So much has been written of the current President that it feels almost a work of uselessness to sprinkle one’s grains on the ash pile. And yet, to a degree unmatched by his recent predecessors, Mr. Trump makes one feel both compelled to speak and, at the same time, exhausted by the thought of doing so. I’ve wondered what it would have been like to live under the regimes of, say, Saddam Hussein or Kim Jong-il, and the Trump administration provides a measure of insight into an important psychological aspect of authoritarianism. That aspect is the inescapability of the Dear Leader, the tendency of the regime to smother and exhaust its critics and their faculties. This raises the question of whether or not the President will succeed in his evident work of discrediting and confounding his critics, including those within the state who function in a constitutional capacity as a check and balance. Assuming the Trumpists do prevail, what might the world look like? That is the topic of this essay.
Some years ago I noted the convergence of two trends, the so-called browning of America and deindustrialization. Articles in major publications pointed out that, in the foreseeable future, whites would be a minority population. Deindustrialization had already at this time been long underway. On the political left, for example the MoveOn.org and Common Dreams progressive-liberal types, there had long been criticism of free trade, globalization, and finance capitalism. The progressive left assigned blame for unemployment and stagnant incomes to the rich, arguing that corporate and upper-class tax cuts, along with capital mobility, were the causes of decline among America’s working and middle classes. In the Reagan years, the left argued that America was a corrupt and even a failed nation, betrayed by its greedy and co-opted political elite and guilty of having inflicted misery both at home and abroad via neoliberalism. Noam Chomsky was the principal American intellectual of the progressives and contributed enormously to the idea that “American democracy” was an oxymoron and a lie. Less noticed were the Tom Metzger types on the right who held the same beliefs but who layered on top of their arguments the charge of race betrayal—or perhaps the analysis was layered on top of their race politics. In any case race demographics and the hollowing out of America’s manufacturing sectors were the elephants in the room about which no mainstream politician was willing to have a serious conversation. Nor did the political columnists and the party strategists notice that elements of the political right had arrived at many of the same conclusions as had the left, in particular the beliefs that America’s military efforts abroad were works of evil and that Washington was a refuge of turncoats and out-of-touch scoundrels. It was only a matter of time before someone would infer a causal relationship from this co-existence of demographic change and industrial-empire decline, and the someone in question was a hodgepodge of white identity activists.
This notion of American decline requires attention. Above I suggested it is an economic concept (deindustrialization, job losses, stagnation of incomes) but of course it is not only this. A woman who was earning the equivalent of 25,000 current-day American dollars in 1974 is not likely to say the American dream is alive and well if she is today making $20,000, but it is nonetheless possible for a person who today enjoys a growing middle-class income to feel that the world is in decline if he notices, for example, that the lives of his children bear no resemblance to his own life at their age. Decline is a subjective experience, a compound of random and multitudinous data including newspaper articles, personal anecdotes, and rapid technological and social change which even the most clever among us does not comprehend. One either feels deep in her bones that the world is improving, or does not, and it is impossible to say, even of oneself, by what means one has arrived at this feeling. Anxiety, fear of change, confusion over the world’s transformations, etc. are certain to be part of the mix. Deep down for example I “know” that a vinyl record is superior to a compact disc, and like any person of my generation I am likely to find dozens such conservative prejudices within myself, were I to go looking. I don’t wish to suggest that economic data are irrelevant. My point is that we are experiencing massive upheaval and change in our time, which is not the same thing as decline, even if it happens to cause us misery. In one hundred years it may turn out that America will be greater and stronger than ever, and that deindustrialization and immigration cleared the way. Assuming that is so, there’s small comfort for those who have had everything swept away to make room for a better, future world in which they will be corpses and dust.
