The chaos

Some assert that Donald Trump is a fascist. Although his personal inclinations as revealed to the public show a person with the personality a fascist leader would have, and his identity and class biases affirm this description, it is an obvious fact that Donald Trump was too lazy to have built the movement, party and related institutional forms needed to be considered an actual fascist leader. What, then, is Donald Trump? I believe he is a vile opportunist who found himself the executive of the world’s Superpower while tenuously leading the mostly disorganized far right public in the United States. For them, Trump is their latest celebrity-hero, an accidental Robespierre of the counter-revolution they desire. As such, he provides a frame through which they can locate their aspirations and interpret their political opportunities. He is a Reagan who no long speaks in code, a Buchanan to whom they can relate. That said, it is also a fact that the Trump administration lacks democratic legitimacy. He lacks democratic legitimacy because the demos did not vote him into office. The demos chose Hillary Clinton. The Constitution gave us Trump. Donald Trump, despite his democratic legitimacy deficit, possesses the powers specific to his office. He will hold these powers until he leaves office. But it is because Trump lacks democratic legitimacy that he also lacks the authority (power amplified because it is recognized as legitimate) always found in a leader who enjoys the broad and deep consent of those he would govern.

Briefly put, Trump is dangerously powerful because he is the President of the United States, holder of an office that controls an immense arsenal of violent tools. But he is politically weak because he lacks the authority a democratic consensus provides to an office holder and because he cannot let a day pass without creating new and powerful enemies at home and abroad. At best, he can impose his will on the society and state he leads with his executive orders (decrees). But even his rule by decree founders on his incapacities. The events of his first week in office made this point obvious.

If, then, Trump is a fascist, he is largely hated and politically weak. This combination does not auger well for his political future.

Others assert that Trump oftensometimes furthers the policies, programs and goals of his recent predecessors. This claim is frequently true. It is made because the claim and its truth are meant to diminish Trump’s predecessors while normalizing Trump’s barbarism. There is irony in this gambit, for the normal and barbaric can merge into one disturbing image.

First, for instance, we know Trump wants to ban prospective immigrants and deport actual immigrants, even legally protected immigrants. Yet, we also know that Barack Obama did restrict immigration and deport some of those who made it into the United States. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush also advanced border control policies. Their support for these policies are not too surprising given the fact that setting and consolidating borders is an elemental competency of any modern state. It is also unsurprising because globalization (American-led imperial expansion) produces migration problems as a matter of course. We should expect migration problems because successful imperial aggression results in accumulation by dispossession, as David Harvey (2003, 145-182) notes. Of course, placeless people need somewhere to go. Nevertheless, a freely flowing movement of migrants from one state to another reveals the presence of an incapacitated or failed state. Accordingly, no state or political leader promotes or long-tolerates an un- or under-restricted movement of groups or individuals across its borders. This claim does not absolve Trump, though. What distinguishes Trump’s immigration rhetoric from that of his recent predecessors and what makes it objectionable per se is the overt hatred he consistently expresses through his proclamations and policies. His recent immigration ban only exposes his barbarism for what it is. Trump seemingly feels justified in making his decrees and imposing his bans because he considers some actual and potential immigrants to be monsters or sub-human criminals. He uses these outliers to define whole population categories, massive groups that must be dealt with as collective entities, as others. This is inhumane and unrealistic. It is because of Trump’s hatreds that I believe his policies are not akin to border control policies as practiced by states not enthralled to atavistic impulses. It reflects another, related project: Identity construction. Trump seeks to promote a cramped and corrupt unity among his followers in the United States and even abroad. It is a reactionary identity politics. It is cramped and corrupt because the United States is already a multi-ethnic and -religious society. (Muslim, Hispanics, Gays, Oh My!) Its many and diverse peoples cannot be forced into a system of categorical domination led by one distinct identity category without the use of an appalling degree of violence. It cannot because the United States is slowly moving towards instituting an ethos of tolerance and mutual recognition that will make White America obsolete. Seen in this light, Trump’s hatreds reveal the existential anxiety of a social category that is watching its moment pass before its eyes, namely, the augmented WASPish America that appeared as an ideological sign after the Second World War. These anxieties, along with Trump’s immigration politics, have nothing to do with a credible and morally defensible immigration program. They reflect instead the death of the White American dream.

