“He deported himself like an unappreciated genius, whom the world takes for a simpleton.”—Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (Daniel De Leon translation)
“Bonaparte would like to appear as the patriarchal benefactor of all classes; but he can give to none without taking from the others.”—Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (Daniel De Leon translation)
“One thing I said one time: the logical extension of the ego is God. I think the logical extension of living in America is to be President.”—Jim Morrison, 1969 interview quoted in The Doors: a Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years by Greil Marcus (2011)
Morrison’s quote appeared in the context of his proposal of a national celebratory week which would be capped by the naming of a random person President. “Of course, the power structure wouldn’t really alter,” he admitted. Knowing the force of celebrity as he did (it killed him, after all), perhaps he would introduce a revision to the plan if he were alive today: a random celebrity would assume the highest office in the land.
The reality of American politics has now surpassed his idea however. An innovation has been introduced to the democratic ideal that anyone can represent the people’s interests. Since celebrities are now the first among the equals of contemporary democracy, it follows that a celebrity should govern. Liberal intellectuals failed to appreciate this basic reality and were stunned by the outcome of the election. Full disclosure: Criticism &c. was stunned also. Hence, the relaunch after a long hiatus.
The ascent of Trump—basically a failed real estate developer turned reality television star—made starkly evident the brittleness of American democracy. It’s clear the man has no respect for or interest in democratic norms. His egregious flouting of them (the premeditated instigation of violence at his rallies, the skillful manipulation of the media, the consistent dissemination of falsehoods and conspiracies, the explicit threat to repudiate the results of the election) leads one to question their rootedness in American society. If this can be done to such great success and without impunity, it’s difficult to maintain even the pretense that the U.S.—starkly divided by enormous class, race, and gender inequalities—is a democratic society.
Trump’s affinity with Vladimir Putin lies along these lines. Putin has perfected a new variant of pseudo-democracy: completely hollow representative forms serving to obfuscate ultra-nationalistic state-oligarchic rule, intellectually policed by a sophisticated television and social media apparatus, replete with well-resourced fake news operations. It sounds vaguely familiar.
Trump’s dilemma is that this form of rule may be adequate to the needs of Russia’s corrupt oil and natural gas dependent economy, but is totally ill suited to the highly-productive, technology-rich American economic terrain. The economic program of Trumpism, if indeed there is one, seems more like a demagogic path to power than a successful plan to address capitalism’s economic challenges.
The 2016 Campaign
The truth is that the campaign was marked by a studied refusal on the part of both major candidates to acknowledge even the most basic economic realities. We will list some of them here. The U.S. is the world’s powerhouse of industrial production, its enormous output achieved with huge levels of highly sophisticated automation. Immigration—in both its legal and undocumented forms—is indispensable to the economy. 40 per cent of U.S. coal production comes from surface mines in Wyoming—Appalachia has been marginal to the new reality of coal mining for years and will become increasingly so. Natural gas produced from hydraulic fracturing is far cheaper than coal—the two resources are competitors in energy production and do not complement one another. The crisis of profitability in the auto industry and manufacturing in general long predates the era of large-scale international trade deals. We could go on. The frank airing of anyone of them might have deflated Trump’s “crippled America” balloon.
Basic facts were in short supply all around. Although Clinton deserves credit for making racism and sexism real topics of the campaign, she ceded the immigration issue—the real motor of Trumps’s success—to him. It was exposed, in one of the most revealing and frightening incidents of the entire campaign, that Trump actually knows and was willing to admit on live television that his immigration fetish was a complete and utter fiction. Here is the statement from the Politico transcript of the third debate, held on October 19, 2016:
President Obama has moved millions of people out. Nobody knows about it. Nobody talks about it. But under Obama, millions of people have been moved out of this country. They’ve been deported. She doesn’t want to say that, but that’s what has happened and that’s what happened—big league.
The statement is completely true.
Class conflict has been successfully shifted onto exclusively cultural and racial grounds for such a long time now that Clinton had little chance (and did not make an effort) to combat Trump’s appeal in rust belt states. Like the immigration issue, she ceded culturally-defined working class (as opposed to the actual working class—the totality of those who work for wages or support with unpaid labor those who do) to Trump. He was able to skillfully wield the non-class term “elite” to devastating effect, effectively rallying the small bourgeoisie (his true social base) into a frenzy against the big bourgeoisie.
He entered bona fide Joseph Goebbels territory with his speech on “international banks” and the “destruction of U.S. sovereignty” in West Palm Beach on October 13 and paid no measurable political price for it.
What is Donald J. Trump?
The Trump of the 2016 election is an original character and without real precedent in U.S. political history. Consciously or not, he has cobbled together elements of America’s right wing past into a barely coherent but extremely potent whole.
Goldwater’s authoritarianism without the intellectual consistency. Nixon’s vindictiveness and law and order rhetoric without the strategic imperialist vision. Wallace’s volatile combination of open racism and anti-intellectualism without the modest social origins. Reagan’s mass appeal without the moralistic sense of purpose. Pat Buchanan’s political and economic program without the disdain for popular culture.
Trump did it within the confines of a party that he has no clear affinity for, but had spent decades setting the stage for him through its tireless promotion of racism, misogyny, anti-immigrant hostility, and homophobia. Trump could conceivably have run as a Democrat by tamping down the most offensive aspects of his performance, but the open lane of a party that had already effectively become a well-funded white-supremacist and nativist launch pad was too much to pass up. He ended up creating a politically incoherent ticket (Pence’s Republican policy orthodoxies and intense evangelical fervor are totally alien to Trump), but one that reduced some of the anxieties of the party’s policy leadership and donor aristocracy.
Even so, Paul Ryan is not happy. It turns out that what the Republican base wants is a border wall and a deportation force and has no vested interest in his Ayn Rand-Jack Kemp free market intellectual pretensions. Being a politician, Ryan can bide his time however. He knows a yawning policy vacuum when he sees one and knows equally well that it will be filled by something, soon.
The near-collapse of the Democratic Party as an opposition is cause for great alarm here. Nixon entered the White House in 1969 with a House of Representatives made up of twice as many Democrats as Republicans. In the Senate the Democrats held 14 more Senate seats than the Republicans. Today, it’s not difficult to imagine one-party rule of the entire country.
Trump’s policy vacuum is becoming increasingly evident and worrisome to the ruling class. It’s clear that Trump did not think he would win and he and the mediocrities gathered around him gave no thought to the crushingly difficult task of governing U.S. capitalist society and safeguarding its global interests. Trump, no great student, is learning quickly that state power is not to be trifled with. His neo-isolationism is already fading from memory.
Despite the highly personalized nature of the contemporary Presidency—the officeholder effectively serves as a national best friend, therapist, and parental figure—the class rules, not the individual. The enormous defense, diplomacy, and intelligence bureaucracies exist as the overseers of the continuity of class rule and cannot tolerate a rudderless executive. The slow pace of the consolidation of Trump’s administration is not instilling the ruling class with great confidence in his executive abilities.
Does the future belong to him?
A reaffirmation of a Marxist principle is in order here: the contradictions of capitalist society cannot be resolved within the political, economic, and social structures that exist solely to perpetuate them. Reforms are possible and necessary, but ultimately, the system cannot be reformed. Trump’s election is being greeted by the radical left as a grand organizing opportunity, instead of as a blunt reminder of the left’s profound marginalization in American society. This is not an organizing opportunity. This is a call for complete and thoroughgoing intellectual and critical renewal.