Triumph of the Shill
The political theory of Trumpism
Excerpted from The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump (Second Edition), out now from Oxford University Press.
In The Art of the Deal, Donald Trump tells us — twice — that he doesn’t do lunch. By the end of the first hundred pages, he’s gone out to lunch three times. Trump claims that he doesn’t take architecture critics seriously. On the next page, he admits, “I’m not going to kid you: it’s also nice to get good reviews.” Trump says the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania is “the place to go” to become a great entrepreneur. In the next paragraph, he states that a Wharton degree “doesn’t prove very much.”
Inconsistency has long been Trump’s style. But while his critics seize on that inconsistency as a unique liability, yet another difference between him and his respectable predecessors on the right, a happy avowal of contradiction has been a feature of the conservative tradition since the beginning. Originally, that avowal assumed a tonier form, as a counter to the simpleminded rationalism that was supposed to animate the left. Against the belief that politics and society could be reduced to logic and reason, conservatives sought what Walter Bagehot called, in a different vein, “truth as a succession of perpetual oscillations, like the negative and positive signs of an alternate series, in which you were constantly more or less denying or affirming the same proposition.” The capacity to inhabit the twin poles of a proposition and its negation without attempting to reconcile or overcome them enabled one to appreciate and thereby preserve the subtle textures of society. A complex social order, layered by centuries of submission and rule, would be ruined — made smaller, more tractable, less grand — by the leveling reason of the left. “He claims that a constitution does not exist unless he can put it in his pocket,” sniffed Joseph de Maistre as he leafed through Thomas Paine’s various plans to remake the world. They were all so legible and transparent, so slight. Burke had their measure, decades before anyone had even heard of Paine: “A clear idea is therefore another name for a little idea.”
Trump neither knows nor nods to this tradition. Yet as he ambles from one contradiction to the next, it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that his indifference to consistency is part of his appeal on the right. Trump has the confidence of his contradictions. They advertise that he’s not a stuffed shirt. “Most people are surprised by the way I work,” he says in The Art of the Deal. “I play it very loose. . . . You can’t be imaginative or entrepreneurial if you’ve got too much structure. I prefer to come to work each day and just see what develops.” Like George W. Bush, whose cowboy affect inspired the gushing epithet “rebel-in-chief,” Trump plays the part of the happy buccaneer, a role that invokes the right’s age-old hostility toward political arithmetic and moral geometry. “Sometimes,” as Trump says, “it pays to be a little wild.”
The consonance between Trump’s inconsistency and the right’s embrace of contradiction raises a deeper question: Is Trump really a conservative? For many of his critics, on the left and the right, the answer is no. Trump’s racism, irregularity, and populism, and the ambient violence that trails his entourage, are seen as symptoms of a novel disease on the right, a sign that Trump has broken with the traditions and beliefs that once nourished the movement. Yet while the racism of the Trumpist right is nastier than that of its most recent predecessors, it is certainly not nastier or more violent than the movement’s battle against civil rights in the 1960s and ’70s, in the courts, legislatures, and streets. The weaponization of racism and nativism under Trump intensifies a well-established tradition on the right, as studies of American conservatism from the 1920s through the Tea Party have shown. Likewise, the erratic nature of Trump’s White House, the freewheeling disregard of norms and rules, reflects a long-standing conservative animus to the customary and the conventional, as do Trump’s jabs against the establishment. There are important innovations in Trump’s populist appeals, but populism has been a critical element of the right from its inception.
In other words, conservatives have breached norms, flouted decorum, assailed elites, and shattered orthodoxy throughout the ages. Still, Trump does represent something new.
Trump embodies a tension between two visions on the right: what we might call the political and the economic. One vision prizes heroism, glory, and elite action, and is associated with the battlefield, high politics, and hard affairs of state. The other celebrates the market and trade, the accumulation of wealth and exchange of commodities, and is associated with unfettered capitalism. The conflict between the warrior and the businessman is an old one, predating the rise of the right and of capitalism. But since the 18th century, that conflict has produced on the right an intense ambivalence about capitalism. A ruling class “skilled in commerce and finance,” declared a fretful Teddy Roosevelt, perpetually weighs the “honor of the nation and the glory of the flag” against a “temporary interruption of money-making.” Such a class looks upon the state as a “till.” It “loses the hard fighting virtues” and comes to preside over a “rich nation which is slothful, timid.”
