Scattered Thoughts on Trump

I’m not sure how much more amateur political analysis the internet needs, given how much has been written on Trump already. Still, here are some scattered thoughts on Trump:

1. Grand Narratives

I’ll engage in those shamelessly in a moment. But it is useful to remember that if less than a hundred thousand Americans in some key states would have voted differently, we would be having a very different debate. So I’m a bit sceptical of narratives which see Trump’s win as a triumphant win for <populism/nationalism/rural America/…>, or a shattering failure of <Clintonism/cosmopolitanism/progressives/…>.

Beyond general scepticism about the truth of sweeping narratives, I also think they can hinder genuine understanding. For example, you might blame identity politics for a feeble, irrational, disunited Left. Alternatively, you might reduce the whole election to the resurgence of “white supremacy”—to racism, and perhaps also sexism. In principle, these are interesting, debate-worthy hypotheses (though establishing the causal links in some of these explanations will be very hard). But too often, grand narratives feel like predictable ideological reflexes, lazy attempts to deflect serious reflection. This is what I found so compelling in Arlie Hochschild’s book: while her book isn’t ostensibly about Trump, Hochschild’s careful, patient sociological search for explaining the Louisiana Tea Party is still the most insightful analysis of Trumpism I’ve read.

2. The demand side of lies

Every market has a supply and a demand side, news included. Much of the debate surrounding “fake” news, “post-truth” politics, and social media “bubbles” ignores the demand side. The point is simple. If there was no FOX News, or no Rush Limbaugh, or no Breitbart, or no Macedonian teenagers propagating fake news, then someone else would take their place, simply because there is a demand for misinformation and half-truths, for news which support one’s own ideological itches.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hold those news outlets responsible for their lies, and for the terrible damage they do. We should do something about so-called “fake” news, and I think German initiatives here are roughly the right way to go. But I suspect that fake news, post-truth politics, and to some degree, the “filter bubbles” which come from social media are surface phenomena which reflect deeper social and political divides. If you ultimately want to tackle fake news, you need to think about the demand side as much as you think about the supply side, perhaps even more.

3. Reagan and Trump

Okay, so let me indulge in some grand theorising after all. The best historical frame, I think, in which one can locate Trump is still in relation to Reagan. That’s not because Trump is anything like Reagan, but rather because Trump’s impending presidency will raise the first big questions about Reagan’s neoliberal inheritance.

Neoliberalism is an overused term, especially on the Left, but at its core it is a useful summary of the main political and economic developments of the American era since the early 1980s: scepticism about and shrinking of the (welfare) state; de-regulation (especially of the financial sector) and privatization; a general trust in free markets; and a strong focus on free trade, globalisation and open borders. The main policy disagreements post-Reagan have been mostly over whether neoliberalism should be pursued in a softer, Clintonite-Blairite fashion, or in a harsher, more uncompromising version.

What’s been curious in this respect is the “strange non-death” of neoliberalism, as Colin Crouch has put it, in the wake of the second Great Depression. The first Great Depression led to enormous social upheavals which eventually led to the New Deal era. But nothing even remotely comparable has happened so far.

It’s here that we get to Trump. There are three possibilities to place Trump in the long-term historical narrative: (i) Trump’s presidency will end the neoliberal age and be the start of something new (the nationalist age? the isolationist age? the populist age? the tribalist age?), or (ii) Trump is a transitionary, “disjunctive” president who represents the dying breaths of neoliberalism, paving the way for something new, or (iii) Trump simply continues the neoliberal age, and merely applies a different, more populist coat of paint to the same package of policies.

There are signs pointing in all directions. On the one hand, Trump ran on an economically moderate platform (for US conservative standards), and generally seems a fan of state intervention. It’s also noteworthy that while Trump wants to repeal Obamacare, he also wants to replace it, and keep its “good” parts. This is a quiet, but dramatic shift away from the strong Reaganite suspicion of the welfare state. (A point I take from this excellent piece by Corey Robin.)

The debate now seems to be not about whether the government gets involved in healthcare at all, but to what degree. In the long run this way of phrasing the question helps the Democrats, even if the repeal of Obamacare will be a temporary setback. The same goes for many other Trumpian talking points.

On the other hand, Trump’s cosiness with bankers and his ridiculous tax plan suggest a continuation of neoliberalism. On this version of the story, Trump will pursue some symbolic anti-globalist policies meant to assuage an angered electorate—build a largely ineffective wall, force a few companies in high-profile cases to keep jobs in the US, make some token efforts against immigrants, temporarily raise tariffs on Chinese imports, etc. etc.—while the basic thrust of economic policy will remain the same. This is the scenario that Paul Ryan is hoping for, and the direction in which he and other Republicans will try to nudge Trump.

Radicals should put their hopes on scenario (ii). On one version of this story, Trump faces the impossible task of placating his electoral base, keeping the support of Republican elites, and pursuing plausible policies which don’t wreck his popular support even more. Trump, impatient and incompetent, will fail in this task. In so doing, the Hegelian dialectic goes, Trump unwittingly will expose the “internal contradictions” of neoliberalism. This will pave the way for a real left-wing alternative in 2021, or perhaps even earlier.

