Tuesday 1 August 2017

What is Donald Trump?

How are you supposed to make sense of the senselessness by which Donald Trump goes about the office of President of the United States? After sacking his chum Anthony Scaramucci before making his tenth day in post as comms director, a lot of people are scratching their heads. Simply put there has never been an administration in American history that presents as so chaotic, faction-ridden, dysfunctional and ... weird. And yet Trump just bulldozes through. In normal times losing a press secretary, a chief of staff, and another press secretary would each individually keep the beltway gossip outlets busy for weeks. Announcing his intention to hound trans people out of the US military is the kind of stuff that would fill up the airwaves for months. Normally. But with Trump all of this is chip wrappers as more Russia-related goings ons move into the spotlight. Crisis, paralysis, crisis, paralysis, it's the new normal. The blockages to have plagued American politics for years are now elevated to the White House for all the world to see.

What's happening here? From the moment he became a serious contender for the Republican nomination, there has been suggestions that Trump is a fascist, or at the very least is on the road to being one. Owing to the incompetence of his White House, concerns in this regard have retreated somewhat, but his twists, turns, and contempt for protocol and procedure are still taken as signs of an incipient authoritarianism. Related to this and among opponents and supporters alike are those for whom the chaos is an act, and that a master manipulator is at play. This argument reminds me of those Stalinists who maintain the Soviets allowed Hitler to reach the gates of Moscow to better crush the Nazi war machine. Invariably, proponents of the master genius thesis end up looking stupid as Trump announces one thing one day, and then a 180 policy turn the next. Lastly, the only other explanation that appears to make sense, at least as far as establishment politicians and their friends in comment land are concerned, is Trump suffers from a mental illness.

None of these face up to the awful truth: that is Trump really is clueless, really is moronic, really is an incorrigible liar, and really is pathologically stupid. How it must smart that he ran rings around the so-called professionals in the GOP and fought a better election campaign than the so-called professionals in the Democrats. Trump epitomises the bankruptcy of bourgeois politics over there because each crazy day with him sat in the Oval Office reminds them this ignorant, uneducated oaf managed to beat them.

This still doesn't help us understand Trump and what you might euphemistically term his "idiosyncrasies", but perhaps a sociological approach can offer some insights, or at least ask some interesting questions. In this respect, there are two avenues that can help unlock Trump. The first of these is a sociological approach to his biography. As a real estate developer and property speculator, he built a family business empire on buying up land and buildings cheap, constructing and renovating, and making money back from rents and/or selling on. In other words, he is emblematic of that section of capital that is most decadent and socially useless. He also has a record of leveraging laws, particularly bankruptcy laws, to protect his businesses while writing off debts incurred - entirely legally. Behaviour in business lines up with his personal life, of him having "no barriers" where it comes to violating women's personal space, of contemptuously refusing to pay people for services rendered, of having the attention span of a gnat and the impulse control of a two-year-old. None of this surprises because he's grown into an environment that has indulged him. Daddy provided him a real estate job, avoiding the draft for Vietnam was fixed for him, and as the Trump organisation swooped in on other people's misfortunes Trump was able to use his cunning and growing economic power to get others to cleave to him. That he became something of a celebrity from the 1980s on with print, television, and film all wanting a piece of Trump - continuing on with his stints on WWE and The Apprentice - fed an ego little more than a demanding, impatient id. His avarice and narcissism is the perfect counterpoint to the section of capital of which he is part. Brash, in-your-face, superficially dynamic but empty, useless and all-for-show.

What else is new? There are plenty of rich people with Trump-esque tendencies. Likewise, the White House is no stranger to hosting very wealthy occupants, though Trump is by far the richest office holder yet. Nevertheless, as awful and incompetent Trump is his track record in business shows he has the nous to appoint people capable of running large, complex organisations and overseeing difficult litigation. His record is mixed with substantial success in property development, and money pits in casinos and Trump University. These however are not chaotic enterprises. Somehow the vacuity of Trump exerts enough suction to hold his businesses together, whereas the opposite is true of the political operation. Ultimately, it's about fields of competency.

