Donald Trump lit up the mainstream media spectacle by stating in his presidential candidacy announcement, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best…. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” (1) The mainstream press could not let such an opportune racist outburst go unnoticed. After all, it was perfect fodder for fueling the corporate media’s never-ending spectacle of entertainment. Mouthed from one of America’s favorite billionaire buffoons, his racist and xenophobic statements have been defended as brave, dismissed as uncivil, or set aside as the colorful discourse of a cantankerous, rich eccentric. Such commentary collapses into the realm of the personal by privatizing racism. That is, it ignores the deep seated contours of systemic racism and xenophobia and the conditions that promote it, instead focusing on the individual who spouts such poisonous racist language. Rather than viewing Trump’s comments as a political virus that has deep roots in nativist apoplexy and a long legacy of racism and state violence, his despicable remarks are reduced to an uncivil rant by a bullying member of the billionaire class with no reference to the unmarked status of white privilege and its underlying logic of white supremacy. Such commentary at its core is superficial, duplicitous, and represents a flight from responsibility and a politics of denial.
Not only did mainstream media replay Trump’s statements over and over again, without any serious criticism, but also they filled the 24/7 news cycle with endless interviews in which Trump defended his remarks, proving the obvious about his arrogance and stupidity. Treated more as an indication of Trump’s no-holds-barred personality than as another example of the myth of the United States’ claim to the comfortable status of an alleged postracial society, Trump’s remarks were viewed as indiscrete and colorful rather than symptomatic of the racial hatred lying beneath the culture of dominant politics.
The real issue that needs to be examined is what kind of society produces a Donald Trump.
The racial cleansing machine was in full operating mode as the dominant media apparatuses rushed to interview a variety of faux commentators about how they felt about Trump’s remarks with little attempt to take the high ground and challenge many of the remarks that were made. On the contrary, the only truth or sense of injustice displayed by CNN, NBC, CBS and other major news outlets lies in the assumption that the meaning of any issue rests with making sure that the public is exposed to a narrow array of views in the interest of balance and journalistic objectivity.
According to this logic, balance – not morality, justice or evidence – is the ultimate arbiter of truth. Hence, Trump’s vicious, racist remarks enabled the mainstream media to let the American people hear from Sen. Ted Cruz who argued that he liked Donald Trump and was glad he was bringing attention to the issue of “illegal immigration.” (2) Former Sen. Rick Santorum joined Cruz in praising Trump for focusing on “illegal immigration,” absent of any serious criticism of his racist remarks. (3) Other conservative politicians such as Sen. Lindsey Graham and former Gov. Rick Perry condemned Trump’s remarks but nothing was said in the press about how they had played a key role in supporting legislation that was both vicious and racist. (4)
A Long History of Racist Political Candidates
Liberals denounced Trump but said little about the history of both major parties in which policies were developed that undermined the welfare system, created the racist incarceration state and supported a tough-on-crime drug war that decimated Black communities. For instance, Jonathan Chait seems less concerned about a Republican Party that has promoted a number of racist policies such as trying to disable the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and militarizing the southern border than he is about “conservative thought leaders [who] feel compelled to defend Trump’s nativist ramblings.” (5) Chait’s confusion is evident in the title of his article, “Why Are Conservatives Defending Donald Trump?” which should read “Should We Be Surprised That Conservatives Are Defending Donald Trump?”
Trump is the hyperventilating canary in the coal mine reminding us all that social death is a looming threat.
The mainstream media, conservatives and a number of liberal commentators seem to have allowed Trump’s ode to racial cleansing to cloud their sense of recent history. After all, it was only a few decades ago that Kirk Fordice, a right-wing Republican, ended his victorious campaign for governor – orchestrated largely as an attack on crime and welfare cheaters – with a still photograph of a Black woman and her baby. (6) Of course, this was just a few years after George H.W. Bush ran his famous Willie Horton ad and a year before Dan Quayle, in the 1992 presidential campaign, used the racially coded category of welfare to attack a sitcom character, Murphy Brown.
