Donald Trump And The Art Of Populist Grotesque.

By   /   October 12, 2018  /   37 Comments

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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.

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!”

 

 

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37 Comments

  1. David Stone says:

    So is his appeal by accident or by design? You attribute his popularity to incredible good fortune if it is all accidental.
    D J S

    • Oh, to design, David, indubitably.

      Quite how he knows how downtrodden white Americans are feeling is a mystery to me – but he does. Just as Louis Napoleon understood the hopes of the French peasantry.

      I read somewhere that Trump, when asked about his popularity with “rednecks”, responded: “I’m just like them – except with money.”

    • Sam Sam says:

      Hillary got millions more votes than Trump yet the Electoral Collage System evenly distributes votes across each state. That bits by design but you wouldn’t have known it during the election. I doubt any actually thought Trump would win except a handful of people who could except that the U.S. Democrat party is actually a right wing party and not an almighty vehicle for Social Justice. Pity really because we’ve got a minority US government who’s just appointed 4 life time positions to the Supreme Court, that bit could be viewed as an accident I guess.

  2. Castro says:

    Anyone “of the Left” who countenances and does not oppose the existence and expansion of the ethno-nationalist Chinese dictatorship is not really “of the Left” at all… but rather an outright hypocrite and most likely little more than a member of the propertied class with a self-indulgent love for the sound of their own voice who shares no common interest with the underclass or its aspirations.

  3. Bully Beef and Chips says:

    This article has the unfortunate whiff of the condescending Guardianista about it.

    From a position of democratic socialism, I can see why one might view working class supporters of “populism” as contradictory or illogical.

    But to my mind, the political paradigms have shifted so radically now that, to use the parlance of the late Micky Fitz, it is no longer clear who “The Real Enemy” is.

    When the working class see their livelihoods, neighbourhoods, and even their cultural identity threatened by the finger-wagging preachers of political correctness and Soros globalism, they naturally look to the pompous technocratic and academic classes who relentlessly ridicule them as the source of their woes. Most of them really don’t care that some people are rich – so long as their basic needs are met.

    I don’t see what’s so irrational about their perception.

    The working class have become an uncomfortable historical legacy for the modern “woke” left. Only when these self-appointed cultural arbiters recognise, and remedy their haughty attitude of contempt, will the working class begin to listen again.

    I for one won’t hold my breath.

    • Dan says:

      This x 10.

      • Sam Sam says:

        What’s x10 about it? The modern woke has as much to do with the right than the left ever could. Real fucken lefties are actually law abiding at heart and I’ll explain. Whether it be blacks in the Deep South, blacks in apartheid Africa, there was always some white woman using false accusations against black men just to have them lynched. They, we, were always lobbied the majority to just follow there own god dam rules.

        It’s a little disheartening that radicals and extremist would cooped the good work of Martin Luther Kings movement and coop it with right wing tactics, becoming the Frankenstein love child of right wing extremist and every one agrees that this new form of radicalism is left wing. But they are not left wing at all. They’re right wing, like two blow torches bent right around so far they’re touching each other.

    • Mjolnir says:

      Soros?!

      Ah, the bogeyman of the alt.right. invoke his name (or the Clintons) as if that explains all the evils in the world.

      Soros bad, Koch Bros good?

      Emmanuel Goldstein anyone?

    • WILD KATIPO says:

      …[ When the working class see their livelihoods, neighbourhoods, and even their cultural identity threatened by the finger-wagging preachers of political correctness and Soros globalism, they naturally look to the pompous technocratic and academic classes who relentlessly ridicule them as the source of their woes. Most of them really don’t care that some people are rich – so long as their basic needs are met.

      I don’t see what’s so irrational about their perception.

      The working class have become an uncomfortable historical legacy for the modern “woke” left. Only when these self-appointed cultural arbiters recognise, and remedy their haughty attitude of contempt, will the working class begin to listen again ]…

      ——————————

      ^^^^

      THIS.

      And not all of Trumps supporters are ‘Rednecks’, – and of those that are – , doesn’t mean in the least they are not fine people. To use ‘ redneck’ as a derogatory term to broadly lump a large demographic together as an inbred ,whiskey drinking and illiterate , uneducated tobbaci chawin’ moonshiner is just plain wrong. And then to apply it to all who supported Trump is even more wrong.

      Fact is ,- even in the South there are plenty of Afro Americans who are proud first of being Southern , second of being American , for example. And they would be keenly aware of Americas racist history moreso than others. And many of them voted Trump as well.

      As for the Democrat party, – THEY were the party that supported slavery and agitated for the American civil war. Hardly an auspicious beginnings for the so called ‘ left’ of American politics. And it was the Republicans that opposed slavery. So much for history.

      So depending on who you listen to or what you read about regarding an imminent global financial crash , – and invariably Trumps name gets dragged into this , – apparently the American economy is running at an all time high. Perhaps what Trump is doing is working to some degree and taking pressure off the working classes,… and perhaps what Obama was doing wasn’t.

      Perhaps that explains Trumps popularity with such a large demographic.

