The Meaning of Donald Trump

By Mark Featherstone

Like many people I have spent the last four or five days trying to make sense of the result of the American election. In thinking through the fantastical result I found myself asking two inter-related questions. My first question was, how could Trump win, when Clinton appeared a racing certainty up to the very day of the election. My second question concerned what a Trump presidency would mean for America, but also the global consensus that had existed around the neoliberal capitalist orthodoxy since at least the late 1980s. In answering these two inter-connected questions, I would suggest that first, too many pollsters and experts were caught under the spell of history, where what normally happens will continue to happen, and under-estimated the deep disconnect between vast numbers of people and the social, political, and economic system which has governed their lives for so long. In short, and I would suggest the same problem was behind the Brexit decision, the election result reflected the fact that people no longer believe in the model of capitalism that has governed from Thatcher and Reagan, through Clinton, Bush, and Blair, up to Obama and Cameron. In this way the problem with Clinton was that she came to represent the death of the system, the figure who emerged to defend what was no longer really defensible, and has in a way already passed over into history. 

But if this lack of belief, or what the French writer Bernard Stiegler calls dis-belief, explains the how of Trump, what about the what of Trump? What does Trump mean for the future? I think that the answer to this (related) question of the what of Trump is that he will probably accelerate the revolutionary change taking place across the western world. Under conditions where the neoliberal consensus no longer holds, I think the answer to this second question is, therefore, that Trump will effectively mean the end of the kind of globalisation we have lived with certainly since the end of the Cold War. From my point of view, Trump can only signal further division, the end of consensus, and the end of coherence, even if the kind of coherence which has ruled since the fall of the Berlin Wall has been one characterised by inequality and division. In this respect, we might wonder whether it is possible to say that Trump will be a force for good? Anything is possible (herein resides the utopian potential of Trump articulated by Slavoj Zizek), but my sense is that the problem with the vision of change he articulated throughout his campaign is that it was quite clearly premised on escape from the neoliberal consensus through violence against and destruction of others. Against the global capitalist system, then, Trump imagines a state of war, whether this is inter- or intra-state, which is precisely the opposite of what needs to occur. Inequalities, divisions, and exploitation need to decrease in a coordinated manner, rather than increase in the name of some radical nationalist attempt to escape from the violence of globalisation. The danger of the latter approach is that it will lead to ever more violence, ever more war, and that the only way out of this will be through some kind of apocalyptic event that will result in the emergence of a more just society based on the imperative to survive. This apocalyptic scenario is, in a sense, where Zizek’s view leads.

In light of this reading of the hopelessness of Trump’s vision of the future, which is clearly self-evident to those who have criticised him for his racism, sexism, and violent bullying of everybody who opposes him, it is surprising that the question of the what of Trump has become the question of the last few days. But it seems to me that the powerful attraction of this question comes from a general dis-belief that Trump could ever follow through on his violent promises. Surely he could not really build a wall between America and Mexico or ban Muslims from entering the land of the free? Surely this vision of America, which resembles something Philip K. Dick might have imagined in his paranoid science fiction, could never really happen? Of course, the problem with taking this line – he could never really follow through on what he said – is that it runs counter to Trump’s very appeal. Why vote Trump? Vote for Trump because he says exactly what he thinks, regardless of how violent or exclusionary. Trump says whatever is on his mind. Even though analysis of the presidential debates found that a good deal of what he said was untrue, there is a sense in which Trump’s appeal resides in his willingness to tell people straight. Against the post-politics of Clinton, which were clearly based upon the Blair / Bush model of political communication, where one says one thing (we want equality blah blah blah), does something completely different, and the spins the difference so that nothing effectively means anything, what is new about Trump’s model of politics is that it appears absolutely naïve. There is no cynicism, where there is a hidden disconnect between words, thoughts, and behaviour – which is, I think, what made Clinton appear so absolutely untrustworthy – because nobody could cynically calculate to win an election on the basis of so much racism, sexism, and general abuse.

In this respect Trump appears entirely naïve and attractive to those who have grown weary of the same old story, but it is also, I would suggest, this radical naivety, where he says exactly what he thinks, that has led to the absolute uncertainty around his programme of action. The very fact of his naivety, what we might call the terror of Trump, means that he is entirely unbearable and has to become unbelievable. There must be something else? The question of Trump that emerged very quickly after the election was, therefore, whether the Trump who won the election would be replaced by a new, more moderate, Trump who will govern and effectively tow the party line. In this vision the old order, where we rubbed along in our inequality, division, and barely sublimated hatred will continue into the future.