Against the deadening effects of capitalism, one side of the right has propped up the spheres of war and high politics. “I enjoy wars,” said Harold Macmillan, Britain’s midcentury Tory prime minister. “Any adventure’s better than sitting in an office.” Capitalism in this view is not so much eliminated as downgraded, its place in society diminished to make room for what Nietzsche called grosse Politik.
The other side of the right, of which we see glimmers in Burke and a more developed picture in Schumpeter and Hayek, doesn’t denigrate capitalism but recasts it. No longer the province of the comfortable bourgeois trader, capitalism comes to look like the agonistic polity the system’s early defenders and critics thought it might displace. The businessman ceases to be the antithesis of the warrior or the aristocrat; instead, he becomes their sublimation. As William Graham Sumner wrote of the businessmen of the Gilded Age:
Men capable of managing great enterprises . . . have been called “captains of industry.” The analogy with military leaders suggested by this name is not misleading. The great leaders in the development of the industrial organization need those talents of executive and administrative skill, power to command, courage, and fortitude, which were formerly called for in military affairs and scarcely anywhere else.
The cold war allowed — or forced — the right to hold these tensions between the warrior and the businessman in check. Against the backdrop of the struggle against communism abroad and welfare-state liberalism at home, the businessman became a warrior — Robert Welch parlayed his career as a candymaker into a crusade at the John Birch Society — and the warrior a businessman. Caspar Weinberger went from the Office of Management and Budget and the defense contractor Bechtel to the Pentagon and Forbes. His nickname, “Cap the Knife,” captured the unified spirit of the cold-war self: one part accountant, one part killer.
With the end of the cold war, that conflation of roles became difficult to sustain. In one precinct of the right, the market returned to its status as a deadening activity that stifled greatness, whether of the nation or of the elite. American conservatism, Irving Kristol complained in 2000, is “so influenced by business culture and by business modes of thinking that it lacks any political imagination.” The idea of the free market was so simple and small, sighed Bill Buckley, that “it becomes rather boring. You hear it once, you master the idea. The notion of devoting your life to it is horrifying if only because it’s so repetitious. It’s like sex.” But in another precinct, market activities were shorn of anticommunist trappings and revalorized as strictly economic acts of heroism by a class that saw itself and its work as the natural province of greatness and rule. Donald Trump hails from the second precinct, but with a twist: his approach suggests there is no heroism in business — only deals.
Trump also upends the delicate relationship on the right between elite and mass, privilege and populism. Conservatism is an elitist movement of the masses, an effort to create a new-old regime that, in one way or another, makes privilege popular. Sometimes conservatism has multiplied the ranks of privilege, creating ever-finer gradations between the worse off and the worst off. Sometimes it has simplified those ranks into two: the white and black races of the white-supremacist imagination. Sometimes it has offshored society’s inequalities, seeing in the people of an imperial state a unified rank of superiors, “a kind of nobility among nations,” in Arendt’s words, subjugating less civilized peoples abroad. And sometimes it has turned elites into victims, encouraging the masses to see their abjection reflected in the higher misery of those above them.
Trump’s ascendancy suggests that the lower orders are no longer satisfied with the racial and imperial privileges conservatism has offered them. The right has reversed many of the gains of the civil rights movement: the schools that African Americans in the South attend today are more segregated than they were under Nixon, the racial wealth gap has tripled since 1984, and voting rights for African Americans are under attack. Yet a combination of stagnating wages, rising personal and household debt, and increasing job precarity — coupled with the tormenting symbolism of a black President and the greater visibility of black and brown faces in the culture industries — has made the traditional conservative offering seem scant to its white constituents. The future of the United States as a minority-majority nation exacerbates this anxiety. Racial dog whistles no longer suffice; a more brazen sound is required.
Trump is that sound, not just in the overt racism and nativism of his rhetoric and policies but also in the economic populism of his rhetoric. (His economic policies, as some of his disillusioned supporters are beginning to discover, are a different matter.) Trump’s critics often dismiss the anti-elitism of his rhetoric as incidental if not irrelevant. Yet Trump’s critique of plutocracy, defense of entitlements, and articulated sense of the market’s wounds were among the more noteworthy innovations of his campaign — at least with respect to recent victorious strands of the electoral right. (One can find precedents for Trump’s mix of racial and economic populism in the less electorally successful campaigns of Father Coughlin, George Wallace, and Pat Buchanan.) The sun of Reaganomics — which saw in the unfettered market the answer to the political, economic, and cultural stagflation of the 1970s — no longer warms the lower orders of the right.
