The Cult of Personality

A photograph of Donald Trump in a residential backyard near Jordan Creek Parkway and Cody Drive in West Des Moines, Iowa, with lights and security cameras. January 23rd, 2016.

Politics in the world of industrialized neoliberal states is subject to a sort of compression. Neoliberalism, as a mode of thought and organization, is characterized by the shifting of ever greater regions of the social order out of the realm of political deliberation and into the ostensibly more “objective” realm of economic competition. At the same time and, in a certain sense, as a mirror image of this process, the political residuum is transformed into an ever-amplifying spectacle, expanding to fill the space evacuated by substantive politics.

The cult of personality is central to this process of spectacularization. Instead of politicians, in the Weberian model, espousing substantive positions and bearing a responsible commitment to the necessity of compromise, the personages put forward by the major political parties (and here we are primarily speaking of the United States although the point could well be extended) become merely a complex of images intended to acquire value rendered in terms of electoral share. And in this way the political itself becomes an expression of economization, even in regions of political practice not structured by outright bribery.

Donald Trump represents the cutting edge of this process, although his ability to take advantage of it is predicated on groundwork laid in previous years by more “reputable” segments of the party establishment. In the days of the so-called Reagan revolution, the Republican Party undertook a conscious strategy attacking the voter base of the Democratic Party by shifting the focus of politics among blue collar voters from material to symbolic interests. Reagan’s rhetoric of the “city on the hill” and the rebirth of American greatness was not linked in any tangible or intellectually substantial way to improvement in the material conditions of American voters. Rather, these narratives were coupled with the intellectually specious “trickle down” concept of supply side economics. Thus, the recreation of American prominence was wedded by purely assertoric means to a conception of economics predicated on the hyper-enrichment of the top end of the income distribution.

Trump himself has very little to offer in terms of actual political views. His is a politics of bluster and insult, of lower middle class white rage paired with the proposition that someone who is rich must know something about how things work. Trump fancies himself, and presents himself relentlessly, as a wheeler dealer who generates vast amounts of wealth. The fact that, as numerous pundits have pointed out, Trump would be worth considerably more if he had simply invested the (very large) fortune that he inherited in an indexed stock fund is apparently lost on his partisans.

This, of course, has a long pedigree among the Republican base. As a group it signally failed to notice that George W. Bush managed to lose money in a Texas oil boom, or the justice with which his supposedly more moderate and savvy father was acerbically characterized by Jim Hightower as, “born on third base, thought he hit a triple.”

The Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Too Islamic for Sheldon Adelson. Atlantic City, New Jersey.

Trump has launched himself from this ideational (not to say ideological) basis into the political stratosphere with a political campaign apparently based on H. L. Mencken’s famous quote, “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” He has so far, although by no means decisively, bested a field studded with figures well practiced in the art of the absurd political assertion.

In a field where aggressive natalism, climate change denial, and the occasional invocation of the gold standard are the coin of the realm, Trump has distinguished himself with his willingness to say things that should have catastrophically damaged his electoral prospects. From dissing former P.O.Ws, to calling for mass deportations of migrants, and proposing the building of a gigantic wall along the Mexican border, to insulting Fox News starlet Megan Kelly, to calling Ted Cruz a “pussy” and questioning his citizenship, Trump’s political rhetoric has reached depths seldom plumbed by American politicians in the 20th century.

Landing in Las Vegas.
Landing in Las Vegas.

Hitler wrote of the political advantage to be gained from the public utterance of “colossal untruths” to which the masses would give credence because, “they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.” Let us not here blythely compare Trump to Adolf Hitler. Repugnant as the former may be, the latter is clearly a couple of divisions higher up the league table. Still, Trump seems to have recognized an underlying truth lost on most of his competitors, to wit, the very extremity of one’s utterances itself gives them prima facie plausibility (and thereby power). Beside this, the garden variety loopiness of Cruz, Rubio, Bush, et al. seems like small beer, while Hillary Rodham Clinton’s throw outs to Henry Kissinger (for whom the term “war criminal” would hardly by unjust) seem esoteric to the point of invisibility.

Guy Debord once wrote that, “[t]he spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.” In this particular case, the spectacle in question is a relationship created by Trump and his inner circle between the construct of his persona and the rage of increasingly irrelevant (though not to say currently powerless) white males. The mediation in question is accomplished through a devastating assault on principles of decorum in public conduct long thought to be sacrosanct in American politics. To be clear, there is no virtue in this decorum in and of itself, since it has for decades been employed as an excuse not to talk about the grim deeds on which the security and economic development of the American empire depended. But Trump has chosen to attack from the other side, so to speak, creating a space in which the pent up bile of misogyny, xenophobia, and simple racism can be given full and public venting.

Here, then, is the cutting edge of politics in the capital of neoliberalism. Public discussion of, and assertion of control over, the institutions and processes that govern human life down to the level of our pores is ruled out of court. It is up to the market to decide, in its most rational and objective of ways, questions of right, allocation, and justice. Americans have neither control over any significant means of production nor the resources to acquire it. But the partisans of the neoliberal worldview, whether or not they recognize themselves as such, assert that the primary goal of human existence is the development of oneself and one’s capacities on the model of capital stock.

One might think that the situation was as sort of realization of Schumpeter’s dream (as described in Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy) of a society in which popular decision-making is limited to the choice between slates of experts. But here we have a sort of Schumpeterian nightmare in which the substance of what is being voted on is itself mysterious, spectral, and, in an important sense, non-existent. It is, frankly, impossible to know what actual policies would be promulgated in a Trump administration (to say nothing of one run by his “lesser” competitors). But for the epigones of the white, male electorate this hardly matters, since the question at hand is not “what will he do?” but rather “how does this spectacle make me feel?”.

American politics has for decades operated increasingly on the model of the spectacle. One has only to look at the prevalence of questions of character among the punditocracy to the the effects of this. The question as to why someone’s character should have any bearing on their ability to lead a government is never asked, in point of fact because it is simply and quite obviously immaterial. But it is short jump from this sort of pettifogging to the question of Barack Obama’s citizenship, or his Christianity (or commitment to Islam). In this regard too, Trump has recognized a fundamental truth. Assertions of Christianity have little or nothing to do with commitment to the teachings of Jesus Christ (as the recent spat between Trump and the Pope has illustrated). In this respect, as in all other significant ones, Trump has recognized that a truth that convinces is less valuable than an image that satisfies.

Photographs courtesy of Tony Webster   Banspy, and Andrew Cohen. Published under  Creative Commons license.