      Certainly , – and unlike Obama , Trump hasn’t signed off on drone strikes every Tuesday for five years to blow civilians to smithereens in the Middle East (euphemistically called collateral damage ) and has instead achieved the opposite, – with North Korea for example, – whereby relations with that country are now some of the most open it has been in over 50 years.

      No… , world war three hasn’t erupted, and certainly doesn’t look like it will with Trump being in power. Despite all the doomsayers from the Left parroting the George Soros mantra.

      Perhaps the only ones really smarting are those devious long range murderers from the arms manufacturing industry’s who gleefully looked forwards to a Hillary Clinton Presidency. And although Trump has granted concessions indirectly to those lobbyists in expanding the military , – Trump has not been in any great rush to create wars on foreign soil like former Presidents have to pander to the arms industry for self enrichment.

      Tough luck to them.

    • Melacon says:

      Please describe ‘working class cultural identity’. What aspect of it are being threatened?

    • SPC says:

      Some people are confusing social liberals (women) on the left with a bi-partisan consensus in support of free trade (that included to varying degrees skilled worker migration).

      This is however simply a tactic of the political right to get social conservative working class men to divide against the left as a sign of their patriotism to white race nationalism. It enables poseurs such as the Duck Dynasty in chief to claim populist credentials while preserving the privileged elite as inequality continues to grow and grow – and calls for first world health care to all Americans are rejected as socialism.

  4. Andrew says:

    The Democrats created Trump.

    Decades ago they completely abandoned their blue collar supporters in favour of free tickets to the ballet and rubbing shoulders with Hollywood stars at the after party.

    Trump is doing exactly what he was elected for: Improving the life of average working class people in the USA.

    • bert says:

      Correct, the fact that he is an appalling human being is ignored.

      • Andrew says:

        BERT

        I don’t know if he’s an appalling human being because I haven’t met him, and I don’t believe a word in mainstream media.

        Two questions:

        1. If he’s appalling, is he more or less appalling than his opposition (e.g. Hillary) ?

        2. Does it matter if he’s appalling if he’s getting your policies implemented? This whole business of electing ‘nice’ people is greatly overrated in my opinion.

        • bert says:

          ANDREW, JAYS

          It always amuses me that people come to Trumps defense by comparing him with Clinton,why? I judge him on my own merits,stand alone. And I don’t know about Clinton, I’ve never met her. What I can say about Trump is that he is an appalling human being from the things that “HE” says, not the media but what he espouses from his own mouth. The fact that others have to go into bat for Trump tells me that the man is a very very loose cannon.

        • SPC says:

          I think that someone who

          1. attended charity events sitting with the major donors (when he made no donations) to fraudulently misrepresent his status to
          2. build the basis for the Trump Foundation to collect from for actual donors to donate to charity under his name
          3. who boasted of being a self made businessman when he actually relied on $400m of inheritance (involving major tax avoidance/evasion on a criminal scale by the family)
          4. ripped off many of the sub-contractors who worked on his developments
          5. routinely used legal threats to media to block exposure of his nefarious business activities
          6. used laundered Russian money to finance his property developments
          7. promises better and more affordable health care if elected, when he meant no such thing.
          8. cries fake news all the time like a baby so his credulous supporters do not have to take responsibility for electing a creep into the highest office in the land
          9. launches personal attacks on any who stand up to him
          10. demands that loyalty to him is part of their role in administrative office

          is not a person of high moral character.

      • David Stone says:

        Hardly ignored Bert. Few people can see past it.
        D J S

      • Jays says:

        Not ignored at all.
        It’s just that Hillary is likewise an appalling person and besides people vote with their wallet and they believe that Trump is best for their wallets.

    • WILD KATIPO says:

      The Democrats got off to a shaky start as being the Party that supported slavery in America precipitating the American civil war, – hardly a great foundation for being labelled the ‘ Left’ of American politics over 100 years later.

    • SPC says:

      How has their life been improved?

  5. Rosielee says:

    I really wish commentators on all sides would stop using “woke” in an attempt to make themselves sound up to date and trendy and credible. It’s a silly, illiterate, meaningless blah.

    • SPC says:

      When done by men on the left to attack liberals/women on the left, especially sad.

      Reminds me of working class white men in the USA who vote Trump because they fell more secure with him, rather than a white woman or black man in the White House.

  6. Mjolnir says:

    “The Democrats created Trump”

    The Right aren’t terribly good at taking responsibility are they Andrew??

    • Jays says:

      Actually a good case can be made to blame the Democrats as they created the vacuum that Trump filled and the Republicans were generally just as appalled with his victory as the Democrats.
      Only difference is that the Republicans have taken a highly pragmatic approach of making the best of the situation in which they find themselves.

    • WILD KATIPO says:

      And it appears the former slavery supporting and arms to the Middle East via the Clinton Foundation Democrats aren’t particularity good at representing the Left, are they , MJOLNIR ….

  7. Marc says:

    A very good and insightful post and analysis. I read the following, and it has proven to be true, in many ways, not only when it comes to populists like Trump, it kept others in power far too long, as people fell for the charm, tricks and corrupt delivery of lollies by various men or even women in power, who were great at this.

    “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.”