The tensions that long buttressed the right — the political versus the economic; mass versus elite — are less taut now that its traditional antagonists, the freedom movements of the left, have disappeared. From the French Revolution through civil rights and women’s lib, struggles for collective liberation through revolution or reform have forced the right to think harder and better, to act smarter and with greater discipline and intentionality — not out of any Millian desire to get the better of the argument, but out of a desperate need to defend power and privilege against a movement that seeks their elimination. To this day, the greatest testament of the conservative creed remains a text called Reflections on the Revolution in France; the most powerful statements of free-market faith — Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom — emerged when the welfare state was hegemonic. Against the pressure of the left, the right’s energies and commitments — to war and commerce, to privilege and populace — fed off one another and grew stronger, generating enough power to rupture the left’s constraints. While there have been stirrings on the left in recent years, for instance in the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements and parts of the Sanders campaign, none of these efforts has achieved sufficient velocity or institutional traction, much less governing power, to awaken and discipline the right. Without a genuine enemy to tutor it, the right has allowed the long-standing fissures of the conservative movement to deepen and expand.
That absent tutelage is most visibly embodied in Trump, whose whims are as unlettered as his mind is untaught. Trump is a window onto the dissolution of the conservative whole, a whole that can allow itself to collapse because it has achieved so much. Battling its way to hegemony in the second half of the 20th century, the American right would never have chosen a Trump — not because it was more intelligent and virtuous or less racist and violent, but because it was disciplined by its task of destroying the left. With that left now destroyed, the foot soldiers of the right wing think to themselves: We’ve had conservative Republican presidents. We have a conservative Republican Congress. Why haven’t they delivered on the promises they’ve made for so long? Why haven’t they made us great again? Why not Trump? The more established voices in the party, many of whom opposed Trump in the primaries (though not with the focus and energy the right used to possess), think to themselves: What’s the worst that can happen in a general election? Another Clinton in the White House? She’ll not do much to disrupt our tax and regulatory regime. Why not Trump? Unlike Nixon, Reagan, or even Bush, who managed to invoke the threat of the left — whether as present reality or recent memory — to bring the factions of the right in line, Trump tweeted his way to the nomination because no one could bring any of the factions in line. Truth be told, none of them needed to. There was no threatening left waiting in the wings to dispossess them of their privileges. Once Trump secured the nomination, the party elders figured: What the hell, let’s roll the dice.
Having achieved so many conservative goals — a labor movement in terminal decline, curtailed abortion rights, the deregulation of multiple industries, economic inequality reminiscent of the Gilded Age, and racial resegregation — the right can now afford the luxury of irresponsibility. Or so it believes. As we have seen in the opening months of the Trump presidency, the conservative regime, despite its command of all three elected branches of the national government and a majority of state governments, is extraordinarily unstable and even weak, thanks to a number of self-inflicted wounds. That weakness, however, is a symptom not of its failures, but of its success.
The peculiarity of The Art of the Deal—and what lent Trump’s candidacy its puzzling allure (a plutocrat denouncing plutocrats, an effect of wealth decrying the effects of wealth, a man of the market denigrating the virtue of the market)—is how it simultaneously advances the right’s competing visions of the market. On the one hand, it celebrates the economy as the sphere of great men, where the strong dominate the weak. On the other hand, it mounts a persistent, almost poignant, questioning of the value of capitalism, suggesting that economic pursuits are frivolous if not meaningless, and that a society should be about more than making money.
Most of The Art of the Deal is a testimonial to the first vision: the capitalist as warrior prince. The battlefield and the palace were once the places where great men revealed themselves to the world and to each other; now they do it in the market. There are strong men. There are weak men. But how do we know which are which? By how much they are willing to spend in the market, by how forcefully they commit to their visions. “The dollar,” writes Trump, “always talks in the end.” Money is a truth-teller. It shows how much of ourselves we will give in pursuit of our dreams. If it’s a little money, the dream must not be fervently felt. If it’s a lot of money, the dream is exigent. The man who spends is more than a dreamer: he’s a doer.
One of Trump’s great dreams was to build a fantastic atrium. He poured millions into a vast court at Trump Tower; no expense was spared. His competitors were enthralled by what they saw. They wanted it, too. Then they saw the bill.
What they discovered is that the bronze escalators were going to cost a million dollars extra, and the waterfall was going to cost two million dollars, and the marble was going to cost many millions more. They saw that it all added up to many millions of dollars, and all of a sudden these people with these great ambitions would decide, well, let’s forget about the atrium.
