and the ‘full of shit’ politicians.
Speaking at a rally before the New Hampshire Republican primary, Trump said what he thought of politicians: “These people – I’d like to use really foul language. I won’t do it. I was going to say they’re really full of shit. I won’t say that. No, it’s true. It’s true. I won’t say it. I won’t say it. But they are.” At another event he said: “I know the special interests, know them better than anybody, but I don’t want their money.”
Stephen Coleman: “Trump embodies the crudest fantasies of the American dream. He can be trusted because, by his account, he is self-made – except for the estimated US$200 million trust fund given to him by his father, which rather skews the narrative.
Because he is perceived as a man who made his own fortune, he is seen as a leader who owes nothing to anyone. Why vote for a politician who’s in the pocket of shady billionaires when you could vote for a shady billionaire? […]
The problem of contemporary democracies is not that citizens trust politicians less than they did in the past, but that leaders’ attempts to make themselves appear accountable have become increasingly implausible. Their scripts are stale; their gestures ritualistic; their evasions transparent; their artlessness palpable.”
Having won the Republican nomination, Trump then of course went straight back to the very ‘special interests’ and ‘full of shit’ politicians he knew so well: he went “cap in hand to those [the GOP establishment] who he had been mocking and abusing for rigging the system on behalf of vested interests. But as Trump has demonstrated during the primaries, he has the knack of getting away with saying that the sky his audience thinks is blue, is, in fact, purple.” (Paul McGeough, ‘Donald’s $1 bn deal with Republicans under fire’, SMH 28/5/16, p. 24).
These ‘special interests’ are of course not only Republican: like most property developers, Trump has donated to both sides of politics and had the Clintons as guests at his 2005 wedding. He has also admitted to using cheaper foreign workers in his building constructions and boasted of avoiding paying taxes.
~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on June 7, 2016.
Posted in critical theory, essays, social change, social theory
Tags: buffoon fascism, decline of US Empire, Donald Trump, friendly fascism, global right-wing populism, infotainment fascism, little man psychology, overcompensation, psychology of powerlessness, right-wing populism, right-wing working class, simulacrum, the total spectacle, Trump v Clinton, US elections 2016, voluntary slavery, xenophobia