Consider previous Republican presidents. Nixon, Reagan, Bush Sr, Bush Jr, and think about the men (and woman) who would be the nominee: Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz. All are/were limited and awful in their own way, but they differ from Trump by virtue of their being politicians. Some might say that's precisely why Trump took the nomination and then the White House, and I'll accept that point. But none of the wannabes and never-wills would run a set up as unprofessional as Trump's, and none of the serving Republican presidents did either. Well, maybe Tricky Dicky, but his administration wasn't visibly at war with itself. Their more disciplined operations were habituated to the media environment politics operates in. They know saying the wrong thing, looking befuddled, having subordinates fall out, and allowing sleaze to taint everything you do brings on media punishment. And in the beltway, just as in Westminster, what the media says is assumed to be public opinion. Therefore negative coverage translates into fewer votes. Second, the Republican party acts (or should act) as a disciplining mechanism. American parties are much looser than their counterparts in, well, pretty much any other liberal democratic country but, at least according to political science, they are supposed to work to link party elites with the aspirations and interests of party supporters and voters. Consider the fondly unlamented George W Bush, securing his nomination for the run in 2000 and working up to being governor of Texas meant doing the donkey work. I'm not talking door knocking and leaflet pushing, but he had to turn up to those GOP meetings in the middle of nowhere, he had to hokey and a cokey around county parties in the Lone Star state, and he had to articulate the interests of enough "normal" American voters to win. Trump is not bound by such a relationship. He did - and enjoyed - his rallies where the desperate yearning of the traditional Republican voter flattered his narcissism up into the stratosphere, but for him media appearances are personal appearances and not about winning votes. He has little time for the GOP or trying to identify his administration with the party, as the disappearance of Reince Priebus underlines. Policy are matters not cooked up by committees or brain trusts of wonks, but is the whim of the Trump and his family and friends. The party is there to help get stuff through Congress, and it's not terribly good at that. The linkage function by the party has entirely collapsed. Like any good populist, Trump believes he has a direct line to the American people anyway.

Trump therefore behaves like a child in the full view of the world because he is what he is, and because there is no political apparatus that can constrain him. Without the discipline and a president interested in only himself, the lieutenants are rudderless most of the time and jockey for position and favour. The chaos then, the 24 hour rolling carnival of news that is the Trump White House is not because of mental illness or a genius with the gift of misdirection. No, it is rooted in the confluence of the crisis and decline of the American right and the coming to power of a man personifying the most decadent and parasitic sections of capital. Trump is not a sick individual, but his presidency is the symptom of a deeply sickly society.


Keith said...

In the third para there is a "to" missing ie. "managed beat them."

Keith said...

also behaves like a child in the fill view should be full.

Boffy said...

I think that the main point you are missing is that just as Boris Johnson was elected Mayor of London, Nigel Farage became a national treasure feted by millions (many of whom also thought Donald Trump would be a good leader of Britain), and the same millions fell for all of the lies told by the Brexiteers, and ignored everything that even smelled like a fact (similar to the tens of millions of people in the US who think the world was created in seven days, and is only 7,000 years old) all of these things happened because millions and in the US tens of millions of people voted for them!

What we should be asking is not is Donald Trump insane or just stupid (the brilliant deal maker and strategist line is clearly bullshit, and says also a lot about capitalism and what it takes to be in the top 0.001%) but why do we have so many obviously ignorant people in society, and what threat does that pose to even bourgeois democracy, let alone the potential for socialism.

And, in the latter regard it also begs the question of why the Labour Party continues to tail these obviously ignorant people in relation to Brexit? It reminds me of the film Idiocracy.

Phil said...

Yes, I agree Boffy, but the point of this post wasn't about understanding why people vote and support him (something I've written about previously) but to try and make sense of his personality and erratic behaviour.

And cheers Keith for pointing out the editorial oversights :)

Suz said...