The maintenance of that atrium also cost a bundle. The suits at Equitable Real Estate Group, who co-owned Trump Tower, weren’t happy about that: “My policy was to have all of the brass in the atrium polished twice a month. Why, this fellow asked, couldn’t we save some money by polishing once every couple of months?” That was the end of Equitable.
When it comes to saying something with buildings, Trump is less concerned with size and scale than with surfaces. This is a man incapable of reading a summary of a briefing paper. But show him a window treatment, mention a slab of stone or pane of burnished glass, and his attention is rapt. Suddenly he becomes the most observant diarist, recording detail after loving detail of the beauty he sees and its effects on him:
Der, Ivana, and I looked at hundreds of marble samples. Finally, we came upon something called Breccia Perniche, a rare marble in a color none of us had ever seen before — an exquisite blend of rose, peach, and pink that literally took our breath away. . . . It created a very luxurious and a very exciting feeling.
Amid a complex account of the financial challenges of retail, Trump can’t help noting that one of his atrium’s tenants sells leather pants that are “soft and buttery.”
That attention to external detail informs Trump’s political judgments as well. One of his most heartfelt criticisms of Obama was that rather than hosting a celebration for foreign dignitaries in a lavish ballroom, he served dinner to them in “an old, broken, rotten-looking tent” on the White House lawn. “That’s no way for America to host important meetings and dinners with world leaders and dignitaries. We should project our nation’s power and beauty with a proper facility and ballroom.” So enraged was Trump at this failed aesthetics of power that he called the White House and, patched through to Obama senior strategist David Axelrod, offered to build a ballroom there for free. Now in office, Trump has set things right. According to an early report in the New York Times:
Visitors to the Oval Office say Mr. Trump is obsessed with the décor. . . . He will linger on the opulence of the newly hung golden drapes, which he told a recent visitor were once used by Franklin D. Roosevelt but in fact were patterned for Bill Clinton. For a man who sometimes has trouble concentrating on policy memos, Mr. Trump was delighted to page through a book that offered him 17 window covering options.
Trump’s sensibility is less monumental than ornamental. That sensibility is not simply personal or psychological. It’s a rococo aesthetic that dominated New York fashion and museum culture in the 1980s — when The Art of the Deal appeared — and that cultural historian Debora Silverman, in Selling Culture: Bloomingdale’s, Diana Vreeland, and the New Aristocracy of Taste in Reagan’s America, identifies as the true cultural front of the Reagan Administration. This faux-aristocratic ethos was opulent and ostentatious, loud and luxurious, vicious and vulgar. It was a world made for Donald Trump, the world that made Donald Trump. As Trump says: “What I’m doing is about as close as you’re going to get, in the twentieth century, to the quality of Versailles.”
No matter how medieval or monarchical their attachments, conservatives reject the static traditionalism of the feudal worldview. Their conception of power is more dynamic, their notions of supremacy more agonistic. They believe in domination, but domination laden with struggle: among equals, along the lines of what Nietzsche sets out in “Homer’s Contest,” or between superiors and subordinates. Conservatives want a ruling elite, but it must be one that has been tested, that has won its place at the table through personal displays of fortitude. That fortitude is what makes these ruling elites men of distinction and value as opposed to the lads and layabouts so often found among the sons of the ruling class, the Lauderdales and Bedfords to whom Burke took such exception in his Letter to a Noble Lord.
Trump’s rhetoric is suffused with this conception of economic life as a struggle of the best men for power and position. Nothing provokes his ire more than the time-server, whether in the family or the firm. One of the men Trump admires most is Conrad Hilton, who built a hotel empire on his own. Hilton believed “that inherited wealth destroys moral character and motivation.” Trump agrees (in theory; he had a trust fund, and he campaigned against the estate tax). That is why he takes such a jaundiced view of Hilton’s son, who despite Conrad’s warnings about inheritance came to a position of great power in his father’s industry. “It had nothing to do with merit,” scoffs Trump; “it’s called birthright.” Hilton’s son was “a member of what I call the Lucky Sperm Club.” Like so many to the manner born, he “doesn’t try enough.” The name of Hilton’s son is Barron.
