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Dialogue on Trump

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[Another blog for the great roaring void that is IOPS and its four or five readers. This is a response to an email I got the other day about Trump from a friend of mine who is, or was, a progressive, now retired academic specializing in public health. My friend’s quoted arguments have been extracted and numbered by me. I thought the exchange perhaps of more general interest.]

1. “So much of the anti-Trump tirades distracts attention from the systemic problems, making him out to be some monstrous political aberration. Some of it is almost hysterical. Just about all of commentary comes from the political establishment he humiliated, and the mainstream media he made fools of and which show their usual taste for political theatre, trivia, fumbles, gaffes, back-flips etc.” 


We both agree systemic problems are paramount, not personalities, and that mainstream media tend to focus more on personalities than on contexts, bigger pictures, systems. At certain critical junctures in systemic developments, however, I would argue that history shows that personalities can indeed make very important differences. In my view, this is one such historical juncture.


Re the media portraying Trump as an ‘aberration’: I would argue that no, he isn’t and yes he is, that there is both continuity and discontinuity to previous ruling elite representatives (cf. below).


Don’t know where you are hanging out online, but in my view the commentary, i.e. critique of Trump, is not at all coming just from the establishment and the mainstream press as you suggest, but from the overwhelming majority of their radical and leftist critics too numerous to list. Nor in my view are the ‘political theatre’, ‘fumbles’ (?), ‘gaffes’, ‘back flips’ just trivial since they reveal things about his mental incoherence, demagogic opportunism, belligerent narcissism. Surely HE consciously makes the ‘political theatre’, not just the media; he is in fact in a narcissistic symbiosis with them.


If the media didn’t draw attention to his flagrant backflips, self-contradictions, incoherencies, nepotism, venality etc. they would be failing in their duty. We’d then be back in Trump’s own Orwellian ‘post-truth’ land where China is/isn’t a currency manipulator, NATO is/isn’t obsolete, ‘draining the Wall Street swamp’ means filling it with Wall Street people, ‘isolationism’ means bombing Syria and Afghanistan etc. (as in Orwell’s 1984 and its ‘War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery…’).


‘The mainstream media he made fools of’, you say? Surely it’s all pretty transparent, isn’t it Rich (?): when Trump isn’t outrightly quarantining, banning or viciously attacking journalists and the media as ‘failures’ etc, his ploy is that anything he doesn’t like in media reports he just calls ‘fake news’. His delirious followers seem to love it.


(In your disparaging use of the phrase ‘mainstream media’ in general and their reporting of Trump in particular, I get the sense of a lack of differentiation, as if there were no difference between critical-liberal, investigative media which now and again, however partially, ‘speak truth to power’ and provide much needed information on the ruling order-givers and the state of the world versus the tabloid/Murdoch media and their manipulative and sensationalist ‘prolefeed’ (Orwell). Where would we be without the former, I wonder, at Breitbart ‘News’ or other right-wing, conspiratorial websites and Fakebook perhaps? Would you not also distinguish between a leftist critique of mainstream media a la Chomsky and a right-wing one a la Breitbart/Trump? Cf. below my comments on your non-distinction between left and right critiques of globalization.)


2. “The fascist threat in the US came with the rise, under Bush, of the neo-cons, with their ideological commitment to free markets and the American Empire. They continued to be influential under Obama. I read that the neo-cons’ preferred candidate in the last election was Clinton, and when Trump won, they began to plot to replace him with Pence. I’ve ready many pieces warning of the slide towards war between the US and Russia, with the US as the aggressor and Clinton as more dangerous than Trump. The latest Trump moves in Syria, Afghanistan and North Korea suggest the neo-cons have pulled him into line – although there are other possible explanations.”


The ‘ideological commitment to free markets and the American Empire’ goes way back before Bush’s neo-cons. Probably at least back to Truman-Kennan late 1940s.But if not on Trump, I think we can quickly agree on Obama (and not just on his targeted killing program); my radical critiques of Obama (and many progressives’ usual double standards about such liberal-social democratic leaders) from 2012 can be found here:





I also see the ‘fascist threat’ arising strongly after 9/11 (with its seeds much earlier in post-war US of course), with a systemic shift to ‘post-liberal’ states in the west, gradually moving towards some form of ‘friendly fascism’ (Bertram Gross), ‘friendly’ only because compatible with globalisation, consumerism, the leaving in place of constitutions, commercial media and the legal apparatus etc.


In contrast to you, however, I see Trump in no way as a possible ‘alternative to TINA’ but rather as marking another significant, authoritarian, mass demagogic shift towards that ‘friendly fascism’. As his cabinet (Goldman-Sachs, Exxon, military etc) and ‘policies’ prove, Trump is the new face of Wall Street, the military-industrial complex and now the regressive fossil-fuel (anti-green capitalist) faction of the ruling elites, not their nemesis.


