What is Trump?
Some presidencies are obviously historic; others are quickly forgotten. George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Gerald Ford will be names of which our great-grandchildren's generation will likely have to be reminded, just as we have difficulty remembering what exactly happened during Warren G. Harding's administration (or even exactly when it was). But I think we will be talking about Donald Trump for a long, long time. Granted, most likely he will be a historical curiosity and a bit of joke. Bring up his name to someone in the far flung future, and they will likely reply, "Oh yeah - I know him! He was the leader of a political faction who aggressively believed in not wearing masks during an epidemic, and then he wound up catching the disease himself!" And everyone will laugh.
Of course there's more to his presidency than that humiliating embarrassment. Already during his presidency, and even before it, there has been a wave of think-pieces about who Trump is, what Trumpism represents, why it arose now, and so on, and I expect those to continue for several generations of historians to come. Already there are many different theories, and undoubtedly they will multiply and become more and more complex. There will be those who see Trumpism as a shift of the Republican party to the right, others seeing it as a shift to the left, still others who see less of a shift, and more continuity between the Republican party under Trump and the administrations that preceded it. With time it will all become more confusing, and puzzling, and that's a good thing - an appreciation of the overwhelming complexity of reality beyond any single theory to comprehend it is the essence of aesthetic materialism.
Then again, maybe it's not that complicated.
First of all, let's put Trump himself - his individual personality - aside. Trump is merely a symptom of a larger problem. If Trump were no longer with us, there would be a thousand other Trumps ready to take his place.
Let's start here, with this obvious point: Donald Trump, and the movement that he represents, are reactionary. Once one understands this fundamental point, a lot of pieces of the Trump puzzle fall into place. In many ways, Trumpism follows the pattern of previous reactionary movements in history. And the second thing to understand is that capitalism produces reactionary movements all the time, and has been doing so for several centuries.
So what does it mean to be a "reactionary"? What are reactionary movements, and why do they happen? It's all there in the name: a reactionary movement happens as a reaction to another movement- usually a rebellious movement. (Here I'm using the term "rebellious" to refer to movements that represent the interests of an oppressed group, against the capitalist system.) It's a metaphor, drawing from the imagery of physics - specifically Newton's third law, that for every action, there's an equal and opposite reaction. The analogy is pretty loose, but it more or less works. To put it in terms of "left" and "right," pretty much every time in history that a significant leftist movement has appeared, a rightist, "reactionary" movement has appeared to counteract it. Reactionaries are usually seen as more "extreme" than conservatives, because conservatives merely wish to preserve the status quo, whereas reactionaries want to "turn the clock back" to some previous era, a golden age of lost greatness (which may or may not be fictitious) - usually meaning an era before the pernicious influence of progressivism, which was seen as rebellious.
Why do reactionary movements happen? Because the ruling class has been threatened. Normally, the ruling class is able to manufacture a kind of official, controlled opposition, which poses no real risk to the powers that be. They will allow this controlled opposition to make some noises, blow off some steam, and even occasionally the official party of the ruling class will pay lip service to similar ideals that their supposed opposition claims to uphold, so that it becomes difficult to see what the difference is between their positions. Reactionary periods are periods when the ruling class "take the gloves off," so to speak, and stop pretending to have the principles and ideals that they usually like to pretend they have.
What does the ruling class want? To continue ruling, of course. They may pretend that they want other things, temporarily. They may mouth fine sentiments about "freedom" and "liberty," and "equality," and "the people," etc., etc.. They may even talk about "peace" and "love". But while they make all of these grand pronouncements, they are quietly siphoning all of the wealth from the oppressed classes to line their own pockets. When they become threatened, they suddenly change their tune - they no longer talk so much about how all people are equal. Instead, they start talking about "law and order" and "boundaries". Similarly, when the ruling class feels secure, they may be willing to be represented by someone with a humble background. When they're more nervous, they want a billionaire, who will brazenly represent the interests of other billionaires.
So in some ways, the fact that politicians like Trump are appearing is actually a good sign. It means they're scared. It means we're winning. It shows that the ruling class, and the goons they've duped into working for them among lower classes, feel that they are not in total control. It shows that their rule is not absolute, or eternal, and they know it. We should be celebrating this, and the last thing we should want is to bring things "back to normal" - which means back to a period in which the power of the ruling class is relatively stable. Turn on the news, and you are likely to hear a newscaster intoning in a very serious, almost reproachful tone of voice, "We are not living in normal times." But instead of calling these periods of history - when the ruling class is effectively unchallenged - "normal" periods of time, which gives them a positive spin, let's call them "controlled" periods of history, and let's refer to times like our own as "unstable" periods, while acknowledging that both "controlled" periods and "unstable" periods each have their positive and negative aspects.
Trumpism sees itself as the Anti-PC Movement
What are they scared of? What is the reactionary movement known as Trumpism reacting to? This should be obvious.
