Gangster capitalism and nostalgic authoritarianism in Trump’s America
Just one year into the Donald Trump presidency, not only have the failures of American democracy become clear, but many of the darkest elements of its history have been catapulted to the center of power. A dystopian ideology, a kind of nostalgic yearning for older authoritarian relations of power, now shapes and legitimates a mode of governance that generates obscene levels of inequality, expands the ranks of corrupt legislators, places white supremacists and zealous ideologues in positions of power, threatens to jail its opponents, and sanctions an expanding network of state violence both at home and abroad.
Trump has accelerated a culture of cruelty, a machinery of terminal exclusion and social abandonment that wages a war on undocumented immigrants, poor minorities of color and young people. He uses the power of the presidency to peddle misinformation,erode any sense of shared citizenship, ridicule critical media and celebrate right-wing “disimagination machines” such as Fox News and Breitbart News. Under his “brand of reality TV politics,” lying has become normalized, truthfulness is viewed as a liability, ignorance is propagated at the highest levels of government and the corporate controlled media, and fear-soaked cyclones of distraction and destruction immunize the American public to the cost of human suffering and misery.
Under the Trump administration, culture has been weaponized and is used as a powerful tool of power, misinformation and indoctrination. James Baldwin, in a 1979 New York Times essay titled “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?” wrote, “People evolve a language … in order not to be submerged by a reality that they cannot articulate.”
This is certainly true for Trump, who recognizes that the normalization of state-sanctioned lying kills democracy, and destroys the capacity to produce informed judgments. Trump’s serial lying is daunting in that it normalizes discourses, “actions, and policies exempt from moral evaluation [and] treated as beyond good and evil.” As Hannah Arendt argues in “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” the erasure of truth, facts and standards of reference furthers the collapse of democratic institutions because it is “easier to accept patently absurd propositions than the old truths which have become pious banalities. Vulgarity with its cynical dismissal of respected standards and accepted theories carried with it the worst … and [is] easily mistaken for courage and a new style of life.”
As language is emptied of any meaning, an authoritarian populism is emboldened and fills the airways and the streets with sonic blasts of racism, anti-Semitism and violence. New York Times columnist (and former Salon reporter) Michelle Goldberg rightly observes that Trump makes it difficult to hold onto any sense of what is normal given his relentless attempts to upend the rule of law, justice, ethics and democracy itself. She writes:
The country has changed in the past year, and many of us have grown numb after unrelenting shocks. What now passes for ordinary would have once been inconceivable. The government is under the control of an erratic racist who engages in nuclear brinkmanship on Twitter. … He publicly pressures the Justice Department to investigate his political opponents. He’s called for reporters to be jailed, and his administration demanded that a sportscaster who criticized him be fired. Official government statements promote his hotels. You can’t protest it all; you’d never do anything else. After the election, many liberals pledged not to “normalize” Trump. But one lesson of this year is that we don’t get to decide what normal looks like.
There is more at work here than the kind of crass entertainment that mimics celebratory culture. As Byung-Chul Han argues, “every age has its signature afflictions.” Ours is an unprecedented corporate takeover of the U.S. government and the reemergence of elements of totalitarianism in new forms. At stake here is the power of an authoritarian ideology that fuels a hyperactive exploitative economic order, apocalyptic nationalism and feral appeals to racial cleansing that produce what Paul Street has called the nightmare of capitalism.
Trump engages in a culture war that militarizes the social media and in doing so creates a politics of diversion while erasing memories of a fascist past that bears an uncanny and terrifying resemblance to his own worldview. As Zygmunt Bauman observes in “Strangers at Our Door,” Trump’s endless racist discourses, taunts and policies cast blacks, immigrants and Muslims as “humans unworthy of regard and respect” and in engaging in the dehumanization of the Other shifts major social problems away from the “sphere of ethics to that of threats to security, crime prevention, and punishment, criminality, defense of order, and, all in all, the state of emergency usually associated with the threat of military aggression and hostilities.”