Second, Trump wants to prosecute what remains of the Great War on Terror by destroying ISIS and, perhaps, Iran. In this he follows the repetitive and reckless program set by George W. Bush, Barack Obama, the Clintons and much of the Washington establishment since 9.11. This path extends back further to the Gulf War of 1990-1 as well as to the genocidal sanctions regime promoted by Third-Way ‘leftists’ like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair once Operation Desert Shield turned modern Iraq into a non-modern wasteland. Although the details of this compulsive war-making may differ between the various administrations, the Islamophobia and disrespect for human life, the imperial arrogance and militarism which marked the original invasion remain intact. These vices also reflected in the relations the United States has with Brazil, Russia, India and China as well as the lesser members of the world economy. From these relations, we know that the United States does not provide humanitarian goods to the world as expressions of its essential goodness. It takes wealth when it can, promotes its clients and extends its sphere of influence. It fights wars and spreads its war-making capacity around the world in order to achieve its imperial goals. In this regard, Trump now occupies a place and furthers a project that already existed, one created by the costly and fruitless imperial programs of the past, by a political culture that believes America is exceptional, an Empire of Liberty. Trump’s America First and Make America Great Again slogans reflect his imperial mindset. They are not novel interventions into American public discourse. Likewise, destroying or attempting to destroy ISIS or Iran provide just two additional data points in the American Presidents are fools slot. The slogans and war-making are all-to-typical of the country.

Third, Trump also looks well on his way to implementing an austere pro-corporate economic agenda. Once again, Trump’s inclinations in this matter do not mark him as different from the Bushes and Clintons, from Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan and even Jimmy Carter. Despite his populist campaign rhetoric, which promised job creation, living wages and cost controls, goals that an economically beleaguered population would gladly support, Trump and his cabinet picks seem prepared to promote a capital- and oligarchy-friendly agenda. This is unsurprising given the role played by the Heritage Foundation in the formation of that agenda. (“Free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense — these are the values that we fight for every single day.“) It is also unsurprising given that the Empire of Liberty exists to further the ends of capital, not the demos. The business of America is business, as the pithy slogan puts it. Neoliberal dogma, the current expression of this economic impulse, provides the air Washington, New York, Chicago, London, Brussels, etc. breath. It is the American ideology writ large, to which alternatives are neither conceivable nor tolerable.

If Newton saw more than others because he stood on the shoulder of giants, we may expect Trump to make the colossal messes he will make because he will merely disturb or extend the social and political wasteland created by his mediocre and compromised predecessors. This amounts to saying that the disorder of the moment is not specific to Trump, his program and administration. The risk and uncertainty many Americans experience every day expresses the creeping institutional decay of the current American system, the system disintegration specific to post-Golden Age democratic capitalism. The 2008 crisis merely exacerbated these problems. In the United States, this decay takes the form of a permanently stagnating economy; the prevalence of debt bondage within the lower classes; the use of finance capital by America’s oligarchy to confiscate the wealth of the many; the consolidation of the predatory state; the intractable insignificance of the democratic mechanism in the effort to generate solutions to common and pressing problems; the present and future dangers of a bloated security-surveillance apparatus only able to consume scarce resources, commit crimes and produce chaos with notable effectiveness; and the slow decay of those institutions meant to realize a common good, an inclusive form of solidarity, replacing them with militarized police forces, prisons and internment camps. Trump has nothing relevant to say about these matters, and Americans will wait in vain if they expect him to correct them just like they waited for Obama to deliver change they can believe in.

I believe that very little a reasonable person would consider desirable can come from these oppressive and exploitative conditions. Altering them to make them significantly better would require a reform program the likes of which the world has yet to see. A program of this sort would necessarily be a radical reform program. If it were successful in achieving its ends, one might consider it another instance of a velvet revolution. The Green New Deal would be one good place to look for the makings of this radical reform program. Or, it would be if it were not for the fact that implementing a radical reform program with this character would require achieving contestable secondary goals. It would require dismantling America’s really existing Empire of Liberty and replacing the Federal Reserve and Wall Street. In their place, we would see a Department of State devoted to achieving world peace and a financial system dedicated to promoting human flourishing. A rational political economy would devote trillions of dollars to clean energy, to green transportation and commodity production. A radical reform program would promote the rehabilitation of democracy in America. It would rescue it from the severe constraints imposed by money, class and history. This is a utopia, and we would expect America’s oligarchy, its capitalist class in general, its political elite, members of the security-surveillance apparatus and even many of its citizens to oppose any effort to implement this program. Radical change is inconvenient as it is risky. The benefits it produces might not appear for years or even generations in the future. They may even appear impossible at any given moment. Both the powerful and weak can find reasons to opt out. Nevertheless, a program this radical stands as the historic demand of the moment. We know this because the world will not always endure the scourges of neoliberalism, American militarism and remorseless carbon consumption. Climate chaos changes everything, as Naomi Kline put it. It demands of humanity that it put its house in order. This demand is most compelling in the United States.

Donald Trump, crypto- or accidental-fascist as he may be, stands as an impediment to any radical reform program. He is an impediment because he is a bundle of dirt, lies and crime, but also because he has many violent institutions in his back pocket. He may lack democratic legitimacy, but he does not lack popular support. He is, as it were, a Son of America. On the other hand, the Trump regime provides us with an opportunity, namely, the chance to gain clarity about and insight into the predicaments of the day and to struggle to rectify the damage that has already be done. From chaos we can create form.