In business, Trump prefers to deal with “the sharpest, toughest, and most vicious people in the world. I happen to love to go up against these guys, and I love to beat them.” This is another thing money reveals: how much better you are than your competitor. “Money was never a big motivation for me, except as a way to keep score.” Like the bloody battles of ancient Greece or medieval Europe, victory in economic combat belongs to the more excellent, superior man. Not better in the sense of meritocratic achievement (institutional measures of worth can reward only the institution man) or of economic contribution (a new product, more jobs, higher shareholder value), but in the sense of besting another in the field of battle. Those moments reveal the “instincts” of the self: the driving will to overcome, to overpower, to win. Some have great talent but “will never find out how great they could have been. Instead, they’ll be content to sit and watch stars perform on television.” Such individuals “are afraid of success, afraid of making decisions, afraid of winning.” The great man has no such compunctions; he shows his greatness to the world. And that, says Trump, is not something one can learn or develop; it is “an ability you’re born with.” It is what truly belongs to the original and originating self.
Yet there is an unexpected sigh of emptiness, even boredom, at the end of Trump’s celebration of economic combat: “If you ask me exactly what the deals I’m about to describe all add up to in the end, I’m not sure I have a very good answer.” In fact, he has no answer at all. He says hopefully, “I’ve had a very good time making them,” and wonders wistfully, “If it can’t be fun, what’s the point?” But the quest for fun is all he has to offer — a dispiriting narrowness that Max Weber anticipated more than a century ago when he wrote that “in the United States, the pursuit of wealth, stripped of its religious and ethical meaning, tends to become associated with purely mundane passions, which often actually give it the character of sport.” Ronald Reagan could marvel, “You know, there really is something magic about the marketplace when it’s free to operate. As the song says, ‘This could be the start of something big.’” But there is no magic in Trump’s market. Everything — save those buttery leather pants — is a bore.
That admission affords Trump considerable freedom to say things about the moral emptiness of the market that no credible aspirant to the Oval Office from the right could. In his objection to people who oppose casinos, Trump says there’s only one difference between gambling and investing: “the players” in the New York Stock Exchange “dress in blue pinstripe suits and carry leather briefcases.” Bets are a way to make money; casinos are just another market. Such statements, which collapse profit into profiteering, used to be taboo among the ruling classes. “No man of spirit will consent to remain poor if he believes his betters to have gained their goods by lucky gambling,” Keynes warned. “The business man is only tolerable so long as his gains can be held to bear some relations to what, roughly and in some sense, his activities have contributed to Society.” Any suggestion to the contrary would “strike a blow at capitalism,” destroying “the psychological equilibrium which permits the perpetuance of unequal rewards.” Trump’s genius is to recognize the truth of Keynes’s dictum yet ignore its dictates, knowing full well there is no revolution in the offing. The more likely consequence is that people will want to know Trump’s secrets. Or elect him President.
Ironically, what is so unsettling about Trump’s talk, what makes it so pertinent and resonant as a political vision, is not its lies but its brutal honesty:
The final key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people’s fantasies. People do not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole.
That fakery, that playing to fantasy and bravado, is not a sideshow to the economy; it is the economy. “A lot of attention,” says Trump, “alone creates value.” A lot of attention — not the productivity of the laborer, the design of the engineer, the vision of the entrepreneur, the risk of the investor, or the genius of the advertiser — can on its own create value. At the heart of his celebration of economic combat and struggle is a dim awareness that its only justification is itself. The game is the game.
This is what makes Trump’s economic philosophy, such as it is, so peculiar and of its moment. An older generation of economic Darwinists, from William Graham Sumner to Ayn Rand, believed without reservation in the secular miracle of the market. It wasn’t just the contest that was glorious; the outcome was, too. That conviction burned in them like a holy fire. Trump, by contrast, subscribes and unsubscribes to that vision. The market is a moment of truth — and an eternity of lies. It reveals; it hides. It is everything; it is nothing. Rand grounded her vision of capitalism in A is A; Trump grounds his in A is not A.
Trump is by no means the first man of the right to reach that conclusion about capitalism, though he may be the first President to do so, at least since Teddy Roosevelt. A great many neoconservatives found themselves stranded on the same beach after the end of the cold war, as had many conservatives before that. But they always found a redeeming vision in the state. Not the welfare state or the “nanny state,” but the State of high politics, national greatness, imperial leadership, and war; the state of Churchill and Bismarck. Given the menace of Trump’s rhetoric, his fetish for pomp and love of grandeur, this state, too, would seem the natural terminus of his predilections. As his adviser Steve Bannon has said, “A country’s more than an economy. We’re a civic society.” Yet on closer inspection, Trump’s vision of the state looks less like the State than the deals he’s not sure add up to much.