Trump makes no apologies for ramping up the police state, imposing racist-inspired travel injunctions, banning transgender people from serving in the military, and initiating tax reforms that further balloon the obscene wealth gap in the United States. All the while using his Twitter feed to entertain his right-wing, white supremacist and religious fundamentalist base at home with a steady stream of authoritarian comments, while showering affection and legitimation on a range of despots abroad, the most recent being the self-confessed killer, Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines.
According to Felipe Villamor of the New York Times, “Mr. Duterte has led a campaign against drug abuse in which he has encouraged the police and others to kill people they suspect of using or selling drugs.” Powerful authoritarian leaders such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping appear to pose an especially strong attraction to Trump, who exhibits little interests in their massive human rights violations. Trump’s high regard for white supremacy and petty authoritarianism became clear on the domestic front when he pardoned former Arizona Sheriff Joseph Arpaio, a vicious racist who waged a war against undocumented immigrants, Latino residents and individuals who did not speak English. Arpaio also housed detainees in an outdoor prison that he called his personal “concentration camp.”
As Marjorie Cohn observes, Arpaio engaged in a series of sadistic practices in his outdoor jail in Phoenix that included forcing them “to wear striped uniforms and pink underwear,” “work on chain gangs,” and be subjected to blistering Arizona heat so severe that their “shoes would melt.” There is more at work here than Trump legitimating the practices of a monstrous racist; there is also expressed support for both a culture of violence and state-sanctioned oppression.
Trump’s authoritarianism cuts deeply into the fabric of both government and everyday politics in the United States. For example, despicable and morally reprehensible acts of collaboration with an emergent authoritarianism have created a Republican Party that echoes an eerie resemblance to similar flights of moral and political corruption that characterized the cowardly politicians in power in Vichy France during World War II.
Former conservative talk-show host Charles Sykes is right to argue that members of the current Republican Party are “collaborators and enablers” and as such are Vichy Republicans who are willingly engaged in a Faustian bargain with an incipient authoritarianism. Corrupted by power and willing to turn a blind eye to corruption, stupidity, barbarism and the growing savagery of the Trump administration, Republicans have surrendered to Trump’s authoritarian ideology, economic fundamentalism, support for religious orthodoxy and increasingly cruel and mean-spirited policies, which “meant accepting the unacceptable [all the while reasoning] it would be worth it if they got conservative judges, tax cuts, and the repeal of Obamacare.”
Alarmingly, they have ignored the criticisms of Trump by high-profile members of their own party. For instance, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, accused Trump of “debasing the nation” and “treating his office like a reality show.” Corker warned that Trump may be setting the U.S. “on the path to World War III.”
Egregious examples of political barbarism, state violence, the morally reprehensible and the utter corruption of politics and democracy have become all too familiar in the first year of Trump’s presidency, and the list just keeps growing. Trump’s hatred of Muslims and undocumented immigrants is visible in his call to build walls rather than bridges, to invoke shared fears rather than shared responsibilities, to destroy all the public institutions that make democracy possible, and to expand a culture in which self-interest, greed, militarism and repression expand the ideology, social relations and practices that breathe life into what might be called gangster capitalism, rather than the less odious notion of a Second Gilded Age.
Trump has no shame and seems to delight in a pornographic display of moral indiscretion that produce waves of not only moral outrage but a constant theater of distraction. Against growing concern over his connection with the Russians, he fires James Comey as head of the FBI. In the face of his failure to pass any of his regressive legislative policies, particularly around healthcare reform, he insults fellow Republicans in Congress. As Robert Mueller’s investigation heats up, he publicly humiliates Jeff Sessions, his own attorney general.
In the interest of political expediency, both Trump and presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway have called for the election of Roy Moore, Republican nominee for the Alabama Senate seat abandoned by Sessions. Moore is a theocratic extremist, religious fundamentalist, homophobe and accused sexual predator. More than a half dozen women have now accused him of various forms of sexual misconduct when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s. Trump and Conway’s defense rested on the morally vacuous claim and obscene rationale that it was necessary to elect Moore to the Senate so Trump would have another Republican Senate vote to pass a tax bill that functions as a wet kiss and wedding gift for the rich. It gets worse. This is not simply politics without a moral referent. It is a politics that embraces civic regression, and represents a form of evil one associates with the forms of domestic terrorism that characterizes totalitarianism.
