A theory of theories of Trump

JayfromBrooklyn collects some 15 or more theories of the rise of Trump, and concludes the survey somewhat paradoxically:

Populism is about anger, a primordial cry of pain. It’s not logical. People can be simultaneously mad at The Establishment for being too powerful while mocking its impotence. Mad at the Republicans for not fighting Obama and for trying to repeal Obamacare. Mad at being called ignorant and proud of their ignorance. Any attempt to make sense out of it is looking at it the wrong way. It doesn’t make sense.

We are just unlucky enough to witness the perfect mix of events that brought it this far.

The conclusion is paradoxical because at the same time that it disclaims any belief in a singular theory of Trump, it settles on one that would be something like the following: “Populism” is a potential threat to the system at all times, and the odds are that sooner or later the values of various independent variables will just happen to coincide in such a way as to produce a flare-up. According to this theory, sooner or later, there will be Trump or “a Trump.” Yet this theory is nearly the opposite of a theory, since it depicts Trump as merely the random kernel of unpopped corn on which we finally broke a collective tooth, while the difference between Trump and “a Trump” points to an analytical ambiguity. Are we seeking to explain the rise of Donald Trump, this year, or are we seeking to explain the rise of figures like Trump? Are we seeking to explain Trump’s impact on the Republican presidential primary campaign or the effect of Trumpism on the Republican Party, or the vulnerability of the American conservative coalition to Trump in particular, to Trumpism in particular, or to any coherent challenge on that national level? Like Hegel’s cube of salt, the deceptively simple object “Trump” will dissolve in the reflective solution of close analysis into a congeries of “also”‘s. The suspicion remains that a critical investigation of this seemingly random confluence of 15 and more independent processes and events, congealed on the national bathroom floor in the form of a presidential campaign, will tell us much about the state of the system that excreted it; that this Trump thing is an entity that we combined together to invent, even if just by going on about our lives, consuming and being consumed; and that Trump is the crisis of that system concretized. Within normal maximum decision horizons, the two human generations specified by Keynes, financialization of technological dead labor as an answer to the global profit crisis was initially a smashing political-economic success, but the law of diminishing returns is as inexorable as fate, unless the law of diminishing returns is just another name for fate. 30 going on 40 years in, there is only bad money left to put after bad, and the returns appear to have diminished almost to Zero along with interest rates, even-especially for those who rule the numbers. Trump is finance fully self-invacuated, in a full-length gilt mirror, a Medusa transfixed by its own refracted self-admiration; at the same time, he is the return of the annihilated masses, as mass nihilism.


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TV pundits and op-ed writers of every major newspaper epitomize how the Democratic establishment has already reached a consensus: the 2020 nominee must be a centrist, a Joe Biden, Cory Booker or Kamala Harris–type, preferably. They say that Joe Biden should "run because [his] populist image fits the Democrats’ most successful political strategy of the past generation" (David Leonhardt, New York Times), and though Biden "would be far from an ideal president," he "looks most like the person who could beat Trump" (David Ignatius, Washington Post). Likewise, the same elite pundit class is working overtime to torpedo left-Democratic candidates like Sanders.

For someone who was not acquainted with Piketty's paper, the argument for a centrist Democrat might sound compelling. If the country has tilted to the right, should we elect a candidate closer to the middle than the fringe? If the electorate resembles a left-to-right line, and each voter has a bracketed range of acceptability in which they vote, this would make perfect sense. The only problem is that it doesn't work like that, as Piketty shows.

The reason is that nominating centrist Democrats who don't speak to class issues will result in a great swathe of voters simply not voting. Conversely, right-wing candidates who speak to class issues, but who do so by harnessing a false consciousness — i.e. blaming immigrants and minorities for capitalism's ills, rather than capitalists — will win those same voters who would have voted for a more class-conscious left candidate. Piketty calls this a "bifurcated" voting situation, meaning many voters will connect either with far-right xenophobic nationalists or left-egalitarian internationalists, but perhaps nothing in-between.

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Understanding Trump’s charisma offers important clues to understanding the problems that the Democrats need to address. Most important, the Democratic candidate must convey a sense that he or she will fulfil the promise of 2008: not piecemeal reform but a genuine, full-scale change in America’s way of thinking. It’s also crucial to recognise that, like Britain, America is at a turning point and must go in one direction or another. Finally, the candidate must speak to Americans’ sense of self-respect linked to social justice and inclusion. While Weber’s analysis of charisma arose from the German situation, it has special relevance to the United States of America, the first mass democracy, whose Constitution invented the institution of the presidency as a recognition of the indispensable role that unique individuals play in history.

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[E]ven Fox didn’t tout Bartiromo’s big scoops on Trump’s legislative agenda, because 10 months into the Trump presidency, nobody is so foolish as to believe that him saying, “We’re doing a big infrastructure bill,” means that the Trump administration is, in fact, doing a big infrastructure bill. The president just mouths off at turns ignorantly and dishonestly, and nobody pays much attention to it unless he says something unusually inflammatory.On some level, it’s a little bit funny. On another level, Puerto Rico is still languishing in the dark without power (and in many cases without safe drinking water) with no end in sight. Trump is less popular at this point in his administration than any previous president despite a generally benign economic climate, and shows no sign of changing course. Perhaps it will all work out for the best, and someday we’ll look back and chuckle about the time when we had a president who didn’t know anything about anything that was happening and could never be counted on to make coherent, factual statements on any subject. But traditionally, we haven’t elected presidents like that — for what have always seemed like pretty good reasons — and the risks of compounding disaster are still very much out there.

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