My feeling is that most of his behaviour can be made sense of if you see Trump as a person whose greatest fulfilment and pleasure derives from the sheer exercise of control and power over people: hiring and firing on a whim; public humiliation (mocking, insulting); having henchmen roughly remove upstarts from his audience; and of course the age-old manipulation of pretty women and assertion of his masculine bulk ("come right on up here so everyone can see you" / "your wife is beautiful"). Being physically big in itself aids intimidation. So does being rich - people will do your bidding each as far as their own red line as long as you pay them.

I imagine, given that this tendency is coupled with an obvious desire to be liked, that Trump must be endlessly disappointed and puzzled. Why can't he make people like him? He can seemingly make them do everything else.

Boffy said...


On the latter, its explained by him suffering a narcissistic personality disorder. He has to be the centre of attention no matter how idiotic or outrageous the statements he has to make to grab the attention. Some have argued that the best thing to do is to not give him the attention he seeks. Now that he is in the White House that would be very dangerous, because if the world stopped giving him that attention, he would be driven to ever more outlandish statements and actions until they did.

As I said above, it shows that under capitalism you do not have to be clever, talented, or good at business to lead a huge corporation. You only need to have obtained a large amount of capital. Actually, Trump reminds me a lot of the Biff Tannon in the dystopian 2015 of "Back To The Future II". It says a lot about the degeneracy of that section of the capitalist class, i.e. of the "coupon clippers".

Walsie said...

I once heard a story that Biff was modelled on the earlier Trump of the 1980's. True or myth ?

Boffy said...

I realised almost as soon as I'd posted that the dystopian 2015 was actually the dystopian 1985, with the young Biff having been given the Almanac by his 2015 self, who had travelled back to 1955 to give it to him.

How time flies!

MikeB said...

I enjoyed that analysis, Phil. My only criticism is that it is not credible or helpful to present a "sociological" explanation as the *only* good way of understanding Trump. To say that diagnosing his emotional/mental state "doesn't help us understand Trump and what you might euphemistically term his "idiosyncrasies"" is just wrong. As Boffy points out, to recognise his malignant narcissism does help explain, and may even predict, his responses - not only as an individual, but also as a political actor.

Meanwhile, I am confident that US capitalism can absorb any shocks that Trump may inflict upon it, partly because he does not want to damage it, and partly because he is so comprehensively incompetent. Indeed, his anti-establishment posturing is extremely helpful to capital. In recent years, it has became increasingly difficult for even "respectable" neoliberals to deny the disastrous effects of - for example, anthropogenic climate change and the immiseration of Third World suppliers. Trump's demogogic anti-establishment rhetoric rejects rationality entirely. Science is "fake news". Limits to super-exploitation are brushed aside because it's time for "America First". He is the change that was needed for things to stay the same.

johnny conspiranoid said...

" This argument reminds me of those Stalinists who maintain the Soviets allowed Hitler to reach the gates of Moscow to better crush the Nazi war machine."

How could Stalin beat Hitler except by removing all the industry he needed to manufacture the means of war from its location between Germany and Moscow to a new location east of Moscow, all the while making a strategic withdrwal/scorched earth policy to slow the enemies advance?

Boffy said...

I'd been planning my blog post on ignorocracy for a while, but this discussion prompted me to bring it forward.

I knew that there was a large proportion of Creationists in the US, but I didn't think it was as high as 42%. And what surprised me when I looked it up was that around 50% of people in the UK also adhere to some form of this ignorant nonsense.

But, then you have Gove telling us approvingly that people have had enough of expert opinions, and we have politicians telling us that even the most ignorant, bigoted views have to be "respected", so that when Gordon Brown rightly spoke about "a bigoted woman" in that live Mic situation, he had to rush around denying himself, when the media picked it up.

So, why would you be surprised that a Trump could be elected in the US, or that Brexit could happen in the UK?

Robert said...

Hillary got two and a half million more votes than this joker. It was only the archaic Electoral college system that got him elected.

Still Hillary might have got into a confrontation with Russia over Syria whereas Trump wants t do a deal with Putin so it's not all bad.

johnny conspiranoid said...

While we talk about Trumps hiring and firring the US is pulling out of Syria and Assad is regaining control, with Russian assistance. Previousley, while we were talking about Trump bombing some sand, he was negotiating this with Putin.
I don't think he's stupid.