Trump’s 2011 proto-campaign statement, Time to Get Tough — repackaged for 2016 with a new subtitle, Make America Great Again! — plots this trajectory. It opens on that note of wounded nationalism for which Trump has become famous —
Every day in business I see America getting ripped off and abused. We have become a laughingstock, the world’s whipping boy, blamed for everything, credited for nothing, given no respect .
— and it never lets up. Across nearly two hundred pages, it recounts an epoch of national humiliation, presided over by decadent leaders like Barack Obama and his band of “cream puff ‘diplomats.’” We’re sinking like a stone, growls Trump, we come to the rest of the world “on bended knee”; Obama “practices ‘pretty please’ diplomacy,” his statements are “drenched in weakness”; China is our enemy, we have to get tough, Let’s Make America Great Again! So committed is Trump to America First that, after acknowledging that no American wants to drill for oil in his own backyard, he cites as another example of our national humiliation the fact that we allow other nations to drill in their backyards. “The holes are going to get drilled into the planet anyway,” so “we should drill them on our soil.” Trump’s extended cry of pain here seems to contain at least some of the elements of “passionate nationalism” that the historian Robert Paxton describes as fascism’s essence: a sense of grievous dishonor and shame, played out across oceans and continents; the stab in the back from cosmopolitan elites (Obama is “economist to the world” who commits “economic treason”); a longing for re-enchantment of the state; a desire for national restoration and global domination.
Yet what’s most remarkable about Trump’s political vision is how economistic it can be, especially at moments when he hews most closely to a hard image of the state. Where antimarket conservatives flew into the arms of the state (in both senses) as an end run around the market, Trump often sees the state as consisting of nothing but market transactions, or “deals.” Money is the instrument of state power. Money is the end of state power. Anyone aspiring to wield state power should be an adept of money. Success or failure in the business world is the best test of one’s political mettle. Even when Trump tries to talk the language of hard power — violence, coercion — he cannot avoid sliding back into the anemic idioms of the market he knows so well.
“China is our enemy,” Trump says, and “the military threat from China is gigantic.” As a result, “we’ve got to have a President who knows how to get tough with China.” Does that entail an arms race, more aggressive deployments in East Asia, nuclear brinkmanship? No, just the opposite:
We need a President who will sign the bipartisan legislation to force a proper valuation of China’s currency. We need a President who will slap the Chinese with a 25 percent tax on all their products entering America if they don’t stop undervaluing the yuan. We need a President who will crack down on China’s massive and blatant intellectual property theft that allows China to pirate our products (maybe if Obama didn’t view entrepreneurs and businesspeople as the enemy he’d be more aggressive about this). Most of all, we need a President who is smart and tough enough to recognize the national security threat China poses in the new frontier of cyber warfare.
Having emphasized the military nature of China’s threat, Trump makes no mention of a military response, save for a glancing reference to cyberwarfare. The antidote to the rising power of China is not a swaggering warrior speaking softly and carrying a big stick (Trump, characteristically, wonders “why we don’t speak more loudly”). It is a leader who knows “how to out-negotiate the Chinese.” And what is the final victory Trump envisions? A company in Georgia that will provide, one day, 150 jobs to Americans making chopsticks — which they will “ship . . . to China! How great is that?”
America fought a catastrophic war in Iraq. The main catastrophe of that war, for Trump, is not geostrategic or military; it is that it was a bad deal. “We should have hammered out the repayment plan with the Iraqis . . . before we launched the war.” The Iraqis “should pay us back” with oil. If they don’t, the United States should “implement a cost-sharing arrangement with Iraq.” Trump has a lot of fun with the threatening call, “Take the oil.” It was a frequent refrain on the campaign trail, and it’s the title of the second chapter of Time to Get Tough. But the most coercive instrument he has in mind is the tool he perfected in real estate: the lawsuit. How should the United States “take on the oil thugs?” he asks. “We can start by suing OPEC for violating antitrust laws.” Quoting a former White House adviser, Trump asks, “Isn’t starting a lawsuit better than starting a war?”
