Saturday 13 October 2018

Donald Trump And The Art Of Populist Grotesque.

Empowered By His Contradictions: Trump is a populist demagogue, and like all such demagogues he is empowered by his contradictions. This very special kind of leader is required to dance not only with the people, but also with those individuals and institutions he has promised to protect the people from.

JANE KELSEY, in a recent post, identifies some of the more important challenges posed for the Left by Donald Trump. His peculiar mix of worker-friendly policies and corporate concessions. His willingness to advance protectionism – along with a host of other ideas long-declared “verboten” by neoliberal ideologues. His brazen rejection of globalism. His reaffirmation of the citizen’s indissoluble duty of loyalty to the nation state – and vice versa.

These contradictions are impossible to reconcile with either old-school socialism, or its “Third Way” bastard offspring. They are, however, entirely consistent with the logic of  populism. Trump is a populist demagogue, and like all such demagogues he is empowered by his contradictions. This very special kind of leader is required to dance not only with the people, but also with those individuals and institutions he has promised to protect the people from.

These populist politicians typically arise in circumstances of socio-political deadlock: reconciling in their own persons the irreconcilable differences of contending social forces – and classes. What these vast conglomerations of conflicting interests cannot achieve – having lost all opportunity for strategic and/or tactical manoeuvre – is achieved in the populist’s personality. A volatile mixture of ignorance and vanity which permits the demagogue to believe in, as Lewis Carrol so memorably put it, “five impossible things before breakfast” – and then tweet about them.

To rational men and women, the demagogic personality is a standing affront to the complex art of politics. What they fail to understand is that, under the conditions which give rise to populism, rationality has very little political utility. In the populist moment: which is itself the product of antagonistic social and political forces’ inability to compromise; it is irrationality that makes the “politically impossible” possible.

Because the average man or woman finds it relatively easy to hold two contradictory notions in their heads, believing in both, they are not in the least perturbed by a leader who is constantly demonstrating his ability to do the same. Indeed, they are likely to feel more comfortable living under such a leader than they are under someone who is constantly requiring them to choose one or the other.

This celebration of ignorance, along with the constant and wilful distortion of the truth, goes hand-in-hand with the demagogue’s acceptance and promotion of irreconcilable ideas. And, once again, he or she is rewarded for doing so by the endorsement of a significant minority of the electorate. Politicians who make voters aware of their intellectual shortcomings are seldom thanked for the experience. The demagogic ignoramus, on the other hand; the master of that new school of performance art “populist grotesque”; by demonstrating his or her solidarity with the average punter’s lack of knowledge, is rewarded with their undying loyalty and affection.

None of this should strike an old Marxist like Jane Kelsey as in any way surprising. In what is indisputably his greatest piece of political journalism, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Karl Marx explains in riveting detail the way in which Napoleon’s nephew – a politician with more than a little in common with Donald Trump – set about seizing control of the French state:

“Historical tradition gave rise to the French peasants’ belief in the miracle that a man named Napoleon would bring all glory back to them. And there turned up an individual who claims to be that man because he bears the name Napoleon, in consequence of the Code Napoleon, which decrees: ‘inquiry into paternity is forbidden’ After a twenty-year vagabondage and a series of grotesque adventures the legend is consummated, and the man becomes Emperor of the French. The fixed idea of the nephew was realized because it coincided with the fixed idea of the most numerous class of the French people.”

Americans are not all that comfortable with historical tradition, but they are particularly admiring of the extremely wealthy and entertainers – both of whom they imbue with almost supernatural powers. In Donald Trump they were confronted with a wealthy entertainer who wanted to be President of the United States. In this “The Donald” went one better than “The Gipper”. Ronald Reagan was only a B-grade movie star, Trump is a billionaire. In his person the broken white American working-class glimpsed the possibility of recovery. Not simply because they judged his promise to run America the way he ran his business empire as unlikely to produce a worse result than the nightmare in which they were currently enmeshed, but because Trump held out the additional promise of telling their supposed “friends” in the Democratic Party, the despised liberal elites: “You’re fired!”

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 12 October 2018.


Guerilla Surgeon said...

Ages ago I read Harry Frankfurt's book – On Bullshit – which is a very interesting read when it comes to Trump. He makes the distinction between lying which he defines as an bullshitting, which is paying absolutely no attention to the truth or to lying but just saying what works to get the outcome you want. This is Trump all over, and many populists. They will say what works no matter what it is. The problem is, even if it's bullshit it gets attention, and it gets more attention when someone refutes it. And given that the below average guy on the street who votes with these people hasn't got the patience for actual substance in a debate it works every time. That's why Trump and his supporters scare the crap out of me. I once said on a post of yours that I thought the American institutions were resilient enough to cope with Trump, and would hopefully spit him out the other side. I'm no longer as confident as I was about that. Trump could be impeached, Trump could be charged with criminal offences, but his base – many of whom are armed – will not accept the results of any investigation if it doesn't clear him. While I have no great regard for their courage en masse, and any large enough group there are idiots. And now I fear it might come to violence.

John Hurley said...

I wouldn't call Donald Trump a demagogue. The demagogues are those who batter the population with cries of "xenophobia" and "racism" whenever they resist "cultural interventions" by elites who are not a part of their communities.

John Hurley said...

Speaking of demagoguery Chris. Christchurch now has a new library. The name Turanga was "gifted" by the local hapu. The library honours local Maori but not the settlers who built the city. The signs give precedence to te reo. This is a page from Labour's book on decolonisation and it is being played out with the collusion of the MSM who are mum about it (therefore no platform) and corporates to whom the government does not represent the people but a neighbour in the same power space. That is why we need "demagoguery".

peteswriteplace said...

So much for thick Frenchmen and Americans too.

Nick J said...