Wealth and power are becoming consolidated in fewer and fewer hands, so that, for instance, if you made $180,000 a day from the birth of Jesus until now, you would still not have as much money as Jeff Bezos. At the same time, other forms of privilege - the patriarchy, racial hierarchy, the privilege of English speakers, among others, are ever more obvious and ever more obviously unnecessary. A vast and growing segment of the American public, and especially the younger generations, the millennials and zoomers, as well as some of generation X, are acknowledging that this is true, and also acknowledging that no amount of "hard work" will ever "even this playing field" and allow them to have anything like a fair or meaningful political position in a system so completely and obviously lopsided. Thus they are rebelling against the powers that be, and rejecting the ideology that keeps these wealthy and powerful people gobbling up all the wealth and power. As a result, we see the Occupy movement (Occupy Wall Street, etc.), Black Lives Matter, the Me Too movement, the rise of queer, trans, and non-binary movements, and so on and so forth. Eventually, the Bernie Sanders campaign took off in 2016, and even though Bernie Sanders is not a socialist, Trump becoming the Republican candidate probably has a lot to do with the ruling class's fear of the movements that led to Sanders' (and Warren's) campaign. It is in this sense that Trump and Sanders are linked - not, as NPR notoriously and stupidly opined, because they are in any way similar, which they aren't. But here's the key idea: more than reacting to the Bernie Sanders campaign, the Trumpists are reacting against what they perceive as the "politically correct" movements on American college campuses and in the media under Obama. More than anything else, it was Trump's relentless railing against "political correctness" (and "identity politics," though he seldom if ever uses that phrase) that won him the election. Trumpism could be summed up as the "anti-PC" movement.
Future historians will probably pontificate about how Trumpism is "paradoxical" - that on the one hand, Trump hammers down on "law and order," insists on respecting "tradition," and ran on "draining the swamp," while, in reality, he violated countless norms, threw all kinds of traditions of American government into the trash can, and his administration was one of brazen corruption, sometimes bordering on treason. But there is no puzzle here. Once one understands that we are in a reactionary period, the rest is obvious. Ideological consistency is a luxury of controlled periods of history, when the ruling class feels secure enough in their rule that they can afford to make empty gestures and even real concessions towards the rabble. But when their rule is threatened, there's absolutely no reason for the ruling class to pretend to have any kind of coherent ideology. Instead, they will desperately cling to power with every possible strategy available to them, even when some strategies flagrantly contradict others. In general, reactionary movements tend to have irrational, self-contradictory ideologies. This is nothing new.
A word about "norms": Norms are unofficial, unwritten rules, or at least rules that have never gone through the due process of being codified as law. Every institution operates by two sets of rules - the official rules, and the real rules - the norms. Trump has violated many norms while in office - there's no doubt about that. If Trump is removed from office, will the norms come back? Probably partially, but I have my doubts that they'll ever completely come back. The second law of thermodynamics applies here: once norms are broken, they stay broken, no matter who is in office. (If anything, I would expect a Democratic president to attempt to maintain the appearance of restoring norms, but as soon as another Republican is elected, these norms would disappear - if not sooner.) Then again, perhaps this is not entirely a bad thing. Norms constrain the actions of individuals to keep the entire human machinery of an institution functioning smoothly and without disruption. If the operation of the entire institution is beneficial, then so be it. But if the course of the machinery is in the direction of disaster - for instance, towards a climate apocalypse - then the norms have to accept some of the blame for keeping the institution on this disastrous course.
Three Historical Reactionary Movements
How do reactionary movements work? The ruling class, attempting to defend and protect its rule, will react to a rebellious movement by attempting to co-opt that movement, appropriating the rebellious movement's strategies, language, stated beliefs, symbols, and occasionally even members, and twisting all of these things and using them against the very oppressed people that the rebellious movement represents. However diverse rebellious movements may be, there is almost always a reactionary movement that pops up to co-opt that movement and use its outer trappings to defend capitalism and the capitalist class system.
Since reactionary movements are reactions to other movements, different reactionary movements are different, depending on the rebellious movement that they are reacting against. We can see several different reactionary movements in the 20th and 21st centuries, including, for example: (1) fascism, (2) the neoliberal movement, and (3) Trumpism - or whatever you want to call the political movement that Trump is a part of. All three of these are reactionary, but they are all different, because they were reacting against different rebellious movements in different ways. I would also say they differ not only in kind, but also in degree.
Fascism was a reaction against communism, especially as the Leninist variant gradually shifted into the Stalinist variant of communism. The fascists tried to co-opt the outer trappings of communism: the black and red aesthetics in flags, the uniforms, the command and control style of governing, etc., and then twisted these to serve as defenses of capitalism. The nazis went so far as to incorporate the word "socialist" into their name - "national socialist German workers' party" - despite the fact that nazis were in no way socialist, but served the interests of the German corporate elite of their time.
