The Trump Curve

Anti-Trump protest. London, February 2017.

The signs that the wheels are coming off the empire are all around and, contrary to what you may have read, Marie Kondo’s lack of English has nothing to do with it.

The current obsession among the better sort of people (and those who wish to be) with the idea that the sparking of joy is an apt standard for assessing the status of one’s material life is arguably a piece of this puzzle. But the fascination with Kondo as lifestyle guru (the actual substance of which is probably lost in translation anyway) is more in the nature of a parallax rather than the revelation of something new and different.

The obsession with joy in life is of a piece with the phenomenon of Trumpism as an expression of the discreet charm of the late capitalist bourgeoisie. The use of the term “Trumpism” here is undertaken with the conscious recognition that it is a sort of postmodern MacGuffin.

The underlying ideological emptiness of the term stands in an inverse relationship to the violence with which it is asserted. The point of Trumpism is the creation of substance from nullity by the assertion of opposites, a sort of quantum engine in which the infinitely ridiculous generates the mortally horrifying.

One of the illuminating articles on Trumpism and its associated pathologies was published by Adam Serwer in the October issue of The Atlantic. Under the title “The Cruelty is the Point” Serwer argued that an important element of the politics of Trumpism was a process of negative integration achieved through the infliction of discomfort on those adjudged to be “other”. 

The ideological superstructure of Mr Trump’s fiduciary relationship to the top .1% of the income distribution is the care and feeding of the wounded collective psyche of white masculinity.

White men, so the story goes, have been laid low. A merciless horde of feminists and brown people have torn down the once powerful icons that made Western civilisation great, leaving in tatters the moderate and meritocratic order that had been built up since the time of the Stoics. In Mr Trump, benighted white manhood now has a paladin willing to fearlessly cross swords with those who would relegate western culture to the rubbish heap of history.

The expression of this willingness to do battle is expressed in the desire not only to defeat one’s opponents but to cause pain. “We can hear the spectacle of cruel laughter throughout the Trump era,” Serwer noted. Whether it is the mocking of Christine Blasey Ford, or the separation of brown children from their parents, or the chants of “lock her up,” the infliction of discomfort is central to the Trumpian project.

The centrality of this motif in the Trumpian approach is part of what makes the phenomenon of Trumpism so difficult to analyse. In the three years since Mr Trump’s lateral move into politics, there have been extensive discussions about whether (or to what degree) his rise in American politics constitutes a recrudescence of fascism. In part, this is a question of terminology.

Strictly speaking (and here we mean adhering to the conceptual usages of current scholarship) Mr Trump is a right-wing populist rather than a fascist. His appeal to white men in the lower reaches of the income distribution is based on the premise that he can overcome the power of educated elites and recreate the era in which Mike Brady could support a family of eight (plus domestic help) on a single paycheque in a neighbourhood in which everybody looked pretty much the same.

Much as Mr Trump has many reprehensible qualities, these do not add up to fascism. As Roger Griffin, arguably the leading academic expert on this phenomenon, pointed out in 2016, “You can be a total xenophobic racist male chauvinist bastard and still not be a fascist.”

Fascism, in Griffin’s account, requires a commitment to complete recreation of society. Mr Trump, by contrast, expresses the wish to “Make America Great Again”. The fact that this slogan refers a past that is no more real than an episode of Leave It to Beaver, is nonetheless an indication of atavism rather than (to use Griffin’s defining concept) palingenetic ultranationalism.

But Mr Trump’s malign imaginary only goes so far. Further up the income scale, there are many who deplore what the view as the great man’s excesses, and yet find that they pale in comparison the misuse of an email server or the Islamisation of the country via Kenyan socialism. For them, no less than for owner of MAGA hats, the virtues of Trumpism are about the triumph of affect over cold, soulless reason.

Just like their poorer compatriots, there is a feeling abroad among people of the middling sort that things have become disordered. The world is out of joint. The clutter in their lives is seen as somehow metaphoric for the clutter in our politics.

When we run over our possessions convinced of the principle that it is the clutter itself that is holding back our happiness, what havoc must we make? If this or that possession (and not merely amongst the books that we have accumulated) does not spark joy, consign it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

Likewise, if feeding the hungry, or providing shelter to those in danger, or recognising the humanity of those who have to temerity not to resemble Jim and Margaret Anderson do not spark joy, it is permissible that they be swept aside as so much clutter impeding one’s path to a more orderly and fulfilling life.

Mr Trump and his enablers do not hold out the prospect of a New Jerusalem, or even or Ronald Reagan’s “city on a hill.” Rather they offer up the prospect of recreating a childhood that never was.

The power of Mr Trump’s politics, the reason why it has such wide reach, is that he has managed to find a way to connect to desire in a manner that confounds reason. He is not all things to all people. But in an American society in which the defining feature is an underdeveloped superego, the president can be enough things to enough people. With the proper admixture of gerrymandering and voter suppression, this adds up to a recipe for success in a country teetering on the edge of imperial collapse.

This development in American politics represents a problem for the traditional political classes in this country. Among figures in the mainstream media, one finds a widespread feeling of resentment. One has spent so much time and effort preparing for participation in august and serious institutions, only to have them transformed into a reality show.

It’s as if the commentator on ESPN were confronted with a baseball season in which the best player in the game insisted on plying his trade dressed in a chicken suit. It simply lacks the requisite seriousness and drains all the fun out of handicapping the outcome.

The popularity of Marie Kondo is, in light of all this, simply another vantage point into the underlying truth of the American middle class. It’s not that the quest of uninterrupted happiness is a newly arisen element of the American cultural landscape. What is new is the discovery forced upon us by the rise of Mr Trump, which taken on a life of its own and has the capacity to block out most of the other putative virtues of American life.

For now, Mr Trump has shown the capacity to spark joy in enough of the electorate to keep himself ensconced in power. But no one knows what will become of his sensualists when he is no longer there to fill the void.

Photograph courtesy of Alisdair Hickson. Published under a Creative Commons license.