Why the sudden uncertainty about the identity of Trump, then? The answer to the question of the emergence of the radical undecideability of the new president, which effectively suggests that there is more to Trump than meets the eye, is that it has very quickly become necessary to fall back on the fiction of a moderate Trump in the name of finding a way to absorb the terrible absurdity of the election result. This conservative vision of Trump, where the absolute transparency of The Donald gives way to the idea of the schizoid political manipulator, the ultimate Machiavellian player, found its ultimate form in the comments of the tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel who explained that the mainstream’s problem with Trump is that it took him literally, but not seriously. In other words, the mainstream believed everything he said and therefore imagined he was an idiot who could not be taken seriously. 

Against this, Thiel suggests that what we needed to do was take Trump seriously, but not literally. In this way, we needed to recognise his broad message concerning the anger, disenchantment, and general hopelessness of America, but discount the specifics of his message – build walls, ban Muslims and so on. There is, however, a serious problem with this view, which casts Trump as perhaps the ultimate post-modern politician, which is that it begs the question of exactly what Americans were voting for when they voted from him, if they could not believe the content of the words that came out of his mouth? If what mattered was the form of his language – violence, anger, hopelessness and so on – then what was everything else? Grandstanding? Babbling? In light of this, we would have to conclude that Trump has no real programme, beyond a negative reaction to the system collapse of the global social and economic order. What he does have, however, is what Freudian psychoanalysts call drive, which is the nasty, violent, energy that keeps us alive, and prepares us for the struggle to survive the state of nature, but which we must sublimate (channel through reason) in order to live in social groups where we have to recognise the humanity of other people in order to avoid the descent into a state of open warfare where nobody wins. It seems to me that it is this very basic code, which social and political theorists would understand in terms of the Hobbesian social contract that has underpinned the way we think about society since the birth of the modern age, that Trump undermines in his violent rhetoric that pits Nixon’s silent majority (white America) against all others. 

If this is the case, then, the problem of Thiel’s position, which seeks to soften Trump, to rehabilitate him by suggesting that he’s not really so bad, is that it distracts from the gravity of the threat Trump poses. For Thiel Trump is a deeply ironic, we might say Derridean, figure. In his view Trump’s absolutely transparency – he says exactly what he thinks and what he wants – is a symbol of his infinite depths – which means that we have no idea about his real programme. But I think that this is an illusion, the illusion of depth, generated by the absolute self-identical nature of the president elect. This is the real horror. The horror of a lack of depth. There really is nothing more to see and if the programme set out in his presidential campaign was violent, racist, sexist, abusive and ultimately unrealistic there is no need to look for some deeper significance. As Doug Kellner explains in his account of the rise of Trump, where he reads him through the Frankfurt School’s critique of the Nazi personality, the president elect is probably unpsychoanalysable, since his unconscious is already out there, unmediated by social norms that modify normal behaviour. Reading Trump from a slightly different perspective, Henry Giroux explains that we should not be surprised by the result of the election. On the contrary, he tells us that America has the president that it deserves, that Trump is a kind of symptom of a society addicted to violence, that has hidden behind a liberal façade for too long, but can no longer maintain the pretence. In this respect Trump is representative of the American warfare state unleashed, free of the cynical liberal fantasy that conditioned Obama’s America, but also, I would argue, the minimal belief in the value of social norms and values that hold every society together. 

The precise problem with the brand of dark utopianism we find in Trump, which was also present in the vote to Brexit, is that it revolves around an aggressive desire for change which ultimately has no positive objective or narrative arc. Instead, the dynamism of the revolution is purely negative and feeds off rage, and the hatred of this, that, and the other out group who are perceived to have taken what we need. But what next? What happens after the destruction of the old system? In the case of Brexit we know that there was no positive vision, no plan, and that Farage, Johnson, and Gove quickly faded into the background. While there is no doubt that the Leave campaign was, like Trump’s election, successful because it spoke to people struggling in a destroyed society that needs to be reformed, the problem of the politics of negativity, the politics of escape from the failure of neoliberal globalisation to meet human needs, is that they similarly have no positive vision for the future. In this respect, they remain trapped within the negativity of the moment and the dystopic atmosphere of the present, where we fear social, economic, and ecological collapse and essentially realise the terrible future through the political choices we make today. In my view Trump is, therefore, a symbol of the triumph of a kind of childish politics, a politics of acting out and acting up, when acting out and acting up are not really an option. On the contrary, we need to come up with something more positive, more constructive, more inclusive and ultimately more workable in terms of building a sustainable future for everybody, because today’s problems are global problems and they cannot be solved by nationalist, protectionist, and unilateral solutions based in a politics of confrontation and conflict. 

Mark Featherstone is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Keele University. This was originally posted on the Keele Sociology blog and is republished here with permission.

Originally posted 4th December 2016

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