The End of Liberalism

Tree of Life massacre mourner. Pittsburgh, 30 October.

Donald Trump does not exist. This is not to say that there isn’t a guy with the initials DT sitting around the White House in a Trump Tower bathrobe live tweeting Fox and Friends. But Donald Trump the individual human being is trivial, merely the avatar of the spectacular complex bearing the designation “Donald Trump, successful businessman.”

This is more than the garden variety political myth created, to one extent or another, by every politician in a mass democracy. “Donald Trump, successful businessman” (or DTSB for short) is a calculated reversal of the salient characteristics of the actually existing Trump. He (or rather his image) is the apotheosis of the modern politics of the spectacle: a sort of event horizon beyond which is a gravitational vortex of unreality from which, once trapped, nothing can escape.

The practice of putting forward someone shiny and vacuous for the highest office in the land was spectacularly introduced by the two terms of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Even before the onset of dementia, which became evident in his administration’s closing years, Mr Reagan was little more in terms of political conviction than a resonator for the personalities surrounding him (most prominently his second wife). His intellectual and political insubstantiality were made painfully clear by the biographer Edmund Morris who, confronted with the project of plumbing the abyss within, simply punted and wrote a work of semi-biographical fiction instead.

By comparison to the nullity that is Donald Trump, however, Mr Reagan was an exemplary figure in terms of political nous and firm ethical conviction. At one level, the difference between Mr Trump and every other holder of the presidency is clear. He is simply unable to hold for on any topic whatever without uttering easily debunked fallacies, the only question being whether these are evidence of derangement, or simple dishonesty (or some combination of the two). But these are merely the actions that a man might play. DTSB operates at another level entirely, and its inscription into the political culture of a technologically advanced mass democracy is like a cancer metastasised to the point at which it is inseparable from the corpse of liberal politics.

Let us pause here for a moment to think about the question of what exists and what does not in the modern media environment. It is not nearly three decades since Jean Baudrillard published his series of essays collected under the title La Guerre du Golfe n’a pas eu lieu. These pieces aroused extreme annoyance both in liberal and properly leftist circles. In the case of the former, they were mostly not read beyond their title, it’s striking variance from what everyone knew to be the case making them simply another expression of poststructuralist irrelevance.

On the left, this was expressed with even greater vehemence. It seemed to many activists that Baudrillard was engaged in (typically French) word games that obscured the fact that the war was a fact in the physical world, that the US military machine was wreaking destruction in an imperialist war and that people were fighting, dying, being slaughtered. In light of that, Baudrillard’s arguments seemed like so much intellectual fluff.

Of course, both outlooks missed Baudrillard’s point. Of course, the Gulf War (it’s planning, execution, and aftermath) had a physical reality. But that reality was enmeshed in a media presentation mean to sanitise it and to imbricate it in a certain kind of justificatory narrative. Baudrillard’s essay constituted a sort of grand gesture of rejection. It was an act of noncompliance with falsehoods presented as matters of uncontroversial fact. At bottom, it was the adoption of an attitude as a basis for confronting the media environment, a great refusal directed toward a media generated political spectacle.

There is a homology between the media spectacle created in support of the Gulf War (the first one in this case but it applies to a degree to both) and the persona of DTSB. It is not merely at the level of simply reversing the qualities of the man himself. Certainly, the idea that Donald Trump was a businessman, much less a successful one, was a constructed fantasy. To build an organisation that creates circuits of capital reproduction is one thing. But Mr Trump was, in fact, simply a real estate speculator. He created nothing other than (occasional) synergy and court cases. His family history and connections allowed him to operate on a level above that of the average grifter but it tells you a lot that (as Fortune magazine noted in 2015) Mr Trump would be significantly wealthier if he had simply taken his inheritance and invested in index funds. Sadly, a fairly large number of other people would also be wealthier too.

But the nullity that is DTSB goes deeper still. Donald Trump, as a white male, is the perfect canvas on which to create nearly any image. But his intellectual vacuity means that he is also the perfect membrane for the transmission of a certain kind of message which is, simultaneously, the projection of the power of white racial patriarchy. Because he is not burdened with any of the identity markers that society views as deficient, and because of the image already created around him as the poster child for Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, he is the perfect manakin to be used as the avatar for patriarchal dominance in late capitalism.

The fundamental insubstantiality of DTSB is of particular importance not only because of what it is but also because of how it functions. Liberals seem constantly aghast at the excesses committed by the current government. Under normal circumstances, assaults on society’s most vulnerable (such as Mr Clinton’s slashing of the AFDC program) are acceptable if undertaken with the proper decorum. It is a matter of politics, one that can be discussed rationally and dispassionately, with facts, and about which “reasonable people” might disagree. Liberals can convince themselves that, even though the cuts reduce the actual calories that poor children will have access to, the process was such that civilised people might eventually make those in charge see the light of the more humane argument.

DTSB constitutes a complete and total rejection of this approach. To watch MSNBC these days is to be confronted with a seemingly endless parade of moderate liberals panting with outrage at the fact that DTSB presents a smooth surface, apparently impervious to rational discourse. For the supporters of DTSB, such issues are not even beside the point. They are responding not to structures of argument, but rather to spectacular images consumed fully formed and constructed in such a way as to cater to their non-contemporaneity. Having made this connection, it is simply a matter of those interests for which DTSB is the resonator to project their ideas. When DTSB responded to the recent massacre of Jewish people in Pittsburgh by mouthing NRA talking points about more armed guards, or when he crows positively about the election of the openly fascist Jair Bolsonaro, when he defends the murderous actions of the Saudi government or fawns over Vladimir Putin, DTSB is simply acting as a conveyor belt, inserting the views of reactionary capital into the psyches of white male America and its abettors.

The conclusion to be drawn here may be that what we are witnessing is the end of liberalism. The political narrative of liberalism has, since its inception, been centred on the rational citizen making informed choices on the basis of a range of information subjected to deliberative consideration. In the second half of the 20th century, numerous commentators (Adorno, Habermas, Negt and Kluge, Virilio, and many others) noted the challenges posed to this model by the modern politico-media environment. But it may now be the case that we have come to the point at which the dystopia has become real. What is to be done when the traditional circuits of political opposition in which liberalism has function have ceased to operate? The question then becomes, can the left develop a political practice that can gain traction in a post-liberal world?

Photograph courtesy of Mark Dixon. Published under a Creative Commons license.