In his business career, Trump has been plaintiff or defendant in more than four thousand lawsuits. He loves to brag about his willingness to take his enemies to court, but the truth is that he often settles and is more skilled at threatening litigation (and spinning his losses) than winning it. In one of his hardest-fought and most expensive lawsuits, a federal court awarded him a mere $1 in damages. This penchant for the tough talk of litigation has followed Trump into the White House. When a federal judge put a stay on his travel ban, Trump responded with a tweet: “I’ll see you in court.” For all the fear that Trump poses a threat to the independence of the judiciary or the rule of law, his primary mode of opposing court rulings has been, like virtually every one of his predecessors in the Oval Office, to appeal those rulings.
As far back as the 19th century, capitalism assumed a militaristic guise, with references to captains of industry, industrial titans, and the like. It seems natural, then, that given the chance to play an actual commander in chief, the businessman would continue to speak the language of his milieu. “Dealmaker-in-Chief” is Trump’s preferred term. But there’s a more recent reason for Trump’s slippage, which is that politics has assumed an economistic guise. As Wendy Brown has argued, neoliberalism is, among other things, the conquest of political argument by economic reason. The dominant rationale for public policy is not drawn from political philosophy but economics: choice, efficiency, competition, exchange. In 1975, Jimmy Carter helped launch the neoliberal turn in American politics by campaigning on the claim, “I ran the Georgia government as well as almost any corporate structure in this country is run.” Four decades later, managing a firm no longer provides a standard of leadership. It is the substance of leadership.
As soon as Trump became a serious contender for the Republican nomination, the comparisons to Hitler began. The reasons are obvious: the bullying rhetoric, the hatred of racial and ethnic minorities, the xenophobia, the violence of Trump’s rallies and his freelance supporters throughout the country, the hostility to dissent, and, for a time, the invocations of American workers humiliated and mangled by the workings of a global capitalism that did not have their interests at heart. Yet if fascism’s achievement was to mobilize the masses on the basis of nation or race, consolidate the state apparatus, clear the field of opposition and dissent through terror from above and violence from below, and thereby pursue its program with maximal leverage and authority, it’s plain that Trump has fallen short — if that was ever his ambition in the first place (the economism of Trump’s vision would suggest a serious constraint on that ideal). At almost every step — from his travel ban, to his attempt to repeal Obamacare, to his effort to build a wall, to his budget proposal for the remainder of 2017 and his desire to overhaul the tax code — Trump’s plans have been checked by opposition in the streets, the courts, and the Democratic Party, and by division within his own party. (That may change, of course.) Less than five months into his term, polls show that his voting base — whites, men, and white men and women without college degrees — has begun to erode. With the important exceptions of rolling back his predecessor’s regulatory regime and pushing a punitive immigration policy — the latter being an area where all Presidents have independent power — Trump’s program thus far has been mostly stymied. And despite Trump’s campaign promise to govern as a new type of conservative who defends the interests of the working man, he has consistently fallen back on pro-business Republican positions.
While the fissiparous nature of American institutions has helped stop Trump, it’s important to remember that those institutions have often served the agents of tyranny remarkably well, from the defenders of slavery and Jim Crow to the forces of McCarthyism and COINTELPRO. And while Trump’s rule has generated much opposition, other Presidents have faced similar if not more robust resistance, which they managed to turn to their favor. A good deal of Franklin Roosevelt’s initial program of recovery was struck down by the courts, which then became the occasion for his even more frontal assault on the established institutions of the American state. Bill Clinton parlayed the Republican shutdown of 1995–96 into higher approval ratings and reelection, while Nixon could scarcely contain his snarling references to rioters and hippies and peaceniks, so potent was that opposition as a legitimating source of his rule. Neither of the latter two Presidents, moreover, had majorities in Congress. Something else must explain Trump’s inability to achieve full or even partial dominance of the political field.
