You can sense them building up, like storm runoff at a dam. It’s possible that the worst won’t happen this time. But one day they will become impossible to contain. The excuses, I mean. Although Donald Trump may wildly overstate his prowess in many areas, there is no doubt that he makes them with the aplomb of a world-class con artist and, more importantly, also makes them stick.
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s decision not to seek re-election is the latest piece of evidence that the president can draw upon to show how the leaders of his own party have undermined his efforts to make America great again. Together with the machinations of the Deep State still run by a shadowy cabal of centrist neoliberals, the self-serving cowardice of these career politicians is a testament to how little the people who have dominated the Federal government for decades actually want things to change. At least, that’s what Trump is bound to communicate as he continues travelling down a campaign trail that never ends, permanent revolution, P.T. Barnum-style. Only he isn’t going to be that subtle about it.
Maybe the president will actually declare that he was “stabbed in the back”. More likely, he will be persuaded to use different language. Either way, though, he will tell a story of betrayal, how the powers that be fought back against his attempts to circumvent the nation’s dysfunctional political culture. And how, in fighting him, they implicitly declared war on the American people. To those of us who take a dim view of the man and his mission, this message will only serve as more confirmation of the risk he poses for democracy in the United States and, by extension, the rest of the world. But I’m willing to bet that it will resonate powerfully within his base, intensifying the country’s Cold Civil War.
Given the rapid rise of authoritarian populism throughout the developed world today, it would be wise to consider precedents with care. For years, sober-minded intellectuals have been warning us about the danger in making historical analogies, which have a way of being transmuted into fact by those who are persuaded by them. Whatever Donald Trump is, they warn us, he is no Adolph Hitler. And no Benito Mussolini, either. And neither are this age’s other neo-strongmen, even Vladimir Putin.
What such outwardly sensible advice fails to acknowledge, however, is that the worldwide trend for decades now has been a weakening of both national and individual identity. The reason why we are witnessing such amped-up defences of both is that their primacy can no longer be taken for granted. The citizen who puffs himself up with pride about his country is like the vocalist in a boastful hip-hop track. Both protest the particularity of their positionality too much to be taken literally.
The biggest problem facing us today is not individuals but the structures for which they provide the cover of distraction. To be sure, that was already the case during first-wave totalitarianism. But the difference now is that the speed with which both financial and informational transactions take place, that exponential tightening of cycles on which analysts keep commenting, makes those individuals who find themselves at the head of large organizations much easier to replace than was once the case. Instead of a cult of personality centred on exceptional individuals, we confront a culture in which mediocre ones are selected by force and fortune to assume the role of representative in a “democracy” without real democracy.
People who are nostalgic for an era of decisiveness, when leaders were not the product of bureaucratic inertia and corporate influence, can be tenacious in desiring to revive its iconography. Whereas their forebears suffering under totalitarian regimes learned to discern the empty places behind the spectacle of solidity, they peer right through the shade-like insubstantiality of populist leaders to a fantasy of underlying strength. Even some of Donald Trump’s most stalwart advocates recognize that he is not much of a statesman by traditional standards. But they permit themselves to be seduced by his con-artistry, because believing in something is the best antidote to the existential doubt eating away at their sense of self.
This is not news, of course. What tends to be overlooked, though, is the role that the delineation of injury plays in the hustle of politicians like Trump. Paradoxically, it is only in revealing their vulnerability that they can communicate power. As Wendy Brown brilliantly demonstrates in her book States of Injury, the politics of postmodern identity are inextricably bound up with the perception and expression of woundedness. The state of having been hurt conveys an authority that is otherwise hard to come by.
That’s why, over the twenty-five years since she was writing that book, we have witnessed those people who seemingly have the most privilege in society frantically scramble to reground their individual and collective identities on weakness instead of strength. No one wants to embody Friedrich Nietzsche’s Raubtier, the guiltless predator, because doing so would mean forsaking the only rhetorical position we are conditioned to value. Instead, everybody, no matter how well-off they are, clamours to communicate their woundedness to the world.
Sometimes, though, when injuries of the past no longer confer sufficient power, it is necessary to project forward into a future when new ones will be inflicted. This is where Donald Trump’s political acumen proves most acute, for he is consistently able to perform the alchemy of turning the have-been-hurt into the will-have-been-hurt.
The reason why, from his first day of office, `Trump has complained incessantly about being treated unfairly in the mainstream media is that he is anticipating a time when he will need to mobilize a Dolchstoßlegende, a fantasy of having been stabbed in the back, in order to consolidate his remaining support and direct it towards a popular enemy. That’s when we will truly find out whether the fabric of American political institutions is too frayed to resist being torn apart.
Photograph courtesy of Ted Eytan. Published under a Creative Commons license.