A month ago, before any of us took semiseriously the idea that Donald Trump might win the Republican primary race, coverage of Trump in the media presented an instructive paradox: on the one hand, he was the hottest hot topic, the ultimate click-bait, a real profit mine for a profit-driven media. On the other hand, nobody in establishment journalism really wished Trump to receive any attention at all. In other words, Trump was, during his rise, a source of profit for precisely those institutions that wanted nothing less than for him to get more press. He was at once an enemy and an endless oil rig.
At the time, we were able to observe an interesting divide, motivated by this paradox: in the demotic sources of “easy journalism” (the purveyors of click-bait: Buzzfeed, Alternet, and so on), Trump was covered a great deal, while in the so-called sophisticated publications (The New York Times, the whole platoon of respectable litmags, etc.), more exactly responsive to elite interests, Trump received almost zero coverage.
Indeed, the first and most obvious error in thinking about Trump is to associate him with the elite, the rich, the powerful, the bourgeois, or in general the typical enemies of left-liberal politics. The clear reality of Trump is this: in the event that he wins the Republican primary race, the entire nexus of state-corporate power will mobilize to see that he never reaches the White House.
The tactic of purposeful ignoring, though, even in establishment publications, is no longer possible, and in its place has grown a whole literature which is trying to make sense of his popularity. Call it “Trump theory.” Salon.com has near-daily articles of this sort, and even the New Yorker, that venerable publication, recently condescended to publish “Five theories of Donald Trump.” What all these pieces have in common, to my eye, is a remarkable lack of imagination and, as a result, almost no actual analysis of the collective psychology surrounding Trump.
The trajectory of the generic “Trump theory” is to summarize Trump’s latest absurdity (deport all immigrants, this woman has a bad face, let’s kick this journalist out of a press conference) and then to generalize the implication of the absurdity, tie it to some broader trend in the politics of the Republican party, and call this Trump’s “appeal.” But the existing body of “Trump theory,” following this course, gives only tautological answers to its questions. In the most egregious example of this kind of tautology, the New Yorker’s John Cassidy actually proposes as one of his five theories the illuminating possibility that “G.O.P. voters like [Trump’s] policies.”
The questions everyone’s trying to answer are: what makes this idiot so appealing to so many people? Why, with every blunder, every stupid remark, every sneer piece crying “Is this the end of Trump?” do his polling numbers continue to grow?
The mistake here lies in the very assumptions on which these questions rest. The question should not be “What is the appeal of this idiot?” but rather “What makes us call him an idiot?”
In other words, what do we really mean when we call Trump absurd, laughable, puerile, idiotic, and so on? These adjectives are not so self-explanatory as we are taking them to be. What is his logic? Where does it come from? Why, to our minds, is it laughably terrible? What does this laughable terribleness consist of?
By way of explanation, consider the first Republican debate’s most talked about segment, in which Trump is asked about his bankruptcies—how he can justify his businesses having gone bankrupt four times, or whatever it is—whereupon he responds (I paraphrase), “I’m not gonna apologize for going bankrupt. There are laws, and I know them, and I used them better than anyone. I built the biggest business in Atlanta. I made buckets of gold.”
The next morning, this bit blew up big time. How could Trump be so self-obsessed as to not apologize for his bankruptcies? He’s not only crazy; he’s not even a good businessman! So ran the media response, and so the media missed the real flavor of Trump’s point: to Trump, the bankruptcies were not failures of business but accomplishments of business. Trump used the laws of corporate bankruptcy to his advantage in order to enrich himself, and, what is more significant, Trump sees this decision not as a moral or strategic failure but rather as a great success.
The truth about Trump is not that he’s childish or foolish or just generally despicable—at least not in the simplistic way that we generally think about these words. The truth is that his very axioms of existence are different from mine and (probably) different from yours. I use “axiom” here in the mathematical sense: our starting assumptions, the ideas we take for granted before we get to thinking about anything else, where the “anything else” really consists of the axioms as applied to the real world.
In other words, it’s not that Trump actively subverts our world of belief. Rather, it’s that he lives in a different world, in the same way that someone who says 2+2=5 is only necessarily wrong according to our genetically programmed concept of quantity.
In this latter example, the underlying axiom is simple, familiar and clear: materialist self-advancement, the core tenet of capitalist culture. This, of course, is no revelation. Everyone knows that Trump is a guy of capitalist principles. But this theoretical knowledge of Trump’s beliefs is in striking discord with the media response. Why, if everyone knows that Trump believes in material self-advantage, was there such mysticism and fury about his applying those values to bankruptcy law? What is more, why was there such pervasive and compulsive misunderstanding of his meaning?
It is in this discord that the essence of Trump lies. It’s true that Trump’s axioms of understanding are different from those we generally hold, and it’s true that his whole universe of understanding changes with this axiom shift. The axioms that inform Trump’s understanding can be summarized as an obsession with self: self as the world’s most important and perfect thing, the thing to be advanced materially at whatever cost relative to other things, whether we take “self” here to mean Trump as man, business, or country. But the real question, and the real source of this discord, is in what precisely is different about this basic axiom in comparison to those that we, those who grimace at Trump, generally hold. Is it not true that this obsession with self is the most basic principle of global capitalism?