More recently, there is the incident in which the press revealed that then Texas Gov. Rick Perry was “hosting fellow lawmakers, friends and supporters at his family’s secluded West Texas hunting camp, a place known by the name painted in block letters across a large, flat rock standing upright at its gated entrance. ‘N*****head,’ it read.” And, of course, the racist invectives aimed at President Obama by a number of Republicans are legion. (7) Bob Herbert in 2009 cited a number of racist incidents aimed at President Obama. He writes:
When a gorilla escaped from a zoo in Columbia, S.C., a longtime Republican activist, Rusty DePass, described it on his Facebook page as one of Michelle Obama’s ancestors. Among the posters at [a] gathering of conservative protesters in Washington was one that said, ‘The zoo has an African lion and the White House has a lyin’ African.’ These are bits and pieces of an increasingly unrestrained manifestation of racism directed toward Mr. Obama that is being fed by hate-mongers on talk radio and is widely tolerated, if not encouraged, by Republican Party leaders. It’s disgusting, and it’s dangerous. But it’s the same old filthy racism that has been there all along and that has been exploited by the G.O.P. since the 1960s.
Frank Rich, at a different time, responded to what can be called the ever-present historical amnesia by politicians and media pundits about the overt racism displayed by the Republican Party in terms that are as apt today as they were when first written. He writes:
Tell that to George W. Bush, who beat John McCain in the 2000 South Carolina primary after what Newsweek called “a smear campaign” of leaflets, emails and telephone calls calling attention to the McCains’ “black child” (an adopted daughter from Bangladesh). Or to Sonny Perdue, the [former] Republican governor of Georgia, elected in part by demagoguing the sanctity of the Confederate flag. (8)
More insightful, liberal commentators such as Eugene Robinson called Trump a “farce to be reckoned with” while Juan Cole argued that Trump failed to use more discrete racial codes because “billionaires and fabulously wealthy people in general are surrounded by yes-men.” (9) While Robinson and Cole may be right, their commentary appears to miss the mark. Adding to the chorus of liberal denunciations were the public announcements by a number of corporations that they were cutting their business ties with Trump because of the offensive nature of his remarks. Largely praised in the media, such corporations were applauded for taking the high moral ground as most commentators conveniently forgot that these were the same corporations battling unions, polluting the environment, underpaying their workers and exercising an economic chokehold over the commanding institutions of American life.
What Kind of Society Produces Donald Trump?
In response to all of this fanfare over Trump’s remarks, I argue that the recent widespread public and media focus given to his display of racism, narcissism and arrogance misses the point. I think the real issue that needs to be examined is what kind of society produces a Donald Trump.
Trump is a cruder example of a social order that has always been deeply racist – given its legacy of settler colonialism, chattel slavery and its violently enforced xenophobia. Trump exemplifies a no-holds-barred form of xenophobia that shares the ideologies of hate that produced the extremism that resulted in the Oklahoma City bombing, the right-wing militias that ambush immigrants on the border and the hardcore survivalists who argue that immigrants are undermining the foundation of a white Christian nation. This racist and xenophobic ideology, which he articulates whenever he appears before the media, is testimony to the degree to which racism is at the core of a society in which democracy is in eclipse.
In addition, Trump provides a more direct and arrogant persona that produces the ugliness of a society ruled entirely by finance capital and savage market values – one that prides itself on the denigration of others, justice, compassion and equality. Trump is the hyperventilating yellow canary in the coal mine reminding us all that social death is a looming threat. He is emblematic of a kind of hypermasculinity that rules dead societies. He is the zombie with the blond wig holding a flamethrower behind his back. He is the perfect representation of the society of the spectacle with a perverse grin and the endless discourse of shock and humiliation. Trump’s hysterical rants are, as Frank Rich once argued, “another symptom of a political virus that can’t be quarantined and whose cure is as yet unknown.”