The recourse to economic accounts of decline is to be expected in a society where everything depends upon the state of your bank account and where, only a generation ago, it was (as James Carville phrased it) the economy, stupid. Economic analysis has the benefit of being measurable and for that reason a matter of debatable solidity. But there is a danger in dwelling upon economics which should now be obvious to all, and that danger is overlooking things like race and class and the irrational aspects of the human being. In the years during which both the political right and left were moving in the direction of what might be termed anti-establishment populism, every talking head spoke of “the economy.” Immigration, political correctness, class, greed, political corruption, the erosion of white majoritarianism and of Christianity—all of these were beyond the pale of polite conversation. To notice, for example, that the loss of American prestige abroad coincided with the decline of church attendance at home was to be labelled a thumper and banished from the serious adult table. And so it was on dozens of different topics about which ordinary people were deeply concerned, a fact which gave rise to the Michael Moores and the paleoconservative fringe of talk-radio, think tanks, and online discussion boards, where every participant was soaked to the bone in their awareness of, and consequent resentment at, having been scorned and rejected by their supposed betters.
In retrospect it is possible to see that the important conversations were never had, or that they were had only in echo chambers where the essential thing was to reproduce and hold faithfully to a party line. For years no one on the left would say anything but that the conservatives were stupid and the rich wicked, and that America was a neoliberal (if not fascist) police state machine-gunning democracy in order to install puppet regimes who would keep the oil flowing. On the right, nearly every American setback could be and was attributed to liberalism and its cognates (feminism comes uppermost to mind) from rising unemployment to crime. One could discern the growing anger and fear, but nowhere were honest conversations possible on the most critical issues such as the relation of the races and the fear of many that America was sliding into decay and moral nihilism. Instead, the left mocked and dismissed as a dying relic those conservatives bound to traditions and the small towns which sustained them, while the right saw in politically correct progressivism nothing more than the old totalitarianism of the thought police. From the early 1980s onward, the politically aware discerned the Nazis and the Stalinists everywhere, in Reaganomics and the New World Order and the MAI and ObamaCare and on and on. And what did the media do? They gave us horse race political analysis, appealing to the type of person who watches PBS NewsHour and who hears banjo music in his head at the mention of words such as baptist and Alabama.
At any given moment one side of the political spectrum may be, probably is, closer to the truth of things than the other. In any case, the battle of ideas is such that one side is going to prevail, for a time. Since about 1965 it is the left which has prevailed on issues such as race, the rights of women, and the role of government. Conservatives have seen it necessary to conduct a rearguard action, which they first undertook in the 1960s and which gave rise to Reaganism and to the think-tank and PAC industries. As all political gains are temporary, the period 1980–present has largely been a conservative effort to curtail and even abolish the welfare statism and the identity politics of the postwar years. President Reagan had the welfare state in mind when he spoke of making America great again, a phrase widely and incorrectly thought to have originated with Mr Trump. Nor is it an empty phrase. Mr. Trump’s supporters know exactly what he means by Make America Great Again, even if they are unable to say during what years America was great. The decisive word is again, for the greatness subsists in those conditions of the past that were undone by liberal social engineering. Although the left has generally prevailed, the right has had its victories also, in the consensus views that taxes should be low (under President Reagan the highest income tax rate fell from 70% to 28%) and that innovation is best achieved through private marketplace competition. The GOP’s insistence on being the “Party of Lincoln” betrayed a bad conscience over its role in the Civil Rights era, while the Democrats are finally absorbing what many have known for years, that the working classes do not trust them and that most people under thirty-five will eagerly vote for a third party of even moderate appeal. The left-right battle is as hostile as it has been in my lifetime, even if on many points the extremes now agree.