I find it difficult to judge which of these three scenarios is most likely. But there’s much to suggest that the next four years, and perhaps even more so the next presidential election, will deliver a crucial verdict on the neoliberal era.

4. Hitler and Trump

As an act of annual German guilt-tripping, I’m currently reading a Hitler biography (Volker Ullrich’s competent and comprehensive, but unexciting “Adolf Hitler: Die Jahre des Aufstiegs”). To say this up front, I don’t think that any Hitler—Trump or America—Weimar-Germany comparisons pass a superficial smell test. (They’ve been made anyways.)

Still, there are some interesting, more local comparisons, as concerns the rise of populists. One of the recurring themes in Ullrich’s biography is that Hitler was consistently underestimated by contemporary Weimar elites, who saw him as an intellectually light-weight upstart. It’s sometimes forgotten that Hitler’s rise to power in early 1933 could only have started because Hitler was heaved by conservative elites into the role of chancellor, which wasn’t an unavoidable political choice. These elites thought that by framing Hitler and his fellow Nazis with a cabinet of more respectable conservatives they could tame him and his movement, and bend his popular appeal to their purposes (which were anti-democratic as well, but not totalitarian). This, of course, blatantly underestimated Hitler’s will to power.

Trump’s case is structurally not the same, of course. But both populists share two important similarities: a constant underestimation of their appeal and skills, and a belief on part of elites that they can be tamed and used for their purposes. The lesson is that it’s easy to fail to take populists seriously, because their style is so outlandish and their substance so thin. That would be a mistake. For example, Trump is widely ridiculed amongst well-educated cosmopolitan elites because of his particular oratorical style. (As a side note, I think that this ridicule is often misinformed—this has been amply documented, for example, at Language Log.) But it’s an intellectualist mistake to infer from the simplicity of Trump’s vernacular that one ought not to take him politically seriously.

5. Substance and Distraction

This brings me to the next topic. It’s very tempting to engage in lots of Trumpology now—to obsess over the particulars of his character, past, psychology, opinions, rhetorical style, appearance, and so on. These types of “Trumpology” are exciting because Trump is so much larger than life. But Trumpology ultimately helps Trump, because it distracts us from political substance. Indeed, I suspect that one of Trump’s greatest assets is that he manages to distract attention away from political substance to these various more mundane obsessions.

I think distraction and constant drama are two of Trump’s most powerful strategies against his liberal critics. Trump became famous through reality television, which lives and breathes with the never-ending stream of daily controversy, and he is very much adopted this style. Insofar as Trump manages to drag political debate down to the day-to-day controversy, to the twitter version of politics, he will be able to compete.

I made the mistake of subscribing to lots of American ‘politicos’ on my Twitter feed—journalists, activists, insiders who follow the news loop, and provide a constantly running commentary on Trump. These are intelligent, witty people, and their views on Trump normally strike me as apt and knowledgeable. There is a certain hypnotic quality to their constant commentary on Trump. But ultimately, running from news item to news item looks like a good way of getting out of touch with what politically genuinely matters—at least that’s what I experienced.

I had a fantasy for a while that everyone should be allowed to comment on any political event no earlier a week after it happened. Similarly, one might fantasize that nothing should be a news item which comes in a format shorter than a three-page whitepaper. These are fantasies. But I think it might be worthwhile to think back to politics pre-Twitter. Tweets are not news; focussing on them helps Trump.

6. Brexit and Trump

It’s tempting to group Brexit and Trump together, as expressions of the same political development, which we might call populism or anti-elite feeling. There certainly are some important similarities—heated campaigns often run on misinformation, urban liberal elites shocked out of complacency by a groundswell of popular anger—but I’ve come to believe that the disanalogies are more important than the similarities.

For one, the background of the two referenda is very different. Support for  the EU has always been lukewarm in the UK, with genuine, non-instrumental enthusiasm almost absent on the political spectrum. The yellow press had whipped up hatred for the EU and immigrants for years before the referendum. So a Brexit vote, while surprising on the basis of vote forecasts, was not surprising in the larger scheme of things. Indeed, if one wishes to avoid grand narratives, one might explain Brexit as a policy disagreement within the conservative party gone bad. Brexit was an unwelcome, and perhaps unlikely referendum result; Trump’s rise was much more truly unexpected.

Second, there is a difference in how outlandish the two political developments are. To vote for Brexit is a severe political and economic mistake, but I can at least imagine intellectually respectable defences in its favour (even if those were not the ones Brexiteers ran their campaign on). But while Brexit is akin to shooting yourself in the foot—it’s painful, stupid and memorable, but you’ll get over it after a time—voting for Trump is much more like aiming for the head. There are important differences in style as well. Farage and Johnson are repugnant and cynical politicians; but next to Trump, his advisors and his cabinet, they almost look positively respectable.

If you shoot yourself in the foot, there’s still time for you to amputate it and then hobble along, a bit embarrassed perhaps at your own stupidity, and (in the best case) wiser for it. A post-Brexit Britain might be economically and culturally poorer, but there’s no reason to think it couldn’t find a new political equilibrium that is stable and on some level decent. With Trump, all this looks much more open.


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