Hitler fought his way to power as the culmination of a decade-long ascendancy of the right against a previously dominant left. Trump coasted to power, by contrast, at a belated moment for the right. He was rejected by a majority of voters in his party’s primaries — the first President since Jimmy Carter with that millstone around his neck — and was only able to secure the nomination thanks to a vacuum within the party and the inability of its leadership to rally around an alternative. It’s true that the Republican Party controls the federal government as well as the majority of state governments, but since 1992, the GOP has won only three out of seven presidential elections, twice without the popular vote. Richard Nixon, who first rode the hard-right racial populism of the conservative movement into the White House, was reelected with 61 percent of the popular vote. At the height of his power, Ronald Reagan received 59 percent of the popular vote; George W. Bush, 51 percent. Trump came into office with 46 percent of the popular vote, and his approval ratings through his first months in office have been the worst of any modern President.1
Whatever this means for the electoral prospects of the GOP, it’s clear that the popular elements of conservatism have been attenuated over the past quarter-century. Nixon, Reagan, and Bush achieved their upward redistribution of rights and privileges by mobilizing a majority of the electorate based on muted racism, militaristic or Christian nationalism, and market populism. In recent years, that fusion of elitism and populism has grown brittle. Movement elites no longer find in the electoral majority such a wide or ready response to their populist calls. George W. Bush may have been the last national figure to fuse the two, though he concluded his presidency reviled and rejected. Like many movements struggling to hold power, conservatives compensate for their dwindling support by doubling down on their program, issuing ever more strident and racist calls for a return to a white, Christian, free-market nation. A faction of the party’s elected officialdom subscribes to that program, precluding all concessions or compromise, as we’ve seen throughout the attempts to repeal Obamacare. Wings of the base — and the extramural sectors of the alt-right — take the question of white privilege into their own hands, finding a more genuine populism in marauding acts of violence against people of color, religious minorities, and leftist demonstrators. Other parts of the base have begun to wonder whether they’re getting a return for their vote. Populism remains, in truncated form, but it seems incapable of serving the elite the way it once did.
As these currents of discontent proliferate, separating into ever more streams, the right finds itself in need of a more consolidated source of energy. Unable to rely on the masses, at least not nearly to the extent it once did, the right turns increasingly to the most antidemocratic elements of the state: the Electoral College, the Supreme Court, and restrictions on the vote. As it tries to overcome this deficit of the popular by means of the unpopular — as opposed to its heyday, when it overcame the popular by means of a counterpopular — today’s conservative movement calls to mind its predecessor in early 19th-century, pre-Reform Britain, dependent on a combination of rotten boroughs and stale rhetoric.
Once upon a time, fascism — like the new right of the 1970s and ’80s — possessed the freshness and vigor of youth. Fascism “was the major political innovation of the twentieth century,” explains Paxton. Liberals and leftists found their arguments moldering in the graves of centuries past; fascism was novel. The aging Hindenburg evoked a war — and a zeppelin — that failed. Hitler brazenly traveled the country by plane. “In an era when air travel was considered dangerous,” writes Claudia Koonz, “Hitler literally descended from the clouds to address audiences of between 120,000 and 300,000 at major cities.” That inventiveness and creativity, that youthful spirit of daring and originality, is what gave fascism its élan and esprit de corps.
It’s telling that Trump has repeated the stunt of landing from the skies — often asking his pilots to buzz the airfields before landing at his rallies — not because it reveals him to be a fascist, but because it shows that he’s forsaken one of the advantages fascism had the first time around: its originality. Nor is Trump the only person in and around his administration whose creativity seems to be challenged. Beginning with his wife Melania’s address to the Republican National Convention in August 2016, Trump’s team has been plagued by one plagiarism scandal after another: Monica Crowley, Neil Gorsuch, Sheriff David Clarke. Conservatism has always borrowed from its enemies on the left. But where that borrowing once signified a supple and shrewd awareness of the moment — an ability to repurpose the enemy for the sake of a friend, the present low for a future high — the Trumpist theft of words and deeds signifies a conservatism that is exhausted, paradoxically marooned and unmoored.
Most politicians, says Trump, sound “as if they are speaking from a script titled ‘How Boring Can I Possibly Be?’” Trump’s promise, like that of so many on the right before him, is that he won’t bore you. He can bat away the fact that he’s a liar, a narcissist, a sexual predator, a financial miscreant, an incompetent, and a naïf. He even thinks — and he may be right — that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” without losing support. But the one charge Trump can’t afford is the claim that he’s dull. Alas, history may be working against him. Whatever rhetorical innovations he seemed at first to offer, Trump lacks the warrant of a disciplined movement, a united party, and a threatening left — not to mention an intentional self — to see those innovations through. A reversion to the Republican status quo may continue to be his only option. Unless and until there is a genuine new left to oppose, unless and until there is a real emancipation of the lower orders and dispossession of the higher orders to contend with, Trump and his brethren will be reading from a script.
It’s worth keeping in mind as well that less than two years before the election of Ronald Reagan and the Republican realignment, the Democrats were at the peak of their control over the American state, leading all the elected branches of the federal government by far greater margins than House and Senate Republicans do today, all the elected branches of government in twenty-seven states, and the legislatures of nine other states. While there is no contemporary leftist movement waiting in the wings to seize control, the current Republican position may not be nearly as formidable as it appears. ↩