Trump is the apostle of moral blindness and unchecked corruption. He revels in a mode of governance that merges the idiocy of a never-ending theatrics of self-promotion with a deeply authoritarian politics of contempt, punishment and humiliation free from any kind of self-reflection or moral evaluation. One under-analyzed example can be seen in his contempt for young people, whether expressed through his attempt to expel more than 700,000 Dreamers from the United States, sanction a budget that eliminates or cuts major social provisions for poor and vulnerable youth, or advocate a tax reform billthat will impose massive suffering and hardships on minorities of class and color.
Trump has given new force to the rise of the punishing state with its obsession with security, incarceration, public shaming and the resuscitation of debtor prisons and the school-to-prison pipeline. Trump’s contempt for the lives of young people, his support for a culture of cruelty and his appetite for destruction and civic catastrophe is more than a symptom of a society ruled almost exclusively by the logic of the market and a “survival of the fittest” ethos, with its willingness if not glee in calling for the separation of economic, political and social actions from any social costs or consequences. It is about the systemic derangement of democracy and the emergence of a politics that celebrates the toxic pleasures of the authoritarian state.
While there is much talk about the influence of Trumpism, there are few analyses that examine its culture of cruelty and politics of disposability, or the role that culture plays in legitimating intolerance and suffering. The culture of cruelty and mechanisms of disposability reach back to the founding of the United States as a settler-colonial society. How else does one explain a long line of state-sanctioned atrocities: the genocide waged against Native Americans in order to take their land, enslavement and breeding of black people for profit and labor, and the passage of the Second Amendment to arm and enforce white supremacy over those populations? The legacies of those horrific roots of U.S. history are coded into Trumpist slogans about “making America great again,” and egregiously defended through appeals to American exceptionalism.
More recent instances indicative of the rising culture of bigoted cruelty and mechanisms of erasure in U.S. politics include the racially motivated drug wars, policies that shifted people from welfare to workfare without offering training programs or child care, and morally indefensible tax reforms that will “require huge budget cuts in safety net programs for vulnerable children and adults.” As Marian Wright Edelman points out, such actions are particularly alarming and cruel at a time when millions of American children “are suffering from hunger, homelessness and hopelessness. Nearly 13.2 million children are poor – almost one in five. About 70 percent of them are children of color who will be a majority of our children by 2020. More than 1.2 million are homeless. About 14.8 million children struggle against hunger in food insecure households.”
Trump is both a symptom and enabler of this culture, one that enables him to delight in taunting black athletes, defending neo-Nazis in Charlottesville and mocking anyone who disagrees with him. This is the face of a kind of Reichian psycho-politics, with its mix of violence, repression, theatrics, incoherency and spectacularized ignorance. Trump makes clear that the dream of the Confederacy is still with us, that moral panics thrive against a culture of rancid racism, “a background of obscene inequalities, progressive deregulation of labor markets and a massive expansion in the ranks of the precariat.”
In an age of almost unparalleled extremism, violence and cruelty, authoritarianism is gaining ground, rapidly creating a society in which shared fears and unchecked hatred have become the organizing forces for community. Under the Trump regime, dissent is disparaged as a pathology or dismissed as fake news, while even the slightest compassion for others becomes an object of disdain and subject to policies that increase the immiseration, suffering and misery of the most vulnerable.
Under the shadow of 9/11, fear has gained a new momentum as more and more individuals and groups are denigrated, labeled as disposable, subject to forms of social and racial cleansing that are in accord with the force of a resurgent white supremacy emboldened by the fact that one of its sympathizers is now president of the United States. Rejecting the most basic elements of a sustainable democracy, Trumpism has unleashed a rancid populism and racially inspired ultra-nationalism that sustains itself by looking everywhere for enemies while occupying the high ground of political purity and an empty moralism.