What has this to do with the era of Trump? Every solution contains a theory of the problem, and at the present time the Republicans are the chosen solution. To them the people have given control of the executive branch, the congress, the Supreme Court, and a majority of state houses and governorships. It is worth contemplating the world implicit in the forms of conservatism we now confront, especially as it comes to us through Mr. Trump himself. He offers a window not only into his own mind but into the times in which we live. He is in many respects an exceptional man as well as politician. From this, one is tempted to infer that we are living in exceptional times, or at the very least in a time when people feel they must reach for that tool at the back of the box which is brought out only when all the other tools have failed. This, and not some supposed moral or ideological greatness, is what I mean by the word exceptional. Much has been written of the President’s personal character, viz. that he is unfit for high office, or that he is a grifter, or mentally ill. Yet others claim he is Hitler reincarnated. Those who compare Mr. Trump to Hitler are correct only in one aspect which they never mention, that most Germans turned to Hitler in exasperation, having given the alternative parties (particularly the Social Democrats and Communists) ample opportunity to address the crises of the Republic. Like Hitler, Mr. Trump is the untested tool at the back of the box, the blunt force instrument with which we set to pounding. When Mr. Trump first arrived on the national political scene, in the middle of 2015, his candidacy was dismissed by every informed and sophisticated commentator as a work of mere self promotion. The show business of news decided to exploit him during his short time on the stage as the ready click-bait he was, not seeing that in fact they were the ones being exploited. Even now, whether or not they know it, journalists are catching up to the times in which we live, with Mr. Trump always one step ahead.
But I digress. Our sub-topic was this idea of problems as against their solutions, and here the contemporary GOP is instructive. They are the party that does not believe in government, perhaps even in politics. Most Republicans have risen on a platform of politician- and Washington-hatred, their chief pitch to the voters being that they have no political experience and no interest in career politics. The shadow of Russia has darkened the Trump administration at least since the Republican National Convention, where Mr. Trump’s people amended their party’s platform as it applied to the annexation of Crimea, the Russian infiltration of Eastern Ukraine, and the sanctions of the oligarchs. One of the more remarkable developments on the political right has been the speed with which a formerly anti-Russian GOP (or at least Russo-skeptic) has become openly Russophile. I write remarkable rather than surprising only because ideological shifts of this sort will be familiar to anyone versed in the Anglo-American political history of the 20th Century, especially as it pertains to the left. Between the wars, for example, the Russian Communists would routinely adopt 180-degree ideological turns, necessitating sudden reconfigurations of the party line not only in Moscow but in Britain, Canada, and the United States. Throughout the Stalinist period, a comrade living in the West could expect to denounce on Tuesday what he had embraced on Monday, and on Wednesday to despise what he had praised on Tuesday. The evils of imperialism and capitalism, the menace of Hitler, the war-mongering bourgeoisie—these concepts took on a moral fluidity, as the alliances shifted along with events such as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the German invasion of Russia, etc. But what as a matter of course stood firm throughout this period, for many educated persons on the left, was a disillusionment with the West and a loss of faith in its institutions, just as we now see among the Trumpists. Russia-worship is simply a variant on the “America is broken” theme.
Mr. Trump over and again has struck this precise note of disillusionment with his talk of a crime-infested America that “never wins.” His victory speech at the Republican National Congress is among the darkest and most menacing of speeches in American political history, if not the darkest. Likewise the inauguration speech. Mr. Trump is on record, many a time, having praised Mr Putin while browbeating the leaders of his own country. When challenged by Bill O’Reilly on the matter of Putin’s brutality, he replied that the United States was, in effect, no better. It is now a matter of public record that his speech writers, Messrs. Miller and Bannon, are admirers of Mr. Putin as well as being Russophiles, as are a number of the President’s senior officials. Mr. Trump’s loudness on this issue has brought a good deal of conservatives along, with the result that a growing segment of the American public now views favourably a leader who in an earlier time would have been viewed, correctly, as an ill-willed adversary, not only of America but of the “civilized world” (a phrase we are unlikely to hear from Mr. Trump, who sees the world as mostly uncivilized). It is impossible to say for certain why Mr. Trump himself takes this pro-Putin view, although it seems likely that he has financial incentives to do so. His surrogates and followers however do not, with only a few exceptions. Most on the right admire Putin for the reasons fellow travellers on the left admired Stalin from the 1930s onward, that is to say, Russia for them was a more fully-realized version of the ideal world toward which they laboured than was America. On the one hand Russia was imagined by the left to have abolished the evils of capitalism and imperialism and class oppression, while on the other the right sees Russia today as a Utopia where no harbour is given to liberalism and its chief disease, homosexuality. In Putin’s Russia, Christianity is politically powerful as well as ascendant, roughly 90% of the population identifies as (Orthodox) Christian, and over 80% self-identify as ethnically Russian. It is roughly, in other words, what America once was: a homogenous and predominantly rural country where the average citizen expects, and gets, nothing from government. Russia furthermore has a hyper-masculine leader, the abhorrence of maternal or feminine leaders and governance (the welfare state) being something to which Mr. Trump has often alluded in coded terms such as weak, low energy, and lack of stamina.
