There is something very strange about this US presidential election. There is an air of stress, with bursts of odd comic relief, sliding uncontrollably from the grimly serious to the hysterically hilarious. The last time I personally witnessed such behaviour was at a funeral. And there is something about this election that smells and sounds like a “last chance” for the voters of a degenerate empire.
The figure towering over this election, like a human marquee, dated, hazy, glowing, is Donald Trump. The chronicler for this election should have been Hunter S. Thompson.
Those who would manage public opinion, the so-called political affairs analysts, seem to be gagging on their own words. I am loving it. They are in disbelief, even panic! They sense the fall of the master class, the patrons whose invisible hands support their bottoms. In alarmed tones, CNN anchors now talk of “what’s needed to take down Trump,” using the language of assassination. Their experts can only manage a single complete sentence: “Who would have believed a year ago at this time that we would be seeing this?” Otherwise they are down to single words mixed with numbers, sounding like perfect lunatics: “Outsider … 22% … insurgent … 38% … anti-establishment … 46% … black … 26% … Latino … 13% …”
The standard sort of rational, bureaucratic, professional, managerial, and positivist schooling which most US journalists, think tank sorts, and many politicians have received, is not adequate to understanding the phenomenon that is Donald Trump. They will wish him away as a joker, a clown, maybe even a crook–not realizing that, in this election, those are selling points. They will drill Trump on his Plans for Problem X, and he will respond with comments about winning, everything will be so great that everyone’s going to love it. Then they will say he has not answered the question–and here is the problem: he has answered. Donald Trump is the plan, and you are not supposed to “think” about it. You should sense it.
I may still be proven wrong (and I do not care who wins this US presidential election), but I have been convinced from the moment Trump first started campaign speeches in 2015, that this is who was going to be the next US president.
“Make America Great Again” is a nostalgic statement. It obviously implies that “America” is no longer great. Something has gone wrong. Someone has to come to the rescue.
As Trump repeatedly says, “we don’t win anymore, we don’t win with trade, we don’t win at the border, we don’t win with ISIS…”. One might explain Trump in terms of nativism and secular revitalization, but that is hardly sufficient; it may even be inappropriate. But at least Trump, in producing a slogan, willingly offers us a clue–he is to represent Americana.
Donald Trump is an American Classic. Trump is a Hall of Fame. He is an arena rocker. Trump is both the stadium, and the phalanx of heavily armoured football players at the same time. His supporters sense this, they see it, and that is what moves them. Once moved in this way, no amount of “fact checking” will deter them. They are drunk on his aroma. No pope, no tax returns, no past interview transcripts can sober them up.
There is no one word for the Trump concept in either political science or political anthropology. If there were a word, it would need to do what no word can, which is to register with all the senses. It would need to combine a sense of chrome, neon, enamel, crystal, gold, green marble, Miami pastels, blonde, high heels, lipstick, Coca Cola, apple pie, bacon, steak, cash, velvet, suede, silk, elevator muzak, brass horns, laughter, mirrors, dancing, revolvers, and the distant smell of jet fuel coming from a tarmac.
Donald Trump sprays his crowd with pheromones of primordial Americana. Affectivity trumps policy. His “movement” is an almost bodily one, of deep, mass emotional attachment to powerful symbolic cues. However, I think Trump can be understood more as a scent than a movement. (Of course, he also has his brand name fragrances: Empire by Trump and Success by Trump.)
Only a Ronald Reagan would be able to defeat Donald Trump–maybe. Not an angry, rich, old lady with all her dishonesty issues and the cruel, greedy face that goes with that; not a coughing, old, working-class Jewish man who talks “socialism” to a US audience; not the strangely turgid Cuban-American mannequins, nor the rusty lunch pail from Ohio, and not the earnest yet terribly boring neurosurgeon.