In the past, racist Democrats and Republicans did everything they could to cover over any naked expressions of their racism. This is no longer the case. Under Trump, both racist discourse and the underlying principles of white supremacy are both encouraged and emboldened. In the midst of the collapse of civil society and the public spheres that make a democracy possible, every line of decency is crossed, every principle of civility is violated, and more and more elements of justice are transformed into an injustice. Trump has become the blunt instrument and Twitter preacher for displaying a contempt for the truth, a critical citizenry, and democracy itself. He has anointed himself as the apostle of unchecked greed, unbridled narcissism and limitless militarism.
Wedded to both creating a culture of civic illiteracy and the plundering of the planet for both his own personal gain and that of his corporate cronies, Trump has done more than assault standards of truth, verification and evidence. He has opened the door to the dark cave of moral depravity, political corruption and a dangerous right-wing nationalist populism that, as Frank Rich observes, threatens to have “remarkable staying power” long after Trump is gone.
Gangster capitalism under Trump has reached a new stage, in that it is unabashedly aggressive in mounting a war against every institution capable of providing a vision, a semblance of critical agency or a formative culture capable of creating agents who might be willing to hold power accountable. The American public is witnessing a crisis not merely of politics but of history, vision and agency, or what Andrew O’Hehir more pointedly called the acts of a domestic terrorist. This is a politics of domesticated fear, manufactured illusions and atomizing effects. Trump is the product of a culture long in the making, one fueled by the triumph of finance capital, the legitimation of a rancid individualism and a crippling notion of freedom. In this age of precarity, infantilizing publicity machines and uncertainty, a sense of collective impotency and fear provides the breeding ground for isolation, the corporate state and the discourses of inscription, demonization and false communities.
A culture of immediacy, an economy of profound boredom, instant gratification and spectacularized violence, has created a society of deliberate forgetting and a sadomasochistic culture that thrives on humiliation, revenge, a culture of punitiveness and an aesthetics of depravity. Trump signifies the death of the radical imagination and the apotheosis of its opposite: a lackluster hatred of thoughtfulness, creativity and inventiveness. Trump makes clear that capitalism and democracy are not synonymous, and that everyone has to be either consumer or taxpayer.
I think the artist Sable Elyse Smith is right in arguing that ignorance is more than the absence of knowledge or the refusal to know. It is also a form of violence that is woven into the fabric of everyday life by the power of massive “disimagination machines.” Its ultimate goal is to enable us to not only consume pain and to propagate it, but to relish in it as a form of entertainment and emotional uplift. Ignorance is also the enemy of memory and a weapon in the politics of disappearance and the violence of organized forgetting. It is also about the erasure of what Brad Evans calls “the raw realities of suffering” and the undermining of a politics that is in part about the battle for memory.
Trump within a very short time has legitimated and reinforced a culture of social abandonment, erasure and terminal exclusion. Justice in this discourse is disposable along with the institutions that make it possible. What is distinctive about Trump is that he defines himself through the tenets of a predatory and cruel form of gangster capitalism, while using its power to fill government positions with what appear to be the walking dead and at the same time produce death-dealing policies. Of course he is just the overt and unapologetic symbol of a wild capitalism and dark pessimism that have been decades in the making. He is the theatrical, self-absorbed monster that embodies and emboldens a history of savagery, greed and extreme inequality that has reached its endpoint — a poisonous form of American authoritarianism that must be stopped before it is too late. Trump makes clear that democracy is tenuous and has to be viewed as a site of ongoing contestation, one that demands a new understanding of politics, language and collective struggle.
Trump’s reign of terror will come to an end. But the forces that made Trump possible will not end with his political demise. This means that in the ongoing struggle against authoritarianism, progressives need a language of critique and possibility. This suggests the need for a new vocabulary that refuses to look away, refuses to surrender to either the dictates of consumerism, fear or bigotry. It also suggest a left/progressive movement that does more than say what it is against. It also needs a vision and an ongoing project that enables it to say what it is for. This could take the form of creating a political, economic and social platform rooted in the principles of democratic socialism.
