Various pundits have pointed out that Donald Trump is a nightmare of the Republican Party’s own making. Since Richard Nixon first began exploiting the ‘culture wars’ to deliberately woo socially conservative Democrat voters in the early 1970s, the GOP’s dependence on reactionary populism has grown increasingly dangerous. The racial dog-whistles have become more audible and the anger of the ‘angry white men’ harder to contain within a political machine whose ultimate purpose is to defend corporate and elite interests.
The contradiction that was brilliantly papered-over by the likes of Reagan, Gingrich and Rove, between alienated grass-roots conservatives and big money, has broken cover. One of Trump’s main virtues in the eyes of his supporters is that he ‘says what he thinks’, and the fact that it is incoherent is only further proof of his honesty. Coherence is viewed as an artefact of political management, and the Republican hardcore have had enough of that.
The difficulty that the Republican Party has – and, who knows, the Democratic candidate may have in time – is that Trump is popular not inspite of his apparent craziness, but because of it. Inconsistency, implausibility, flights of rage, narcissism, dishonesty and virtually any other personality defect only contribute to Trump’s appeal for many Americans. It was always said of George W Bush that his apparent lack of intellect was a virtue for his supporters (it was more important that he read the bible and would be good to have a beer with).
But for Trump, a difficulty with long words is the least of his failings, and it’s not even clear that he’s someone that working class Americans would want to have a beer with. His behaviour is erratic and frightening, where Bush’s was slow and lumbering. It’s the hint that he might do anything that mesmerises. And if a person doesn’t appear to care what they said in the past, how does it hurt them to remind them of it?
There are no doubt plenty of interesting psychoanalytic things to say about why someone like Trump would connect with people, quite aside from the socio-economic and historical circumstances that America finds itself in in 2016. It would be worth returning to Erich Fromm’s Escape From Freedom to explore that analysis of authoritarianism, in which powerful leaders seduce us by ridding us of the ennui which accompanies liberal individualism.
The celebration that Trump ‘says what he thinks’, regardless of whether he ‘thinks’ racist, absurd, dangerous or criminal things, is an appeal to the authority of the unconscious mind, and a refusal of a super-ego that (in the eyes of angry conservatives) is now a construct of ‘politically correct liberals’ rather than of God-fearing moralists. Trump is therefore less a national father figure (as Reagan was), than an uncontrollable big brother who promises to make hell for America’s new liberal parents. As a performance artist, he is a dadaist. But his charismatic authority also suggests something about the perillous state of ‘the political’ today, and, I would suggest, the way it’s been crowded out by economics.
Reducing ‘reason’ to ‘rationality’
In my book, The Limits of Neoliberalism, I suggest that the neoliberal intellectual and political tradition pursues the ‘disenchantment of politics by economics’. Whereas liberalism was founded on a separation between ontologically distinct spheres of politics and economics, state and market, neoliberalism seeks to encompass politics with economic calculation and measurement. This is very well analysed in Wendy Brown’s Undoing the Demos (see my review).
One central example of this would be the rise and influence of ‘public choice theory‘, which treats political actions as amenable to economic analysis. From such a perspective, voting is akin to shopping, public officials are no less self-interested than businessmen and politicians are salesmen of policies. Emerging alongside game theory and cognitivist, cybernetic theories of the mind in the mid-20th century, this worldview collapses ‘reason’ into ‘rationality’.
Where ‘reason’ is viewed by liberal philosophers as an innately human capacity to exercise critical judgement (on both moral as well as scientific issues), ‘rationality’ is something that might equally be modelled by an algorithm or calculative machine. Under the influence of public choice theory, the central ethical and political question of how to act or to govern becomes reduced to one of calculated self-interest, of the optimal decision under conditions of uncertainty.
This reduction of ‘reason’ to ‘rationality’ means the elimination of distinctly political, though nevertheless reasonable, forms of human action. During the heyday of neoliberalism in the 1990s, this was something that ‘Third Way’ political parties were generally upbeat about. By appealing to people’s private economic interests, placing economic policy in the hands of experts rather than politicians, and learning the techniques of marketing, Blairite and Clintonite political machines mastered the new post-ideological political landscape.
