When Lies Are True

They believe him. Reno, January 2016.

When trying to understand the ways that the Trump Administration careens from crisis to crisis, one is reminded of a comment that Guy Debord makes early in The Society of the Spectacle. “The spectacle cannot be understood as a mere visual excess produced by mass-media technologies. It is a worldview that has actually been materialised, that has become an objective reality.”

Viewed in these terms, the degree to which Mr. Trump’s approach to government is actually redolent of fascism (if not precisely fascistic) is cast in relief. It is not so much a matter of this policy or that. It is the materialisation of policylessness.

The oncoming trade war with China is a case in point. In the second half of the 20th Century, both the Republicans and the Democrats held free trade as a nostrum. The disastrous consequences of Smoot-Hawley, which blighted the first half of the 1930s transformed the commitment to free trade from a rational premise to something in the nature of an article of faith. One of the great problems of American political parties in the last quarter of the century was convincing industrial workers that their interests were being looked after while US businesses were busy shipping jobs off to whatever locale offered the cheapest rates on surplus value extraction.

And then along came Mr. Trump, riding the wave of racial resentment that the Republicans had spent four decades generating in order to deflect the attention of industrial and agricultural workers from the diminution of their economic prospects. Sadly for Mr. Trump’s Republican enablers, he simply didn’t bother to read the party’s fine print in which it was explained that racial animus was meant to be a substitute for the economic variety. He talked openly of protectionism. In all likelihood he did so because he assumed that the synergy between this kind of talk and racism to toward the Chinese (or Asians generally) was a win for him.

And in the abstract, it was. Behind the scenes, various adults in the room sought to convince the Dear Leader that talking tough on trade was one thing, but taking actions that would alienate America’s trading partners was quite another. Mr. Trump’s response, as has so often been the case, was to dispense with the services of those whose advice he didn’t like. Gary Cohn was, apparently, unwilling fall into step with the drumbeat of tariff punishment, and so he departed. Larry Kudlow, his replacement, had up to that point been a purveyor of Austrian-tinged bampot on CNBC. Now the American public are treated to the humorous spectacle of a man who never saw a deregulation measure he didn’t like traipsing around the Northeast trying to convince the scions of business and finance that Mr. Trump is just negotiating.

The financial markets seem to believe otherwise if their decline of roughly 10% since the beginning of the year is anything to go by. Of course, financial markets have a well-established reputation for emotional brittleness. Paul Samuelson once famously noted that financial markets had predicted nine of the last five economic crises. Still, Mr. Trump’s policies are beginning to have material consequences for people whose support he needs. Certainly, those in the financial community are probably unsatisfied with the current turn in Mr. Trump’s policies, although this is less due to their actual content than to the uncertainty that they introduce into the system. For industrial and agricultural workers, whose livelihoods are connected with (relatively) free access to Chinese markets, they consequences could by much more severe.

And here we confronted with the way that Mr. Trump has converted the spectacle into a materialised worldview. It is a commonly held view that images (particularly of the media variety but really throughout the public sphere) are the consequence of actions. At least, so one often hears, they are the result of a process of mutual interaction between the ideological and the real. Our current circumstances are such that it is the images that drive the process. Mr. Trump’s views, on trade or immigration or whatever is being discussed on Fox & Friends this morning, create material realities that ignore actual conditions.

Although illegal immigration is at its lowest level in decades, Mr. Trump has decided to spend an ocean of cash to send National Guard units to assist in policing the border. The last time such a deployment was undertaken the bill was over $1 billion. China isn’t in the top five countries from which we import steel. But getting our own back against them demands the imposition of tariffs that (coincidentally enough) exclude the countries (Canada, Mexico, Brazil) from which we do get the majority of imported steel. The tariff barriers that Mr. Trump seems intent on raising are most likely to damage the fortunes of industrial and agricultural workers in the US. And yet the realities produced by these behaviours take on the status of natural events (or can be blamed on Mr. Obama).

When prices rise and no jobs appear, when factories are re-shored but filled with robots, when the federal budget deficit spirals into territory that two years ago conservatives claimed would be the harbinger of the apocalypse, all of these material events will be reshaped into the element of the Trumpian imaginary.

When the wall is built using billions of dollars squeezed out of taxpayers in the bottom 50% of the income distribution, it will be a matter of retconning Mr. Trump’s utterances to show that he had claimed that this would be the case. When Mr. Trump spends a quarter of his days on his own golf courses, well, that too will be shown to be merely a few well-deserved appurtenances accruing to the office, which Mr. Trump as the Great White Hope can legitimately expect.

This is not, or should not be, news to most thinking Americans. The society of the spectacle is not a new event, springing forth fully formed from the split open head of Lee Atwater. The Republicans have, of late, been particularly devoted to combatting the “reality-based community” through the use of ideological rejiggings of reality. There is an important sense in which Roosevelt’s New Deal was an early instance of this. Arguably, it was not the actual policies of the New Deal that addressed the Great Depression. Even if one thinks that there was much humane policy in the New Deal, a good deal of its power resulted from Roosevelt’s ability to convince Americans down on their luck that the federal government actually cared about their fate. That, the Hoover Administration had signally failed to do.

But Mr. Trump has reached a new level. One is tempted to attribute it to his mendacity, which seems to outstrip and figure in the history of the United States. But to lie requires consciousness of the truth, and it is not entirely clear that this is the sort of consciousness that Mr. Trump actually has.

It is often said of defenders in football that it is useful for them to have a short memory. Mr. Trump’s is remarkably short. He is the 50 First Dates president, going from moment to moment creating the truth of the history and the future in utterances disconnected from either. This is not to make excuses for the man. The president is pernicious, mean-spirited, and thin-skinned, and he has the capacity to do even more profound damage to the institutions of the republic than the considerable harm that he has already wrought.

There are some on the left who argue that Trumpism isn’t a real thing, and there is a sense in which they are right. If Trumpism is taken to mean an ideology with consistent features then they are undoubtedly correct.

But there is a sense in which Trumpism is a thing in the same way that Bonapartism or Caesarism are things. The ideology of Trumpism is the materialisation of the Trumpian id, blown this way and that by heavy doses of rightwing media and the power of whoever it was that spoke to him last.

This presents a particular conundrum for the left. Neither Mr. Trump nor his supporters are susceptible to factual rejoinders. His followers have been coached not to believe them, and Mr. Trump himself is convinced that he can simply create alternate facts by wishing that they were so.

The mediocrity of the content on MSNBC is testament to how paltry are the skills of moderate leftists at the sort of ideologico-symbolic conflict that they now face. It is incumbent upon the segments of the left less restricted by the need to jibe with the left wing of finance capital to undertake the sort of ideological conflict that can puncture the Trumpian image.

Photograph courtesy of Darron Birgenheier. Published under a Creative Commons license.