Similarly, the neoliberal movement was a reaction against anarchism and libertarianism. The original anarchists, like Proudhon, Bakunin, and Goldman, and the original libertarians, like Joseph Déjacque, were anti-capitalists. But then groups like the Mont Pelerin society co-opted the rhetoric of these libertarians and twisted their words to make them defenses of capitalism. Once part of this movement eventually became the "anarcho-capitalist" movement of people like Murray Rothbard, and another part became the neoliberalism of Friedrich Hayek (which eventually, after Reagan and Thatcher, took over the world).
The movement of which Trump is a part (and I don't think Trump will be the last of it) is a new reactionary movement, created to oppose a new rebellious movement. It exists to crush, for instance, the Black Lives Matter movement and anti-fascism (which is sometimes abbreviated as "antifa"). These kinds of street-based rebellion movements came out of the wave of protests of the 90s, which were often called the "anti-globalization" movement - like the "Battle of Seattle" 1999 anti-WTO protest and the protests against the "Third Summit of the Americas" in Quebec City which had been organized to found the FTAA in April of 2001- a brief protest wave that united unions, environmentalists, and immigrants' rights activists. "Anti-globalization" was never a good name (as a participant in the FTAA protests, I preferred "globalization from below" which never caught on), because it opened itself to being co-opted by nationalists and paleoconservatives - not to mention conspiracy theorists, and anti-Semites, for whom "globalist" is all too often a euphemism for "Jew." And that is exactly what the Trump movement is: the ruling class co-option of the anti-globalization movement into an "America First" nationalism - a movement that has attracted conspiracy theorists, with racists not far behind.
Trumpism cannot be understood in isolation, but only in the context of a larger global political realignment. (I've been writing about this realignment; see here and here.) The appearance of the Trumpist movement signals a crisis in neoliberalism, a recognition on the part of the elites that the ideology of neoliberalism can no longer account for certain realities enough to keep the general populace mollified. The so-called "libertarianism" of Ron Paul and the Tea Party is dead. Thus it was necessary to create a new reactionary ideology, to capture many of the same people that this outmoded ideology once commanded.
So is Trumpism a shift to the left, or a shift to the right? From one perspective both, and from another perspective neither. The Trumpists will in appearance seem to cater to the "Buy American" nationalistic trade policies of the kind of union rank-and-file that once supported the anti-globalization movement of the 90s, so that in reality they can shore up the defenses of the capitalist class structure, and keep the elites in power. This explains why Trump in his messaging is so offensive and disruptive, while his policies are largely a continuation and intensification of policies that have existed for several administrations. It is the same old m.o., responding to a new crisis. Sadly, there are a few supposed leftists who are dumb enough to get swept up into this con game.
How does Ross Perot fit into all this?
|Subcommandante Marcos of the Zapatistas|
In 1996, Perot wanted to run again, but recognized the limitations of running for office without a party structure, so he started his own. But almost as soon as he started the Reform Party, he lost control of it, in an internal struggle with followers of Dick Lamm. The Reform Party became a haven of strange bedfellows. There were many disaffected left-leaning liberals, who wound up supporting Ralph Nader, or the strange and fascinating case of Lenora Fulani, but there were also right-wingers, including paleoconservatives like Pat Buchanan, racists, and paranoid conspiracy theorists. Most famously, Jesse Ventura became governor of Minnesota on the Reform line in 1998. David Duke, of the KKK, also had a stint in the Reform Party ranks. But back in 1992, Ross Perot in his campaign had darkly warned about the Republican Party playing "dirty tricks" within his own movement. People accused him of being paranoid, and he famously replied by dancing to the song "Crazy" by Patsy Cline. But thinking that the GOP was interfering in the business of the Reform Party was not so crazy.
Enter famed "dirty tricks" operative, Roger Stone. He had been the youngest indicted co-conspirator in Nixon's Watergate Affair, and ever since, he's been continuing to do all kinds of gray-area semi-legal and obviously immoral chicanery in his notorious lobbying firm Black, Manafort, Stone, and Kelly, which boasted of its dirtiness as a way to advertise its services to its clients, which included the oil industry and right wing dictators around the world, like Marcos, Savimbi, and Mobutu Sese Seko. In 2000, Roger Stone worked within the Reform Party, using Donald Trump to torpedo the Presidential campaign of Pat Buchanan, against whom he had a personal vendetta. He touted Trump as a billionaire like Perot, who could finance his own campaign. Of course, we now know that that was untrue - Trump's financial empire had largely collapsed in 2000; he had lost huge amounts of money and went seriously into debt. Trump meanwhile blasted his fellow party member, Pat Buchanan, as a nazi. In the end, neither Buchanan nor Trump's presidential campaigns in 2000 amounted to much, but Trump (who previously had been a Democrat, and remained friends with the Clintons and other higher-ups within the Democratic Party) learned much from his adventure in the Reform Party - the focus on trade, the opposition to deals like NAFTA (though it is unclear to me whether Trump ever actually understood the economic issues involved), the paleoconservatism, and the conspiracy theorizing. He even ended up absorbing a lot of the racial, religious, cultural, and nationalistic politics of Pat Buchanan and his ilk. When Trump switched from the Reform Party to the Republican Party, he brought a lot of this with him, because he had learned that this kind of rhetoric can make you very popular. Whether or not he ever believed any of it himself is another matter.