The lesson here is that the imagined perfection which one can not have at home may yet be found in the distances of space or time. The Nazis reached into a mythical past for their conception of the ideal German, the Bolsheviks romanticized an industrial-mechanical future, many a writer has escaped into historical fiction and outright fantasy, and the discontented right has found its model society in Mother Russia. They are discontented because conservatives in America know only the world of liberalism, where every bold vision of theirs is certain to meet the disapproval of a judge or activist or late-night talk-show host, and where every conservative who says what he really believes will soon find himself disgraced and unemployed. Until Mr. Trump came along, that is. Hence, the love for both Mr. Trump and Russia. The advantage of a distant model is that unpleasant details may be ignored, assuming they are even noticed. At home the right for years criticized their “weak” political leaders, chief among them Mr. Obama. The criticisms did not stop at Democrats and included a good many supposedly Republican in Name Only conservatives as targets. But what might the right make of American political purges, official church-party alliances, the cult of the leader, kleptocracy, political assassinations, and the takeover of government by a silovik network, all of these now common in Mr. Putin’s Russia? When it became obvious, after Stalingrad, that once again the Germans were going to lose the war, their enthusiasm for the Führer plummeted. In the postwar period, the Germans became the fiercest practitioners of anti-Nazism, because they had experienced the rottenness of this system from the inside. Of course there were also a good many guilty consciences eager to show contrition. The point is that Hitler nostalgia could only occur in a country where liberalism prevails, and where everything that is wrong might be plausibly attributed to softness and a “lack of spirit.” What Russia sympathizers tend to overlook, because all they know is liberalism, is that authoritarianism ruins its supporters also, the more faithful the supporter the more thoroughgoing the process of turning him into a liar and self-hating slave.
So far I have used the terms right and political right in a general way, to describe what is in reality a mixed population. A supporter of Mr. Trump could be a middle-class clerk or a University professor or a former auto worker, or a white nationalist. Even the term white nationalism is misleading, for in reality white identity politics is composed of many irreconcilable sects—white pride, white power, white separatism, neo-Nazism, white nationalism, national-socialism, etc. Nor will any two randomly chosen Trump voters necessarily agree on a specific political or social question, especially one as controversial as homosexuality. Yet I have written as if the Trump supporter were a recognizable type, typically but not always of the political right and motivated by things like nationalism and the desire for a strong leader who will shake things up. Doubtless this way of speaking fails to capture a number of Trump voters, including those who also supported Mr. Sanders. The shaking-up of Washington is not an ideological imperative, in itself, nor is it partisan. Only when it is qualified does this assertion become obviously political, e.g. shaking up Washington by ridding it of political correctness or by sending a message to the rich, etc. Qualifications such as these make it possible to tease out the definite outline of a political philosophy. I have used the word right to designate a type that I do think exists and may be readily identified. When I began to see them on Twitter, what struck me immediately was the uniform, almost clichéd description they presented to the world. Here is a randomly-chosen example, of which there are many:
There are of course variations, such as the inclusion of Pepe memes or phrases like “I hate PC” or “liberalism is a mental disease.” In general however the Trump supporter is (as in this case) pro-Israel, Christian, pro-gun, and anti-Sharia, if not indeed anti-Islam. The rest of this description, concerning the Queen of England etc., appears to refer to a series of fantasy books written by the owner of this Twitter account. Not adumbrated here, but commonly noted on pro-Trump Twitter account descriptions are—in no particular order: dislike of feminists and of liberalism, distrust if not hatred of journalists and news media, love of God and America and family, defence of the Constitution, and pro-police and military. In many cases the profile description will feature a short concluding phrase, along the lines that objectionable people will be dealt with harshly, if not pre-emptively blocked, political correctness be damned.
