The two Trumps

Daniel Herwitz says the US President lives happily between two noxious worlds

Balzac famously said behind every fortune there is a crime. But neo-liberalism has upped the ante by turning the very practice of capital into an ongoing violation. This was brought home to me when I read that Steven Bannon, Trump's former advisor, had been arrested on the yacht of a Chinese billionaire for fraudulently siphoning off funds he and a "colleague" had raised to help build Trump's wall, a wall apparently justified because immigrants flood into the United States to commit crimes. The crime is the wall itself. Behind all the ideology of dismantling the deep state these guys are nothing but crooks. All they really want is to eliminate regulation so that their capital gains are unimpeded by any article of justice. This is neo-liberalism in its purest possible form.

It is by now a received view held by all who do not thrive on Fox TV that Trump is a fascist. Like the fascists of old (meaning from the 1930s) Trump wishes to generate nationalist solidarity from the working classes through rallies fomenting anger against perceived/imaginary enemies. However his desire to destroy all forms of legal and institutional accountability (what Bannon calls the deep state) is not fascist, but rather about freeing the one percent (including Trump himself) from national obligation of any kind. Trump disdains every duty to the nation, from the paying of tax to serving in the military.

Those who oblige are losers. I take this seriously: he really does believe that the nation is nothing of consequence apart from a real estate opportunity. To shield the one percent from financial constraint he has gutted every regulation he can touch, including those essential to the survival of the planet such as regulations on coal and methane gas, two of the most egregious culprits in ever-worsening climate change.

Thanks to tax lawyers in safe havens the rich may stash their money on breezy, islands covered in palm and frangipani to which they can sail in winter, or lounge in seven star pleasure domes decreed by Xanadu, believing their entitlements are justified because of their hard work (seldom true), their superior intelligence (never true) or by moral right (since wealth is to them a currency confirming their moral superiority).

Trump behaves like the person whom in the 1930s would have been thought the enemy of fascist nationalism: the so called Jewish plutocrat who was believed to favor international finance at the expense of national unity, standing ever-ready to destroy the German nation in the name of international banking.

This is exactly what Trump and Bannon are doing, and want to applaud. They want their capital gains to be unreported, unconstrained and de-linked from any nationalist purpose. In other words they want to convey the appearance of nationalist fascism as a mere smokescreen for their own investment in international capital. Make America great really means: Forget America I use the Deutsche Bank and you have no business making me account for it.

The deep state is attacked on internationalist grounds, rather than national ones. And internationalist grounds are for the neo-liberal self-interested grounds. This is why Trump has made no real effort to reign in capital stashed abroad, nor to "bring businesses back home". He wants them abroad, so long as he can blame China or the democrats or some other imaginary enemy for the destitution of so many Americans, thus misdirecting working class anger away from its proper object: namely himself, Bannon and the Chinese billionaire who owns the yacht where Bannon was happily idle, growing his beard.

Here is the larger point. It is quite possible that the globalization of financial capital effectively precludes fascist nationalism, except as an ideological smoke screen. What resembles fascism today is simply the removal of forms of state accountability in the name of authoritarian rule, along with a commitment to inflaming the public against perceived enemies of law and order. And finally, a desire to bring the military under one's personal command by deploying them against said perceived enemies (the National Guard deployed in American cities to combat Black Lives Matter). What is called fascism today is a hybrid form. It's better name is, I think, neo-liberal authoritarianism.

No doubt Trump is incapable of clearly formulating these thoughts. But he happily lives between two worlds, that of the international crook and the virulent nationalist. And here is my point about America, they are fractured for a reason. The one is, however horribly real and capable of incessant inflammation, a distraction from the other. What I wish to call the culture of viciousness, stoked by Trump and Fox TV, but always a chronic inflammation in America, is today actively cultivated because it is a way of misdirecting working class anger away from its proper enemy, which is the viciousness of financial capital as it has been practiced in America (and elsewhere) since the 1980s. I am not saying that racism is a mere smokescreen.

The fact that it is starkly real to an America as yet not over its history of slavery is what allows it to become the ideological smoke screen that it is. A way for a dispossessed working class to let off steam, and for a Trump to inflame America in a way that commandeers his base. The African American in this respect functions like the Jew of the 1930s: the enemy of the nation, its reason to impose a culture of law and order and get Trump re-elected. But Trump's purpose in being re-elected is, apart from the narcissism, the grandiosity, the adoration of self-celebrity, to create the conditions for unimpeded neo-liberalism in its international domain.