Ariel Dorfman, drawing upon his own memories and experience of authoritarianism under Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean dictator, speaks to the need for such a language. He writes: “It brings back to me the imaginative enormity that every true demand for radical change insists upon. It catches a missing feeling of our age: the belief that alternative worlds are possible, that they are within reach if we’re courageous enough, and smart enough, and daring enough to take control of our own lives.”
We get a hint of such a language in the words of the writer Maaza Mengiste, who calls for a discourse of passion, power, responsibility and justice, one that “will take us from shock and stunned silence toward a coherent, visceral speech, one as strong as the force that is charging at us.” In the age of Trump, we need to take seriously the notion that education is at the center of politics — that, as Stuart Hall has consistently stressed, “politics follows culture.” For Hall, this meant that addressing oppression cannot rest with an emphasis on economic structures, however important. What was also needed was recognizing how domination worked at the level of belief and persuasion, which suggested that education and consciousness-raising was at the center of politics.
As Hall puts it, “You can’t just rest with the underlying structural logic. And so you think about what is likely to awaken identification. There’s no politics without identification. People have to invest something of themselves, something that they recognize is of them or speaks to their condition, and … you won’t have a political movement without that moment of identification.”
This suggests a politics that begins both with a vision of what a democratic socialist society might look like and a narrative that makes power visible. This implies a language that is both rigorous theoretically and accessible. Moreover, it means developing a vocabulary that moves people, speaks directly to their problems, allows them to feel compassion for the other and gives them the courage to talk back. This suggests forging the appropriate pedagogical and symbolic weapons that make knowledge meaningful in order to make it critical and transformative. Rethinking politics means creating a vocabulary that enables us to confront a sense of responsibility in the face of the unspeakable, and to do so with a sense of dignity, self-reflection and the courage to act in the service of a radical democracy. It also means providing the theoretical tools that enable people to connect private problems with wider social issues.
In the face of Trump’s brand of authoritarianism, progressives need a vocabulary that allows us to recognize ourselves as agents, not victims, in the discourse of a radical democratic politics. We need a politics that addresses systemic problems and refuses gangster capitalism’s insistence that all problems are personal, an exclusive matter of individual responsibility and privatized solutions. This is not to underplay how difficult it is to acknowledge any viable sense of the outrage and struggle in an age when the power of culture, new digital technologies, social media and mainstream cultural apparatuses seem almost overwhelming in their deleterious effects on shaping agency, desires, values and modes of identification. But rather than surrender to such forces, they need to be reworked in the interest of a set of collective and emancipatory modes of communication, social relations and forms of resistance.
At the same time it is crucial to remember that there is more at stake here than a struggle over meaning. There is also the struggle over power, over the need to create a formative culture that will produce new modes of critical agency and contribute to a broad social movement that can translate meaning into a fierce struggle for economic, political and social justice. Power is never entirely on the side of domination, and there are numerous examples of resistance cropping up all over the United States. Not only it is evident in youth movements such as Black Lives Matter and the Dreamers, but also middle-aged women in the red states fighting over what Judith Shulevitz calls “the big issues for the resistance [such as] health care and gerrymandering, followed by dark money in politics, education and the environment.”
Activists are also mobilizing over immigrant rights, mass incarceration, police violence, abolishing nuclear weapons and environmental justice, among other issues. Facing the challenge of fascism will not be easy, but Americans are marching, protesting and organizing in record-breaking numbers. Hopefully, mass indignation will evolve into a worldwide movement whose power will be on the side of justice rather than impunity, bridges rather than walls, dignity rather than disrespect, and kindness rather than cruelty. What is crucial is that these discrete movements come together under a larger political and social formation in order to develop alliances capable of developing into a democratic socialist party, one willing to make resistance a necessity rather than not an option.