To be a conservative one must want to conserve something, the traditional family or the prestige of the church or whatnot. Much of the preceding is staple conservatism, the God-and-Country platitudes which Ronald Reagan also endorsed. But in recent years a notion that would have been alien to President Reagan has slipped in, the idea that politics is at bottom the business of cultural warfare, a zero-sum proposition in which one’s political opponent is a treacherous enemy who must be stopped by whatever means required. This idea was expressed in Michael Anton’s article, “The Flight 93 Election,” but it hardly began here and has its precursors both on the authoritarian right and left. Earlier I wrote to the effect that political conversations now occur primarily in echo chambers, where the aim is to rally one’s tribe against the enemy with a rousing presentation of the party line. Under such conditions, political language will be an unscrupulous exercise in cultivating an ingroup as well as its necessary foil, the outgroup. Indeed Mr. Trump’s entire political worldview is nothing more nor less than a division of the world into tremendous guys and bad hombres, lovers and haters, the adoring rally crowds and the dishonest media who supposedly refuse to film them, and so on and so on. Within days of launching his campaign, Mr. Trump had his Mexican rapist outgroup and his steady supply of anecdotes, the many ingroup friends who call him to say “You are tremendous, Mr. Trump.” To see the other side as more than simply disagreeing with you, as in fact being an existential threat to the people and to the nation, is to move from partisanship toward a world in which there can be—must be—only one version of the truth and one political party to defend it. Mr. Trump and his more ardent supporters view large portions of their country in the way Mr. Reagan viewed Soviet Communism, as a menace to be stood up to and destroyed. This feeling is furthermore reciprocated. This would have been roughly the situation in the years just before the Civil War, and necessarily so. Either slavery was going to persist or it was not: there was no compromise position, and both sides were determined to prevail. Mr. Trump is a throwback to such periods of American crisis, when certain cultural practices and principles could no longer be tolerated by a substantial portion of the country. And that is precisely what the GOP is: a party of vocal, organized, energized and sometimes also well-connected minorities who are at profound odds with the postwar drift of American society. White evangelical Christians, billionaires, traditionalists, and libertarians all begin at the proposition that the tide is against them, they are losing ground, and that only an extraordinary offensive campaign against hostile forces will save them. Mr. Trump’s victory will be a test of core American principles, such as the separation of church and state. In a country where belief in Young Earth Creationism will earn you the disdain of the professional classes, is it possible to restore Jesus to the classroom? Propositions like this will be the work of the government over the next four years, and if Mr. Trump prevails, it will be because the norms and tastes and prejudices of the liberal consensus will matter less in Washington than the aspirations of Dispensationalists.
It is an easy enough matter to sign an executive order appeasing one’s core constituencies with bold declamations. Unfortunately for the President, reality itself stands against him. The forces which have decimated American working-class jobs (automation and capital mobility) are not going to yield to tough negotiation, a fact of which Mr. Trump himself is surely aware. The administration’s trademark proposals, a 1,900-mile border wall and the deportation of all undocumented immigrants, are unrealizable. A cursory glance at demographic trends will show that America is going to continue to brown, even if immigration is halted (which is unlikely), because people of color are having more children and whites are having less. As for the notion that this President is going to drain the swamp and restore integrity to the White House, skepticism is in order. There are nonetheless things that the President could achieve. It is conceivable that America will align itself with Russia and against Europe, or at least those parts of Europe which defy the current trend toward illiberalism. A “one-state solution” is also probable, much more so than a two-state solution. A one-state solution is simply the confirmation of what has long been taking place, which is to say Israel’s absorption of territory, salient by salient and settlement by settlement. The UN will likely be diminished in the coming years, as will NATO, and who can doubt that Mr. Trump will deliver on his promise to enlarge the American military? There will certainly be tax cuts on the supply side of the ledger and a reduction of the welfare state, but the welfare state will survive this President as it survived Mr. Reagan and his smaller-government successors. Every opportunity will be taken to stimulate patriotism, up to and including military opportunities, for President Trump is in the psychological and subjective business of prestige—a Morning in America which requires neither an actual sun nor even an actual America.
