“His cupboard bare; his vision hardwired” – Wire, ‘Internal Exile’
As some wag tweeted after the presidential election, orange is the new black: Trump the Terrible will soon replace Oleaginous Obama as the leader of the world’s most powerful nation. Trump’s white nationalist supporters and hangers-on are naturally ecstatic – and some of them may even find positions of power in the new administration.
Trump himself, of course, is a thoroughly rebarbative figure, a blundering clown in the freakshow of American democracy. Every element of his face betrays his nastiness and narcissism: the florid cheeks with their expression veering between phoney solemnity and leering frivolity; the puckered, hole-in-a-pie mouth, twisted at the corners into a rictus of sneering contempt; the cold, watchful eyes of a deep ocean predator. Groucho Marx once said, ‘I never forget a face, but in your case I’ll be glad to make an exception’. But we will not be allowed to forget. For the next four years at least, Trump’s fleshy fizog will be squinting and gurning from every television screen and social media feed, a demented icon of capitalist degeneracy.
Although the competition is fierce, Trump might just be the most dimwitted president in US history. This is, after all, the man who publicly said 7-Eleven when he meant 9/11. He is certainly highly dysfunctional, hailing from a traumatizing and traumatized family. Like his father (by all accounts), Trump is a bully, a psychologically damaged man who is now projecting his own malignancy onto a range of officially sanctioned Others: Mexicans, Muslims and women. From a psychoanalytical point of view, his tough-guy persona might be explained in terms of the ‘traumatic bond’ that often forms between victim and abuser, which in Trump’s case was likely forged with his father in childhood. This ‘identification with the aggressor’, as Sándor Ferenczi famously called this kind of defence mechanism, might also explain the appeal of Trump for the many disgruntled left-behinds who voted for him: in a harsh and unforgiving world, it’s best to keep on side with Big Daddy, however obscene his behaviour.
While it is unlikely that Trump will go through with all, or even many of his pledges, we can expect the policies of Trump’s administration broadly to match the reactionary rhetoric of his presidential campaign. Disaster certainly beckons – for workers, minorities and the environment.
But some context and a sense of proportion is also needed.
Judging by mainstream journalism and social media commentary, most liberals reckon a Trump presidency to be a worse outcome than a Hillary Clinton one would have been. I am not so sure. While the Orange One is undoubtedly a monstrously vulgar reactionary capitalist, Clinton is a thoroughgoing neoliberal and a corrupt sadist. Who can forget her derisive quip following the butchering of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in a drainage pipe: ‘we came, we saw, he died’? And as Secretary of State under Obama, ‘Killary’ was responsible not just for cruel words, but for spreading real death and destruction across the globe. There is no reason to assume that she represented the lesser of two evils in the recent election.
Similar points could be made about the relationship of Trump to his predecessor, Barack Obama. Many liberal commentators see the passage from Obama to Trump in terms of what Carl Jung called enantiodromia – a radical transition from good to evil. Throughout the election campaign, they execrated Trump’s every racist remark and lewd confession – and even seemed to derive a perverse enjoyment from doing so. And when Trump emerged victorious, some US liberals even expressed a desire to emigrate before the nasty stuff got underway (I’m a cosmopolitan individualist, get me out of here). But while liberals have revelled in the daily reports of Trump’s bigotry, they have generally been silent on the crimes of the man who was US president for the past eight years. When these crimes are considered, Trump’s succession appears less like a break with the past and more like business as usual.
So let’s briefly consider Obama’s track record. Obama implemented – and lied about – an unprecedented surveillance campaign against his own population, waged a veritable war on whistleblowers, normalized extrajudicial killing, deported more immigrants than Clinton and Bush combined, and presided, with Hillary Clinton, over the destruction of Libya. Nor was Obama averse to expressions of Trump-style narcissism. In reference to his global drone murder programme – described by Noam Chomsky as ‘the biggest terrorist campaign in history’ – Obama is reported to have made a typically creepy joke to his aides: ‘it turns out I’m really good at killing people’ (an example, perhaps, of what psychoanalysts call ‘defence through admission’). And who can forget his violent and patriarchal Correspondents Dinner ‘joke’ about using predator drones to take out potential suitors to his daughters. During the financial crisis, meanwhile, Obama showed himself to be the friend of the bankers and the hammer of the working class, bailing out the banks and opposing a moratorium on home foreclosures.
Indeed, it should surprise nobody that the Obama years saw an unprecedented transfer of wealth in the United States from the poor to the rich. Trump, should he actually manage to survive as President, will surely bring misery to the working class at home and abroad; but Obama, the slick desk-bound assassin, has been doing precisely that for the last eight years, even if the US liberal-left, hopelessly lost in the labyrinths of identity politics, has largely proved unwilling to criticize his administration. Whatever else it stands for, then, Trump’s triumph hardly represents a rolling back of eight years of enlightened governance. This is no Orange Thermidor.
Nevertheless, the shift from Obama to Trump is not just a changing of the guard, a transition from Tweedledum to Tweedledumber. Trump’s victory, like the Brexit vote in the UK, does seem to signal a certain reconfiguration of forces in the post-crisis political landscape. The so-called ‘neoliberal’ political consensus of the past few decades is facing a challenge to its legitimacy and this, it seems, is giving rise to new strategies of ideological containment. This not a resurgence of fascism. Some ultra-right elements in the US have certainly been emboldened, even empowered in the wake of Trump’s success. But this is not the 1930s and Trump is not a new Hitler, popular as such tropes are among many liberal activists. Rather, it is right-wing populism that is the order of the day and Trump’s rise is mirrored in the ascendance of regressive strongmen all across the international stage: Duterte, Orbán, Erdoğan and other xenophobic demagogues.
The precise meaning of this populist turn is not yet clear. Some radical analysts argue that the populist surge actually operates against the interests of dominant ruling class factions and thus represents a certain strategic impasse and even a loss of control among the bourgeoisie in the established democracies. According to this view, all is not well with the ruling order. Yet even if this analysis is correct, given the current absence of almost any serious working-class struggle (or even, let’s be honest, basic organization) in most parts of the world, this destabilization of global politics is a potentially dangerous development.
As socialists, we can only reiterate that populism and charismatic leadership, whether in its right-wing or left-wing form, is not the answer to our problems. To those seeking a world without exploitation, war, xenophobia, racism and sexism, it matters little which butcher is currently wielding the cleaver over what Hegel called the ‘slaughter bench of history’. As Marx insisted, the liberation of the working class must be conquered by the working class itself. With this in mind, we should reject the idea that salvation lies in a nicer president or more enlightened prime minister. Whether black, white or tangerine, these politicians speak and act in the interests of the ruling class. In the immortal words of the punk group Crass, ‘we’ve got to learn to reject all leaders, and the passive shit they feed us’. When Trump fails to make America – or anything else – great, we socialists will still be around, arguing that our future rests in our own hands.