Much of the enlightened right remains in agreement with the enlightened left regarding Donald Trump now that he is primed to be the Republican candidate for the Oval Office: he is a vulgar, dangerous bigot whose opportunism is as apparent as his ostentatious wealth. Whereas President Obama possesses the regality necessary to statecraft, as well as the legalistic understanding of how the political process actually works, Trump possesses only himself, and exemplifies the solipsism so typical of tyrants. For all the flack the right catches from the left, it cannot be seriously said that Trump is the best they have to offer the nation in terms of either leadership or oligarchy; in fact, as far as greedy, frivolous people go, the country’s upper echelon is positively bursting with them. Why, then, the success of a man who is neither very talented in business ventures—he lives on credit, after all, and might very well be of negative net worth were his creditors to come knocking on his gilded door—with a popular base whose interests and hobbies he neither shares nor cares about in the least? Trump is successful with the public precisely because he hates them dearly; this observation explains his peculiar talent in the handling of the aggrieved American people.
American history is full of success stories built on scandal and the prospect of misery. In the late nineteenth century, the scholarly and the lay public believed the world was coming to and end by virtue of entropy, the gradual running down of the universe and thus of society. Yeats’ image of “the widening gyre” was only a late residue of what people had been thinking of for decades before the World Wars; as scientific understanding of physical mechanics grew horizontally and vertically, social theorists began to interpolate those findings into their own nascent sociology. How could a society continue on an upward trend of progress indefinitely, if even matter itself failed to do so? What does progress become when it is halted in its tracks? Marxism believed it would clash with its own regression and inspire the new social formation of communism on the corpse of industrial capitalism. Liberalism believed in the power of law and wealth to overcome the law of inevitability. The far right wing believed in disciplining the natural world, including human beings, into the image of its own perverted design.
Virtually every political and social ideology of the period engaged with the idea of decline: the decline of the white race, the decline of capital’s ability to produce the profits so definitional to its existence, the decline of the West, the decline of aristocratic virtue, the decline of masculinity, the decline of the people. Arthur Herman, The Idea of Decline in Western History, considers decline to be one of the most populous, re-occurring, and unfortunate themes in the history of industrial civilization. It is this idea which Trump engages with most effectively. Whereas Obama focused his popular campaigns on the idea of classical progress—Yes We Can has nary a note of decline in its imaginative contours—Trump focuses purely on what he believes is wrong with the country, and promises to Make America Great Again. Such a platform depends first on the notion that America has declined from greatness, and second, that he alone can deliver that sanctimonious pledge through a brand of vitriol heretofore unencountered among presidential candidates.
To hate has become the only American thing left in our society besides the firearm and the heart attack. The negligence of civic virtue might be, in part, responsible for this shift.
We Americans respond to that vitriol because it is the germ that populates our own natural habitat of zoon politikon. Whereas Aristotle imagined the political animal to be possessed of certain sort of classical reason, that classical reasoning has been long abolished in the American psyche. Our political ideologies resemble wrestling matches, only no one knows how true to life they are, or if they are shams of a perfectly high magnitude. We don’t do dialectics; we assassinate character. We don’t care about pragmatism; we care about third-effect social benefits, like the wealth of Trump or the gender of Clinton. The country that invented pragmatism has well disposed of it, and replaced it with a contest of brutishness. That Trump despises the working poor and the middle classes is immaterial to the resemblance he does share with them: he hates everybody except himself. To hate has become the only American thing left in our society besides the firearm and the heart attack. The negligence of civic virtue might be, in part, responsible for this shift. The more likely unfolding is that Trumpism is not very new. In fact, it is as old as the country itself, and as infused with bigotry, warmongering, and fevered visions of the apocalypse.