Unimpeded neo-liberalism, the market run wild, is I think the single greatest threat to American democracy today. For it exaggerates inequality, creates working class dispossession, and replaces trust by viciousness. It is a commonplace that a culture of viciousness has swept over America the likes of which has seldom been seen.

African-Americans still bear the brunt of it, and immigrants, and smart independent women, but the viciousness has gone global, now leading to fights in supermarkets over the wearing of masks (apparently an infringement of personal liberty rather than a gesture of help towards others perhaps more vulnerable to the disease than oneself), and aided and abetted by news channels that believe information (the facts about the world) should be the mere conduit for aggression, without which facts lose their entertainment value and their righteous force.

Anyone and everyone can surface as the target of media viciousness, or the garden variety found in your local supermarket, in the middle seat of your economy class flight, in your workplace, gym or on the lawn of your home if you happen to put up a sign advertising a political candidate that someone else doesn't like. Fist fights are the new way of saying hello.

That this culture is catalyzed by guns is not hard to see. The more aggressive people are in the USA the more they are likely to own multiple kinds of weapons, including those that cost a third of their monthly salary but are worth it because they make you safe and secure, which means capable of storm trooping at the state capital if you don't like what your governor is doing. Guns were originally meant to empower Americans to form militias in case the state went haywire and tried to remove their rights. They are now the mood-stimulant for crowd-sourced eruption. Waving the gun is now taken to be an expression of liberty.

This is in part the legacy of a settler culture in which the gun was the safeguard of life, liberty and the pursuit of sovereignty over land and peoples within. The gun became understood as the instrument of destiny, recapitulated in endless Westerns about life before the institutions of law and governance were put in place on the American frontiers, and where the sheriff was exactly as good as his gun. The key to the mythology of the Western as a film genre is that the violence is understood to be redeemable.

Whether righteous revenge of brother against brother (as in the films of Anthony Mann) or against marauding Indians, or the gunshot of the good guy against the criminal gang (Gary Cooper forsaking his darling on this their wedding day to fight Frank James and his gang because no one else will) the violence was justified by the project of settling, by the terms of life on the frontier. The act of settling being a sacred American vow, codified by James Madison, fifth President of the United States, as "manifest destiny". In the absence of law, and of political structure (in the wild west) character means everything, and quickly became a core settler value, an article of American Heritage, to the point where in the 2008 Presidential Election John McCain was praised as a guy who should be president because he had character.

The heritage of gun in relation to quality of character has however disappeared with Trump. For whom character is simply a celebrity function, a way of calling attention to self and building his base. Character is charisma, and amazingly, the core of charisma had become aggression. Aggression is its own justification, its own aesthetic. Trump takes pleasure in it and his base the same. It is a license to bend fact to fury. It is not so much that aggression destroys facts as that it licenses them to come into existence, as if through an act of media-driven prestidigitation. Aggression is what Michel Foucault would call the source of the creation of new knowledge.

This is a remarkable distortion of the concept of liberty. Liberty is now the freedom to invent once you and your base are angry enough. Aggression is felt to be the source of individual liberty, so that not wearing a mask becomes its icon. Or concealed carry. Aggression is the route to truth. The correlative of liberty in place since the natural rights theories of John Locke, underlying the founding documents of the United States, namely the recognition that liberty ought to carry responsibility to the Commons, with each taking seriously the freedom of others, has evaporated. Individual liberty is the right to selfishness. And selfishness the cognitive form through which facts are grasped, that is, made up.

What we have in America is the misdirection of anger--which ought to be addressed to the one percent and their takeover of government--into a culture of viciousness wherein acute disempowerment is turned into the pleasure of group hatred. This hatred then reactivates already present channels of racist nationalism into new forms of inflammation. I do believe Trump is a racist but I also believe as a member of his class he wishes to cultivate racist nationalism as a deflection from what should be the proper object of a dispossessed working class' fury: he himself and his gang and his opening of the state to neo-liberal crooks. And so the two Trumps--international "plutocrat" and racist nationalist, work in harmony. It is a most sour chord sequence, a voice-leading without cadence. Without leadership.

The American nation state has not even begun to think about how it can become sustainable, much less equitable, in an age of financial capital. Until the international culture of capital gains is seriously changed the nation state will remain insolvent, and the culture of viciousness will remain. And nationalism will have the liability of enacting ownership of the state only through aggressive, virulent means.

Daniel Herwitz is Fredric Huetwell Professor, University of Michigan