I wouldn’t put all that down to the old Bush-neo-cons, but see it more systemically as a global shift to the extreme right (a la Bannon, Le Pen) under mounting systemic pressures (economic, ecological, demographic) and a global economic-imperial shift from Atlantic to Asia-Pacific. Trump himself just mostly seems to be totally out of his depth (‘I discovered how big this all is’) and, with his usual bluster and deflections, more or less making it up as he goes. 


My pre-election theses on right-wing populism predicted that he, like all right-wing populists, would move away from his ‘lefter’ demagogic campaign promises to more right-wing positions once he got in power, simply because that is the necessary historical trajectory and political logic of all right-wing populism (cf. particularly Nos 16 and 17):





3. “On immigration more generally, global capitalism, having got the free movement of capital and goods it wanted, is now going for the free movement of labour; the left seems to have left it to the nationalists to challenge this.”


It is inherent in the notion of Capital that it has always gone for free labour mobility, not just now, as it increases labour competition and thus decreases costs and thus increases profits. The left did not ignore all this and ‘leave it to the nationalists to challenge’ as you suggest. You might remember (?) massive leftists global anti-/alter-globalisation movements with tens of thousands of participants from Seattle 1999 to about 2006-08 (World Social Forum). These movements were seeking NOT a nationalist/protectionist/populist rejection of all globalisation but rather an alternative, non-capitalist form of globalisation which would be socially and ecologically just for all, internationally. That is the essential left-right difference and the difference to Trumpism, Hansonism, French National Front.


Interestingly, the outsourced and de-industrialised working classes in the west did not significantly join these transnational and internationalist movements. Instead in Australia we had working class support for Hanson’s protectionist and xenophobic nationalism as of 1996 and then similar ‘Howard’s battlers’. The US working class also did not greatly support Bernie Sanders’ national-social democratic version of critiquing globalisation but instead chose Trump’s. Why? I would hypothesise perhaps because of Trump’s reality TV authoritarian Big Boss appeal and his xenophobic appeal, and maybe also because they actually envy his ‘American Dream’-wealth and bling. Many of them, I’d hazard a guess, since firmly wedded to the individualist American Dream, might tend not to revile the famous 1% (like Bernie) at all but actually envy them.


4. “The protests against Trump downplay the legitimate causes of popular disaffection. They embrace the same identity politics, focused on minority interests, that contributed to the Democrats’ election loss and has weakened the left everywhere. Trump’s ‘politics of hate’ may be cruel and his climate change policy mistaken, but progressives should applaud some of his policy positions. It is the left who despaired at the widely accepted doctrine of TINA: that ‘there is no alternative’ to neoliberalism and globalisation; Trump might provide one.”


What a strange reading of the protests against Trump and the ‘left’ in general. Progressives and many of those supporting Bernie Sanders’ campaign, which in fact very much attempted to address the social ‘causes of popular disaffection’ (a ‘political revolution against the 1%’, ‘socialism’ etc) , are now the same people protesting against Trump. They certainly did not and are not ‘downplaying the legitimate causes of popular disaffection’. Many of those are also of course women, blacks, Latinos and the LBGTIQ community, activists of what is broadly called ‘identity politics’.  Why their disparagement as ‘weakening the left everywhere’? Their ‘minority interests’ are central to any inclusive, positive vision of the future, no? I also wonder why you downplay Trump’s demagogic xenophobia as ‘politics of hate’ in quotes and as ‘may be’ cruel and his climate denialism/drill baby drill/fossil fuel favouring as merely ‘mistaken’?


Trump as a possible ‘alternative’ to neoliberalism and TINA, Rich? Wow. At the risk of again pointing out the obvious, a progressive ‘despairing’ at the neoliberal TINA doctrine does not mean an accepting of a right-wing, xenophobic ‘alternative’ to neoliberalism in the form of Trump, Hanson or Marine le Pen. You say ‘progressives should applaud some of his policy positions’. I think a key difference here may be that I think you don’t seem to see the absolutely radical difference between a left/progressive/democratic/internationalist and a right-wing/xenophobic/protectionist critique and alternative to neoliberal globalization, or do you? (Cf. my comments above on your seemingly Trumpian use of the phrase ‘mainstream media’).


5. “If, as his critics claim, Trump is really intent on further entrenching and concentrating wealth, privilege and power, then, as the current wave of political protest and mobilisation demonstrates, he will provoke even more public outrage and so re-invigorate democracy (The Atlantic, which hates Trump, has conceded this). If Trump precipitates a crisis of political legitimacy in the US (and other Western democracies), it is what we need.”