I propose here a list of historical events and dare the reader to disagree with the thesis that, had Trump played a role in them, they would have turned out any differently:
*the antimonian debates between different Protestant sects that proved so destructive to New England’s social fabric that liberal intervention became necessary and the idea of the separation of church and state was sealed at the advent of America
*the mass slaughter of Native Americans in order to divide their aggregate land and renege any legal promises made by both private industries and the federal government
*chattel slavery and the favoring of wealthy plantation owners over Southern citizens as a whole, leading to the immiseration of not only slaves but also the general working and small-farming classes, which led to the Civil War
*labor riots, wage wars, and anarchistic responses to fears of oligarchy during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, resulting in mob violence
*the rise of second-wave Ku Klux Klan during the 1920’s, which commandeered racism as a way to combat immigration and “miscegenation”
*Jim Crow laws, the public lynching of black children, and the mass political disenfranchisement of African Americans throughout the South
*illegal interment of Japanese-American families during World War II
*multiple proxy wars in communist Asia during the 1950’s and 1960’s
*the prospect of global annihilation via nuclear weapons
*psychiatric classification of homosexuality as an illness until the 1970’s
*the Drug War of the 1970’s and 1980’s, leading to the mass incarceration of poor people, especially poor non-whites, the destruction of urban communities in general, and inter-generational economic disadvantage
*the War on Terror, which was developed unilaterally but decried by the international community in almost its entirety.
Had Trump been alive and actively played a role in any of these events, they would have turned out no differently (with the exception that those labor riots might not have forced the government and unions to introduce work and safety regulations, and the mere threat of nuclear war might have turned into actual nuclear war), because the sort of thinking that Trump represents was already present in a massive way. The bitterness he incites from the public is not his invention so much as already latent. Blaming Mexican immigrants for the woes of the country is not that different from how Americans viewed Jews during other eras: both sorts of people were or are historically productive on the economic arena, if taken as an aggregate. Banning muslims from immigrating is not very different from banning the immigration of Poles, or Jews, or black French.
Blaming the poor for their poverty is not very different from blaming those employed in the manufacturing class for the demise of their own support system, or for the collapse of the price parity of wages. Building a gigantic wall along the Southern border sounds eerily like building walls around Japanese families: he even wants to capitalize on the space for advertising purposes, which is perhaps the most American thing of all. Imagine if Coca Cola had signed an exclusive contract with the military with the provision that only their soda, and no one else’s, could be consumed by the Japanese inmates.
Theodor Adorno, the left wing social theorist, famously wrote an eponymous book on what he called The Authoritarian Psyche. He had developed its insights from his experience as a refugee from Nazi Germany, but came to apply it to the way Americans thought during the middle of the twentieth century. At around the same time, due to the afterglow of world war, American exceptionalism edged its way into public affairs, and the country took its role as leader of the free world. The costume of world leader never fit very well, of course. What had began as a high ideal shape-shifted into a method for extracting profits from poor countries and allying with monstrous regimes in order to bolster world peace. Racism was alive and well, as was xenophobic nationalism; neither of these haunting specters has exactly decreased with time, it must be said. But even for all of that, there was still the United Nations, a conglomeration of conflicting opinions that still stood for unanimity after all was said and done. Of all the member nations of the UN, America is among the most disagreeable—we are always correct compared to the lame opinions of mere foreigners, aren’t we?
Trump has even pushed for dismantling the UN. But that opinion is not his alone: it seems to be almost the consensus that American policy should not be dictated by that disunited relic of the Cold War. Yet again, Trump is not an inventor of authoritarian public opinion, he is just its most famous bottom-feeder. It isn’t even clear if a Trumpian presidency would be any more dangerous than any other presidency: after all, all he would do is radiate the blood-hungry clamor of popular opinion outward, rather than calm its most disputatious tendencies.
What if, throughout the last several centuries, we haven’t declined from anything, but have never even budged from our original meanness? Now that the social democrat Sanders is practically disqualified from attaining the favored seat in the White House he so yearned for, and his dyspeptic followers are supporting Trump for his supposed independence from the Clintonian banking kleptocracy, the core of even outlying opinion has been exposed for its love of disunity. Left and right converge precisely where they make the least logical sense. To endorse illness over medicine has long been our practice, after all. An ugly, unmannered, in-eloquent man in control of the most powerful military on Earth might just be what the American people need to experience if we are to understand the hollow pit upon which we have so long poised ourselves and our civilization, and whose bumbling apparition is both our own parody and mirror image.
Jeremy Brunger is a Tennessee-based writer and graduate in English of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. His interests trend toward Marxist-humanist political philosophy, the psychological tolls of poverty, race theory, and the end results of religious practice in modern societies. He publishes poetry with Sibling Rivalry Press and the Chiron Review and nonfiction prose with various and sundry venues and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.