In order to address this question, we must reimagine the nature of belief in the 21st century. What is the actual nature of capitalist belief in the mind of today’s establishment citizen? I think it’s broadly true that belief works today not in the simple way of fundamentalism—that is, not in the way where one says, “I simply believe, and that is the end of it”—but rather as a kind of “half-belief.” Our actual concept of capitalism is not capitalism per se, but instead capitalism infused with socialism, religion, morality, and so on, through a whole set of corrupting and limiting forces.
This pretty obvious fact, of course, is well understood in the realm of economics (our economic system is capitalism heavily controlled by socialist programs) but isn’t talked about much as it affects the actual way we think about the world and one another. To put it otherwise, capitalism is our system of economic organization but is far from our system of psychological organization. We don’t interact according to the axiom of pure self-interest—not at all. Even the popular political talking-point of “family values” is deeply contrary to this axiom. In truth, it is even possible that our broad disbelief in capitalism is precisely what makes its existence possible, since to actually believe in the rightness and efficiency of our capitalist system would be a brutal belief indeed: it would require us to confront our own unspecialness and inadequacy. We blame the system itself for our own failure within it. Purebred capitalism would quickly self-destruct.
What is more, this structure of “half-belief” isn’t exclusive to our belief in capitalism. The same goes for religion, socialism, God, science. Does one believe in God? No, but in a deep way, yes. Does one believe in socialism? Yes, but in a deep way, no. And so on. Is it accidental that since 1980 our use of the word “ironic” has spiked to hundreds of times its pre-1900 levels, so prevalent that one is now frowned upon for using it? Our culture today is ironic at its foundations.
The truth about Trump, as best I can tell, is that he brings the supposed values of American society (think: American exceptionalism, an economy of self-advancement, rags to riches, etc.) to their actual terminus, instead of the faux one usually invoked, even by those whom we usually associate with the purest and coarsest versions of these values. How to preserve American exceptionalism in the 21st century? Kick all the non-Americans out; and I would be so good at the military; I would make Iran kiss my feet. Should one ever ask for forgiveness? No, because I’m Trump, I’m all-important, I’m perfect, I’ve built my own fame, and I don’t have to apologize to anyone—even God. How to deal with a dying business? To hell with all those stupid, peripheral values like creation or duty to one’s employees: let’s declare bankruptcy and reap the big bucks for me. So-and-so is a “loser.” He’s a “loser” because he has less money than me, he’s less famous than me, he’s less powerful than me. He is a “loser” by actual capitalist principles.
Is it not the case that if our culture were to believe—that is, really, fully believe—in anything resembling actual capitalist principles, the word “loser” wouldn’t be taken as offensive but instead would merely be a normal part of our assessment of one another? I believe that the population to which Trump appeals is precisely that population that, more than the rest, has begun to take seriously the supposed values of a self-obsessed culture—those who have, in a way, begun to believe truly in those things that the country at large pretends to espouse.
In this way, Trump is the definitional fundamentalist. Fundamentalism differs from ordinary belief in that it bypasses the defining feature of belief, which is the small leap of faith that belief in something necessarily entails. For most people who believe in anything at all, such a leap of faith is involved at the very foundation of belief itself. In this sense, the foundation of belief is as fragile as wind, though we often give it the appearance of solidity. But our latent knowledge of the fragility means that we will always doubt: doubt ourselves, our own importance, knowledge, specialness, our deepest political convictions, the possibility of a different kind of society. For Trump, there is no leap of faith. There is no layer of wind beneath belief. There are only the axioms and the world that grows out of them. The real difference between Trump and the non-Trumps of the world is that his belief in their values is stronger.
This insight gives a worrying new weight to the growing claims from certain corners of liberal commentary that Trump’s rise is the start of a fall toward fascism. I’m not so sure of this. In any event, fascism would be a long way off. But is it not true that many of the 20th century’s great dictators—Hitler, Stalin, and so on—were similar in their psychological appeal? In each case, a leader brought the latent, partially-believed values of a culture to full realization.
Meanwhile, for the rest of the world, why is Trump at once so terrible and so oddly satisfying?
As a brief aside in a recent essay, the contemporary philosopher Slavoj Zizek, who gets too much shit, compares Donald Trump to “the Russian Orthodox version of the holy fool who feigns insanity so he can deliver a message too dangerous for those in power that, if stated directly, it would cause a brutal reaction.” This comparison is smart but gets at only part of the Trump problem. The answer requires a further step: for most of the country, Trump undermines actual concentrated power (corporations, state, etc.) by stating its actual convictions, like a modified “holy fool” who alienates potential religious converts by shouting out, on podium, literal interpretations of the Bible, in a final absurdity.
The real point, though, is that our “holy fool” is not, as Cassidy proposes in the New Yorker for the last of his five theories, nothing more than a warm-weather fad. In our time, even the most celebrated publications continue to be driven away from the practice of real social-political thought by two forces: general analytical laziness and the subversiveness of truth. What if—just a thought—Trump’s rise has been fueled not only by the omnipresence of his name but also by this dearth of real analysis in our most widely read sources of information? Just a few ideas to keep in mind.