Surely Trump is not about to ‘precipitate a crisis of political legitimacy’, but rather this legitimacy crisis long predates him and he is in fact the ultimate reaction to, and demagogic expression/continuation of, this very crisis. I do hope that ‘democracy’ (?) might be ‘re-invigorated’ by social movements against the Trump fiasco, but, given the perennial problems of joining the dots in popular consciousness,  I wouldn’t bet on it.  When the general level of consciousness is so low and fear so widespread, crises can very easily result in chaotic breakdown, state violence and authoritarian regression (e.g. outright fascism, nuclear war, ecological collapse) rather than in popular consciousness-raising, self-empowerment and breakthrough. The former would definitely seem more likely at present.


Finally, what I find a little strange Rich is not only what you say about Trump as a possible positive ‘alternative to TINA’ but also all the stuff that finds, at least here, NO mention in your views on Trump at all, as if it were irrelevant to evaluating Trump, or as if you were actually choosing to ignore all this. Thus what are your attitudes, if any, to things like the following (the list could be extended), I wonder:


·       his views on women and the global women’s march against him and all he stands for after his inauguration (or is that just the much maligned ‘identity politics’ ?)


·       his stereotyping-racist views on Mexican undocumented migrants as ‘rapists’ and on Muslim ‘bad dudes’ and the concomitant rise in attacks on scapegoated and vilified sections of the US population? (ditto?)


·       his belligerent strong man, autocratic big boss and demagogue persona (Iike Putin, Duterte, Erdogan etc) appealing to non-democratic, authoritarian-fascist personalities (just ‘trivia’?)


·       his totally garbled language indicating garbled incoherent thinking with perpetual self-contradictions and flip-flops over time and sometimes even within sentences (or is that that just the mainstream media’s jaundiced view of his ‘fumbles’?)


·       his extreme look-at-me-I’m-the-greatest narcissism, envious outrage at the slightest perceived slights (size of hands compared to Latino candidate’s, size of inauguration crowd compared to Obama’s, quality of his own The Apprentice show compared to Schwarzenegger’s etc) and bullying, aggressive-competitive  impulsiveness (a worrying role model for kids and culture or all just personality ‘trivia’?)


·       his choice of Bannon, his choice of cabinet, his nepotism, his ‘policy’-by-twitter, his many corporate meetings and pro-corporate neoliberal policies (deregulations and tax cuts)?



Discussion 5 Comments

  • Dave Jones 17th May 2017

    I think part of the problem here is the term "the left", which includes the protectionist labor-left (here in the States), "green-capitalist progressives", Obama liberals and anti-capitalists. Like the term "mainstream media", it is something of an empty signifier.

    I also think Trump is a "discontinuation" and highpoint in the project of de-legitimization because he so perfectly embodies and personifies the psychosis of capitalism. The US stock market fell 300 points today as the speculators hang on his every tweet and absurd utterance- he has pulled up the curtain and demolished any pretense that the government and Capital are in some way separate.

    • Peter Lach-Newinsky 18th May 2017

      Yeah, you're right, my friend did conceive of 'the left' as meaning left-of-centre liberals/social democrats, whom I don't include in the notion. Agree on Trump 'embodying the psychosis of capitalism.' Scary though that so many people seem to quite like that conman-buy-sell-and-love-me psychosis, and see his total fakeness as true...Le spectacle acheve, as Guy Debord might have said before he topped himself.

  • Dave Jones 17th May 2017

    By the way, y'all should check out this climate change symposium I have been working on (and get to speak at!) Much of the alternative vision being offered is IOPS inspired. Tune in if you can. http://www.freeusfromclimatechaos.org

  • Peter Lach-Newinsky 18th May 2017

    That symposium looks absolutely great, Dave, fat congrats! What a great concept and range of speakers...Just the right balance of radical, common sense, passion...Hope the young'uns get massively on board...Give us (all three of us) an update of how it goes.

  • Dave Jones 21st May 2017

    Thanks Peter, if you happen to be staying up all night you can join the live-stream.
    I had not thought of Debord for awhile,(and was never quite sure I could explain his argument) but yeah. The quote from Feuerbach on the first page says it all: "But certainly for the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, the appearance to the essence...illusion only is sacred, truth profane."

    For anyone looking for a good read, Wendy Brown's Undoing the Demos is a "theoretical consideration of the ways that neoliberalism, a peculiar form of reason that configures all aspects of existence in economic terms, is quietly undoing basic elements of democracy." Much the same argument as Debord's, but less poetic and mystified.