It really says something about the Democrats aka the despised liberal elites that they could so decisively alienate the working man aka the deplorables. I remember the feeling that you've been had, fooled, taken for granted, 1984 and Roger Douglas. Working people are not so stupid that they will support their enemies, or follow false populists. This whole construct paints them as unwitting victims of Trump. That's a bit insulting to Joe Rustbelter, a little condescending of the current Left worldwide. Who among the proletariat are listening to Marxists like Jane Kelsey now? None, only faux victim narrative hand ringing socially (un)aware middle class liberals.

In case you had not noticed the Dow is having a reality check, I suspect that things may become a little more visceral as things fray at the margins. Joe Rustbelter will demand further respect as his vote decides how to squeeze the more comfortable by re-electing Trump. And that is the failure and tragedy of the Left.

Anonymous said...

Very good article. I will be dealing with a few of these issues as well..

Andrew Nichols said...

These populist politicians typically arise in circumstances of socio-political deadlock: reconciling in their own persons the irreconcilable differences of contending social forces – and classes.

Precisely. Our wretched msm all witter on about how Trump is an aberration when he's nothing of the sort. Hes the inevitable symptom of a diseased plutocracy, an unmasking of the real USA. Internationally, he strips the faux good manners of previous POTUS incumbents who did all that he is doing, but enjoyed the worship of sycophantic allies like NATO and Australia who were patronised to the max. Trump just tells them like it has always been and now they are exposed as ridiculous and weak as they always have been.

I dont know who's worse.

Polly. said...

despite what you say, he was legally elected by the American people and he will probably be elected foe a second term.
He is forging better deals for American industry and workers across American international trade deals.
He may one day be hailed as one of the greatest Presidents.
He may not.
His Presidency affects us all but it is the American people that Trump is trying to keep in his camp.
Not the New Zealand public.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"collusion of the MSM who are mum about it "
Perhaps because it is not worth mentioning? Jesus wept, all the problems this country has and you people witter on about a few Maori words on national radio none public signs. And I bet Christchurch public library is on land that was originally "gifted" by Maori. You're all just........ fucking petty.

John Hurley said...

According to the report, 25 percent of Americans are traditional or devoted conservatives, and their views are far outside the American mainstream. Some 8 percent of Americans are progressive activists, and their views are even less typical. By contrast, the two-thirds of Americans who don’t belong to either extreme constitute an “exhausted majority.” Their members “share a sense of fatigue with our polarized national conversation, a willingness to be flexible in their political viewpoints, and a lack of voice in the national conversation.”

Unknown said...

I just love all of those "non-racist" anti-Maori bigots, like John Hurley. If Mr Hurley wants evidence of Christchurch's settler population then perhaps he should look at the names of the streets in Christchurch. If you do not like Maori, Mr Hurley, then might I suggest you f**k off back to whatever European slum your ancestors crawled out of. And take Don Brash with you.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

You know what, Trump has successfully applied the old Nazi trick of telling so many lies and intimating that everyone else does it as well – so that people begin to believe that even reputable sources tell lies. That's not a good sign.

Geoff Fischer said...

John Hurley wrote: "Christchurch now has a new library. The name Turanga was "gifted" by the local hapu. The library honours local Maori but not the settlers who built the city."
Kia ora John. Every name is given by someone. If a "local hapu" give a name to the library where is the harm in that?
If the city library honours local Maori, where is the harm?
There are many sites around Christchurch which honour British settlers - I suspect many more than have been built to honour Maori.
Are you sure that Maori had no hand in building the city of Christchurch? In most parts of New Zealand it was Maori who built the first shelter for newly arrived immigrants, and I question whether Canterbury was an exception.
I personally am all in favour of decolonization. The sooner the better, and with no half measures.
On the other hand, if the Labour Party is also aiming at the decolonization of New Zealand, they are going about it in a very strange way: entertaining British royalty, maintaining the British Queen as the New Zealand Head of State, sticking with the colonial policy of mass immigration, tying the New Zealand economy ever more tightly to global capital, maintaining military and security pacts with the Anglo-American imperial powers, and even resisting moves to have a national flag which does not signify New Zealand's colonial subordination to the United Kingdom. None of that is consistent with genuine decolonization.

John Hurley said...

Geoff Fischer. There were fewer than 500 Maori in the whole province of Canterbury when the first settlers arrived. 121 years later (1971) the census showed 206,200 inhabitants of Christchurch of which 4300 Maori. The Canterbury settlement was one of the most successful in the history of British colonization. So yes Maori were involved but why shouldn't the people of Christchurch be themed into their library?

John Hurley said...

260,200 [apologies to the 54'000]

John Hurley said...

Shane McDowel (not that you are worthy of reply, but for the record)

Matapopore made headlines when the Christchurch City Council’s claim of Ngāi Tahu “gifting” the name Taiora to the new QEII Park Leisure Centre seemed to conflict with ratepayers’ $38,000 payment to the trust for cultural advice, including naming research. The council insisted the name was a gift despite the bill, and that it paid for “wider cultural advice that accompanies and enriches the story of the gift”.

So without a competitor, is Matapopore giving ratepayers and taxpayers a fair deal?

Or, as the point of the arrangement is to stamp Ngāi Tahu’s identity on the rebuild, is that not the point?

1.6% of the population in 1971

My great-grandfather (an ex goldminer) brought down rocks for the Lyttelton breakwater. Hopefully people are suitably pissed off.

Unknown said...

John Hurley

If my comments were not worth a reply then you would not have replied.

You are obviously an anti-Maori bigot, just like Don Brash.

Clearly, Maori have learned how to milk the public purse as efficiently as the Pakeha. And it really gets up their honky nostrils - including (obviously) yours.

Could care less what your great-grandfather did.