Trump is the unfiltered symbol of the new authoritarianism, emblematic of a kind of boots-on-your-face politics nurtured by an economic and cultural system that combines the endless search for capital with the unceasing production of violence. Trump is the living embodiment of the main character in the film American Psycho – a symbol of corporate domination on steroids, an out of control authoritarian parading and performing unknowingly as a clown and as a symbol of unchecked narcissism and a bearer of a suffocating culture of fear. He is the symbol of a failed sociality and a declining social order.
Trump is simply the infantile and offensive persona of a society dominated by financial barbarians.
What the US public needs is an ongoing analysis that connects Trump’s remarks with a long history in the Republican Party and the larger society in which instances of racism, anti-immigration venom and disdain for the poor have qualified as standard rhetoric, procedure and policy for more extremists elements in the Republican Party and its more recent Tea Party wing. Such an analysis would have to connect Trump’s remarks to the festering institutional and symbolic forms of racism and violence that have assumed the status of a low-intensity war in the United States, especially since the 1980s. This legacy of racism has been at the core of the American experience extending from slavery and Jim Crow to the murder of Emmett Till and the acts of racist violence, discourses and policies that marked the birth of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. After 1980, it was evoked in the language of color blindness and more recently in the Orwellian discourse of a postracial society. All the while, its economic, political and social underpinnings remained the same. Trump has simply discarded the euphemisms and retreated to the crude, older discourse of overt racism and xenophobia.
Trump is indicative of a society marked by the inordinate influence in the political and cultural realms of religious fundamentalists who insist that progressives undermine the legacy of the United States as a white, Christian nation, that social justice is part of a Marxist ideology and is anti-Christian, that government represents the anti-Christ, and that supporting the permanent warfare state is central to the mission of the Christian right. Chris Hedges captures the authoritarian and militaristic elements in this type of Christian-right-wing fundamentalism. He writes:
The cult of masculinity, as in all fascist movements, pervades the ideology of the Christian right. The movement uses religion to sanctify military and heroic “virtues,” glorify blind obedience and order over reason and conscience, and pander to the euphoria of collective emotions. Feminism and homosexuality, believers are told, have rendered the American male physically and spiritually impotent. Jesus, for the Christian right, is a man of action, casting out demons, battling the Antichrist, attacking hypocrites and ultimately slaying nonbelievers. This cult of masculinity, with its glorification of violence, is appealing to the powerless. It stokes the anger of many Americans, mostly white and economically disadvantaged, and encourages them to lash back at those who, they are told, seek to destroy them. The paranoia about the outside world is fostered by bizarre conspiracy theories, many of which are prominent in the rhetoric of those leading the government shutdown. Believers, especially now, are called to a perpetual state of war with the “secular humanist” state. The march, they believe, is irreversible. Global war, even nuclear war, is the joyful harbinger of the Second Coming. And leading the avenging armies is an angry, violent Messiah who dooms billions of apostates to death. (10)
Trump is just one egregious exemplar of the party of white men who see themselves under siege by people of color. It is also the party of buffoons and anti-intellectuals such as Rick Santorum and religious extremists who believe in apocalyptic prophecies and the Rapture. It is also the party of political fundamentalists who hate democracy, attack women’s rights, destroy or underfund health-care programs that benefit the poor, turn back hard fought for voting rights, especially for Black people, and believe governance is a tool of the financial elite.
Trump’s Party of Fundamentalists
Trump is simply the most outspoken member of a party of economic fundamentalists who believe that state power and corporate power are synonymous and that the forces of the market should govern all of social life. Trump is a more visible symbol of a party, if not social order, that produces massive inequality with policies that favor the rich and corporations and punish everyone else as well as those institutions that promote the common good.
Trump personifies perfectly a party of educational fundamentalists – that is, a party that makes ignorance a priority while viewing evidence-based arguments as a liability, only to be dismissed with disdain. This is the party that censors textbooks, imposes mindless pedagogies of memorization and test taking on students (along with the Democratic Party), denies climate change has anything to do with human activity, supports creationism and floods the mainstream media with a never-ending stream of civic illiteracy.