And when Trump became president, one of his priorities was to renegotiate NAFTA. The result, the "USMC" agreement, fits the pattern I've already described. In rhetoric, it was a major shift in policy, one that was supposedly beneficial for U.S. workers. In reality, it was essentially a continuation of the same kinds of policies that had initially been codified as NAFTA. The more things change, the more things stay the same.
Another thing that Trump picked up from the Reform Party makes Trumpism different in a key way from fascism and other reactionary movements: by and large, Trump has not tried to start any wars. War, and the preparation for war, were part of the essence of fascism, but Trump won the presidency by promising to de-escalate and drawn down the wars in which the United States is already involved. This even makes Trumpism different from neoconservatism. And the ideologies of neoconservatism and neoliberalism are so similar that it often becomes difficult to distinguish one from the other. In their position on imperialist wars around the world, the overlap between neoliberalism and neoconservatism is so great that I would go so far as to say that they are the same. The Reform Party, by contrast, was in a strange way a peace movement, or perhaps a military isolationist movement, one that was dedicated to dismantling the military industrial complex, or at the very least to making it more transparent. One of the breaking points of the old "Washington Consensus" was the war in Iraq - or rather the seemingly endless series of wars in Iraq. For instance, the Clintons, Gore, and Biden were all enthusiastic promoters of war. On the other hand, one can read, for instance, a criticism of George W. Bush from the right on the subject of that war, more or less from its beginning, in the pages of the Claremont Review, which has become more or less the official high-brow organ of Trumpism. This anti-war stance is a key part of Trump's continuing popularity, for the American public has largely lost any commitment it may have had to its military adventurism. (And interestingly, the moment when far right commentators like Tomi Lahren and Richard Spencer broke with Trump was the one time that Trump went against this pattern and upped the intervention in Syria with a series of missile strikes in April of 2018. When the U.S. drew down in December of that year, they were more or less back on board, but could never fully trust him again.) Then again, this is another case in which Trump's rhetoric does not match his actions. He may tweet about "bringing our soldiers home" but the actual numbers of troop deployments do not bear this out. Meanwhile, he has dropped record-breaking numbers of bombs - which means increasing the civilian casualty rate.
In some ways, we can put it this way: Reagan popularized neoliberalism, but in order to do so, he had to rise up within the ranks of a party that had not yet fully adopted neoliberalism, and so there was much in Reagan that remained pre-neoliberal, to coin a term. Many of Reagan's policies did not become fully implemented until Clinton's administration, by which time Hayekian neoliberalism had been so fully adopted that, to return to the policies of Reagan, as, in some ways, Trump has, is to appear downright anti-neoliberal. I know that may sound a little convoluted, but that's what's happening. Perhaps Trumpism can be seen as a correction within neoliberalism - when neoliberalism had gone too far, even from the perspectives of the neoliberals themselves, the Trumpist reactionaries arrived to attempt to steer the country back in the direction of sucking all the wealth and privilege up to the highest elites - back in the direction of the racism, sexism, and other kinds of chauvinism that were the way of the world back in the days of Nixon, Johnson, and so on.
So what is Trump? We can come up with a million adjectives, besides "reactionary": authoritarian, Bonapartist, nationalist... I like "irredentist," because it emphasizes a sense of grievance, of loss, or perceived loss, even if the territory lost is only a matter of legend. Trump's followers are convinced that they are oppressed, and that their oppression justifies all of Trump's transgressions. If you press them on this question - what exactly did you lose during the Obama era? They usually have no answer, but they feel this loss deep in their hearts, and demand to "take the country back". Even now, in control of the presidency, the judiciary, much of the legislature, and several state governments, they feel that they are fated to lose, and yet they also feel a burning need to resist this fate. If they have no real grievance, they will make one up, as the QAnon conspiracy theorists are now doing, retreating into a fantasy in which the government is run by a ring of pedophiles.
Ultimately, the sense of loss is not about elections, or positions in government, or territory, or even about politics. It is about being wrong ("incorrect"!). They are wrong, and, deep in their hearts, they know it. And they know that their children are right. And this pains them. It is excruciating pain, which will never end. But this pain gives them meaning. It is their cross to bear.
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