If the previous sentence strikes you as dismissive, allow me to elaborate. Mr. Trump is in the business of celebrity-television, by which means he peddles a recognizable species of American soft sawder. Many took his Republican primary performance to be a calculated work of showmanship, a series of attention grabbing stunts designed to advance his political candidacy. According to this theory, he was meant to be taken seriously but not literally and would, when the time arrived, pivot to a more conventional, presidential style of behavior. This analysis however misconstrues the nature of the Trump brand and gets wrong what it is he is actually doing. Is Mr. Trump a builder and businessman who uses celebrity to advance his construction empire, or does he exploit the idea that he runs a construction empire to further his celebrity? It should be obvious to anyone paying attention that for at least the past fifteen years, the latter has been the case. As far back as The Apprentice, his celebrity image has been based on little more than a pretence. He is a brand and no more builds the towers which bear his name than a Disney character assembles the lunch boxes which bear its image. As a brand, Mr. Trump has gained for himself a great deal of attention and moved that attention in certain moneymaking directions, which is the chief purpose of a brand. The eyes of Moana look outward, and you return the gaze thinking to yourself, “I like Moana, therefore I will buy this lunchbox.” The Trump brand is designed to make you feel confident and successful and rich, all things that Trump supporters, who as a group tend toward ressentiment and victimology, decidedly do not feel. Note that his brand is also wrapped up in notions of exclusivity, privilege, ingroup belonging, the glamor of wealth and power, crushing the competition, and getting one’s sweet revenge on those who slight you. These too are certain to be themes of his administration.
I may be wrong about everything I have written so far, but if I am correct by even one-half then certain conclusions seem to me to be warranted. The first is that Mr. Trump will be able to under-perform on a range of issues yet remain popular across his base, provided he does not betray his brand. So long as he is seen as the ingroup President, standing firm against the outgroup, he is likely to inspire loyalty. It may be enough for him to go on attacking and offending the liberal establishment and to offer small and mostly symbolic gestures, such as the photo-ops which served Mr. Reagan so well. In any case, he has set himself up as the prestige President and has no recourse but to make the tribe feel that it is winning at all times. To pull this off he will need to drive away every piece of damaging news or else load it upon a scapegoat, a talent he possesses in abundance. Many of his proposals run counter to the economic interests of his supporters, but so too did Mr. Reagan’s, and it did him scant harm. The reason is that President Reagan was, like President Trump, a product of show business. Both learned early on that even an otherwise reliable person will take medical advice from someone who once played a doctor on TV. The suggestion that we are in a post-truth age is rubbish: we are living in the same age that Ronald Reagan lived in, the age of public relations and optics. Only, the American PR business now includes things like Twitter and Facebook and an alt-right version of Hitlerism with the most recognizable, hence PR-adverse, aspects of the NSDAP—the death camps, the Hugo Boss outfits, the swastikas, even Hitler himself—airbrushed away. Politics in 2017 means, among other things, white nationalists in smart business suits and “fashy” haircuts pitching their tribe in the pages of The New York Times. If the Trumpists prevail, hitherto fringe ideas are certain to be emboldened and to return, not only to the table, but to the shop floor and the boardroom and the streets.
Categories: Personal Essay