The shadier side of this neoliberal collapse of politics into economics was that the separation between business and government (never very strong in the United States anyway) dissolved more rapidly than usual. In the British context, this was chiefly manifest in the widespread blurring of public and private sectors in the form of PFIs, out-sourcing and various new-fangled public-private partnerships. In the American context, it meant that the power of corporate lobbyists escalated rapidly and a new revolving door was installed between the White House and Wall Street.
Especially given the way the pre-2008 economic paradigm has been aggressively reasserted over the past 6 years, the hunger for distinctly political forms of social action – what Hannah Arendt termed the vita activa – seems to be growing today. But the collapse of ‘reason’ into ‘rationality’ means that politics tends to now only come in one of two varieties: either it can be ‘rational’ or it can be ‘unreasonable’.
The capacity to take a reasoned political position, that is not reducible to the language of ‘incentives’ and ‘welfare’, is so shrunken that many voters simply cease to care about being reasonable any longer. Max Weber described charismatic authority as a “typically anti-economic force”. When economics has spread everywhere, being ‘anti-economic’ involves threatening to blow the whole thing up, which is pretty much the basis of Trump’s charisma.
While Boris Johnson does not pose as a threat to the social order, in the way that Trump does, his popularity speaks of a similar crisis. His “golly gosh” persona and lack of any apparent expertise is undoubtedly a political asset, rendering him an ‘anti-economic force’ in public life. There is surely a faintly Trumpian psychoanalytic element to the ‘Brexit’ campaign, in which supporters are quite excited by the dangers that leaving the EU poses, and unconsciously relish the economic uncertainty. Anger needs its outlet, and economic stability is one target. The other parallel between Johnson and Trump is the peculiar appeal of their personal privilege. Better, it seems, to have a naked oligarchy, where billionaires and toffs govern the masses, than the covert one offered by the ‘meritocrats’ of the neoliberal machine.
Meanwhile, being rational means taking ‘realistic’ economic decisions, that seem perpetually stuck in the 1990s. Various assortments of Clintons and Milibands are unable to offer anything much beyond economic ‘rationality’ and ‘credibility’, regardless of how hard they try. Soon, the younger generation of Blairs, Clintons, Straws, Gores etc will be rising up through their party machines, offering only more workfare, competitiveness and ‘transparency’ initiatives, learned in schools of government and the life-long political internships into which they happened to be born.
The charisma of reason?
The rise of the Left in this context has been almost as surprising as the rise of Trump. The success within their own parties of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn speaks of a yearning for political renewal and a deep desire to escape the bind of economic rationalism that the liberal-left has been locked in since 1989. These leftwing political party movements offer a glimmer of what political reason can look and feel like, in distinction from the affective quality of consumer satisfaction that was targeted by New Labour and New Democrats in the 1990s.
There is nothing ‘irrational’ about these figures or the policies that they propose. These are not simply the ‘Trumps of the Left’, as some critics of populism have implied or alleged. They seek to build something new, valuable and plausible, and not simply to destroy or negate in the way that Trump (and to a lesser extent Johnson) does. Yet it is not insignificant that these figures arrive seemingly untarnished from a pre-neoliberal age like time-travellers.
The black and white images that circulate around twitter, showing the young Sanders and Corbyn being dragged away from protests by police, indicate something about their charisma. Yes, these are reasonable people and, yes, they have serious economic policies. But their affective qualities as leaders derive from their personal political histories, which are unpolluted by neoliberalism. They represent a bridge back to a past when politics was seemingly purer, less expert, more impassioned.
This is not to say that such a bridge cannot be politically constructive and effective in the present. British politics in particular has become stuck in a perpetual cycle of 40-something politicians defending only the interests of the 40+ age group. If it takes men of retirement age to mobilise the young, then so be it. But this does nevertheless speak of a serious difficulty we have of imagining how political reason might operate today, which were modernising but without being technocratic.
As it is, the odds look set for the next American President to be another representative of the ‘long 1990s’. As Wendy Brown stresses, neoliberalism was an intellectual movement that was founded in the 1930s in response to fascism (though some would argue it arose in the 1920s in response to socialism). By that reckoning, preventing maniacal, dangerous, seductive political leaders such as Trump, by forcibly elevating economics above politics, was the founding purpose of neoliberalism. One of the many threats posed by Trump, assuming he loses in November, is that the endless cycle of career politicians will be able to point to his craziness as further evidence of what can happen when we stray from the strictures of ‘rationality’ and economic ‘reality’. And if he wins in November then… who knows?