I do think that Trump’s mystique is very urban–symbolized by the skyscraper–so we do not know how he would fare against a rural counterpart who fuses cowboy boots, jeans, stetsons, shot guns, DD+ bras, freckles, country music, skinny dipping in quarry ponds, tire swings, RVs, hickory smoke, Wild Turkey, etc.
The real genius of Donald Trump is that he implicitly understands all of this. Trump understands that this presidential campaign, perhaps more than any in recent memory, is amorphously cultural and not specifically political. That is also why I think he will win. In fact, he now owns the word “winning”.
Why does Trump spend so little, relatively speaking, on campaign advertising? Because the mass media does this job for him. They may be revulsed, shocked, confused–but either way they are fascinated. So Trump need only say one outrageous thing after another, and he is guaranteed wall-to-wall media coverage, for free. The more outraged people are, the better the sign that “the establishment” has been challenged. This is the efficient businessman side to Trump. When the dust settles, he will remind everyone of the old PR adage: there is no such thing as bad publicity.
In doing so, Trump will have proven his success as a businessman: I got you to do my work, and you did it for free. If he is ever confronted with changing course from what he apparently seemed to promise during the election campaign, his retort will be that he always said he was an expert deal maker, and the first thing you have to do is to close the deal, and you do whatever it takes to close that deal. There will be no “But you lied to us!” after that.
Otherwise, if we were to take Trump at his word–at the surface of his words–then logically he is advocating the end of globalization. The US will itself have to withdraw from the WTO, and both NAFTA and the TPP would be torn to shreds. He does not say as much, but this is what his words spell out by other means. Also gone will be US liberal interventionism or humanitarian imperialism. He is sour about the US practice of regime change. However, he loves war–and even wants to expand an already bloated military. Somehow, Trump thinks that somewhere in the world someone wants to “mess with us”. There’s a rumour of a cockroach in the kitchen, and the mind of this hotelier immediately turns to full-scale extermination. He loves the idea of torture, it’s his Viagra. He supports committing mass atrocities. He even has this bizarre notion of “taking their oil” when referring to Middle Eastern enemies. Does he know what that means? Does he think the oil is sitting on top of the ground, in a nice little styrofoam takeaway container? Does he not realize oil is in the ground, and can only be drawn out slowly, and to “take it” means occupying territory, and to occupy so much territory for so long, he would absolutely need to impose a military draft? But then everybody would be loving it, it would be so unbelievable, how they would be winning again.
The neo-Marxist in me would ask: which nationalist bourgeois class fraction does Trump represent, that resents globalization? Objectively, in political economic terms, what would motivate him to take this course? What sort of business interests would see gain in that? There may be an interesting fracturing in the elite class that is happening, from which we are being distracted by Trump’s cologne and Clinton’s dusty blue breath.
Otherwise, in this rare instance, I would recommend that US readers consult the opinions of Hollywood directors, fashion designers, master chefs, music stars and sports celebrities for their insights on these elections, as they may be more in tune with understanding the unfolding spectacle more than anyone on CNN, for example. They will not give us a breakdown of class interests, but they will have a keener sense for the art of this thing.
Some will be so disgusted with Trump, that they will instead prefer to shut their eyes and ears to him. “Hold on a moment,” I say, “think of what that disgust evokes, how you might symbolize that disgust, and you might gain a better sense of The Donald”. “You have to own your sense of disgust,” I would say like a TV psychotherapist, “this is a teachable moment, people!” I would guess that the sense of disgust is the same one might get from scarfing down a mushy supersized, greasy, under-cooked cheeseburger, with globs of processed cheese dripping from a lukewarm patty, all washed down with root beer mixed with vanilla ice cream. (And you know Americans are into fine dining when they use terms like “washed down” and “scarfing down”.) That disgust is meaningful, because it tells you something about the decadent and degenerate qualities of The Donald burger, funny and depressing together.
If most people in the US are consciously thinking that “the American Dream is dead,” they will reject Trump. If not, and they choose Trump, it will show that they are still dreaming.