IN A RECENT POST Jane Kelsey 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, while 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!”