    Remember one John Key, now apparently knighted, believe it or not, he was less of an ideologue, he dished out bits of policy as he and his team saw fit, simply to entertain and keep in good spirits enough of New Zealanders, to vote him in again.

    And even in the Dark Ages, when the emperors of various aristocratic breeds ruled the nations all over Europe, at time made bizarre deals between each other, also intermarried, all for the purpose of keeping and expanding power, the people fell for the occasional nice gesture, and patriotic talk of their ‘leaders’, who were not even voted in.

    It takes a level of intelligence, informed-ness an insight to see through the BS of many populist leaders, the common citizen is often unable to do this, as kept too busy to struggle and work, and kept dumb by the manipulative machinery serving the elite and leading persons in charge.

    Organise an international sports event, present yourself in the best of light, talk greatly and smartly, and charm the ignorant, and you will get most on your side.

    It is happening in many places now, as the dull and stressful experience of participating in day to day politics in an ordinary democracy has led to some stalemates in various countries. The power of corporations served by international and bilateral and multilateral trade deals, tying so many in, leading to situations where few are still realising room to express individual freedom and enterprise, this has created mistrust towards trade and politics.

    So there is a vacuum in the populace, for something more exciting, some feel good stuff, for leaders that appear to do ‘the right thing’, that finally ‘take bold action’, that may even eventually ‘unite’ people again. It has led to elections upsets in places in not only Hungary years ago, it has done so in France, in Italy, in Spain, in Germany, in the UK, recently in Sweden, and it did lead to Trump’s unexpected victory in the US.

    Expect more of this, it seems to be a sign of the time. The great danger is we are returning to pre-democratic situations, that existed in much of the world until WW1, where powerful leaders in the form of Kings, Kaisers, Tsars and so forth led ‘patriotic’ or rather ‘nationalistic’ people fueled by populism into wars to fight each other. Worrying times, I feel.

  8. Johnnybg says:

    Charismatic personality often polarises. Its unpredictable & all too human character also has the power to effect the nature of reality, in fact it could be said personality itself is the highest knowable reality.

    Me don’t like loud mouthed big daddy he’s a scary monster, mummy save me!!

    A world based solely on rational, assembly line thinking would be a bland, heartless & soulless place indeed.

    Our party political system of government is nothing but a 3 yearly popularity contest; all political parties will bend over backwards to garner the popular vote, so they & their leaders are all populists.

  9. Afewknowthetruth says:

    American politics is driven by:

    The need to maintain oil and gas and coal flowing from the points of extraction to the points of consumption.

    The need to maintain imports of oil and other resources.

    The need to preserve the electricity grid, the transport systems and the water systems.

    The need to preserve the US dollar as the world reserve currency.

    The need of Wall Street to keep Ponzi finance going (indefinitely).

    The need of the industrial-military sector to manufacture weapons and to sell them to the US government and other governments.

    The need to maintain the myth that America interventions overseas are designed to bring freedom and democracy to oppressed people.

    The need of industrial-scale ‘farmers’ to grow huge amounts of monoculture crops, to process them and to sell them.

    The need of food corporations to convert monoculture crops into substances that resemble food and sell them at a profit.

    The need of the pharmaceutical sector to convince the populace to use large amounts of high-price medications.

    The need to keep property prices stable or increasing.

    The need to keep the underfunding of future liabilities concealed.

    The need to conceal America’s dependence on China for basic items.

    The need to conceal or ignore ongoing environmental damage.

    The need to conceal from the populace the damaging effects the American way of life has on their mental and physical states.

    The need to maintain the illusion that America is a great nation and a world leader.

    The need of the government and all the corporations that have revolving-door access to government to keep the bulk of the populace distracted, entertained, and believing the US industrial-financial-political system is beneficial.

    So far Trump has fulfilled all the above ‘needs’ (plus others I have not mentioned). Whether he can continue to do so in the future is a another matter.

  10. Rickoshay says:

    Personally i think the Donald is a breath of fresh air in a stale and repressive world, from north Korea to Russia hes a conundrum they dont know how to deal with, he has used a modern method of populism its true, tweeting his plans to his supporters and cutting out the usual middlemen, the press.
    But he wins every-time he goes against the deep state social controllers, the Dems are twitching and screaming but are not effective at countering his moves, anyone who follows his alter-ego Q anon,s posts is filled with hope and willing to participate in the madness of american elections, he will win the house again next month in a landslide for the Republicans.
    He is the only world leader willing to stomp on the climate change debacle, witness his dumping of the paris accord, he takes advise from real climate scientists not witch doctors the rest of the worlds leaders are currently cow towing too.
    I read with contempt the weekly ravings on this rag about the temp increases around the world and the supposed ice cap melts, what a load of complete rubbish, obviously published bye a complete fake news, government line spouting, short sighted fool.
    News flash dumbass the climate dont work like you think it does, a fact you would know if you did any research at all.
    As with any criminal enterprise to work out who benefits from these lies just follow the money.
    WWG1WGA…where we go one we go all
    http://thelongview.com.au/ weather for the lucky country says ICE AGE,
    weather is a cycle, CO2 is plant food, V8s are great