Trump’s candidacy offers the possibility for a new discourse of critique and hope.
Jeb Bush, considered a moderate politically, while governor of Florida signed a bill which declared that “American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed. That factual history, the law states, shall be viewed as knowable, teachable, and testable.” (11) For all intents and purposes, this bill did more than undermine any form of teaching that recognized history is subject to interpretation; it imposed a suffocating ideology on teachers and students by declaring that matters of debate and interpretation undermine the very process of teaching and learning. This is more than conceptual stupidity; it is an attack on reason itself, one that provides security for the apostles of state power who, as Noam Chomsky has argued, is intent on dismantling dissent in order to “protect themselves from the scrutiny of their own populations.” (12)
Richard Hofstadter once warned that anti-intellectualism was a strong undercurrent of American life. Not only was he right, but he would be shocked to discover that today anti-intellectualism has gone mainstream and not only has been normalized but validated by right-wing extremists governing the Republican Party, which Trump willingly embraces. For Trump, emotion vanquishes reason, understanding and thoughtfulness. Bullying and shock attacks now replace any viable notion of dialogue. Of course, Trump’s embrace of ignorance and his willingness to make stupidity a trademark of his identity points to a number of forces in American life that are not mentioned in the media when Trump is denounced as illiterate. As Susan Jacoby has argued, these would include:
fundamentalist forms of religion in current America … the abysmal level of public education … the widespread inability to distinguish between science and pseudoscience … the dumbing-down of the media and politics [and] the consequences of a culture of serious reading being replaced by a rapid-fire, short-attention-span-provoking, over-stimulating, largely visual, information-spewing environment. (13)
Trump is representative of a publicity-branding machine that funds and promotes conservative institutes that produce and legitimate anti-public intellectuals whose role is to snarl at the victims of poverty and other social problems, disdains public institutions in the service of the public good and does everything possible to promote a culture marked by a depoliticizing moral and political vacancy. Trump is simply the brash and strident clown leading a parade of politicians who are the ground troops for a new type of authoritarianism that rewards and revels in thoughtlessness and an updated revival of a survival-of-the-fittest ethic – celebrated in his reality TV game show, “The Apprentice.” Trump and his ilk of like-minded politicians are the brown shirts of our time dressed up in suits rather than menacing military uniforms. They are the brutes whose minds are unburdened by a complicated thought, choking on their own ignorance and moral and political certainties. They represent one register of neoliberalism and the army of hedge fund criminals who are aggressively attempting to destroy democracy in the United States.
Focusing exclusively on Trump’s excesses, buffoonery and incendiary remarks is welcomed fodder for the mainstream media spectacle in which news is replaced by entertainment, violence and idiocy parading as serious commentary. It is also a political and depoliticizing diversion, a kind of reality TV show engineered to misrepresent reality rather than engage it critically. What should be addressed when reporting about Trump is not how offensive he is politically, intellectually and morally, but how he has come to symbolize something dangerous in US society – a society increasingly haunted by the ghost of Pinochet and the legacy of other dictatorships – as it quickly moves toward becoming an unapologetic authoritarian state.
Donald Trump is the face of a political system mired in corruption, an economic system that is as ruthless as it is authoritarian, and a culture that has lost its critical embrace of historical memory, public values and moral compass that inspires and energizes. We live in the age of not only the corrupt but also the shameless. Trump is simply the infantile and offensive persona of a society dominated by financial barbarians who are more than willing to place most Americans in strangulating debt, relegate young people to low paying jobs, impose levels of inequality that destroy families, produce life-threatening abjection, and celebrate corporate criminogenic cultures and institutions. Under such circumstances, the rich commit crimes with impunity while the poor are put in jail in record numbers. Depravity and illegality feed each other as words, sustained arguments and any vestige of thoughtfulness are replaced by sound bites, one-liners and promotional announcements. Under such circumstances, as many of Trump’s interviews make clear, dialogue becomes a political liability and is replaced by the spectacle of bullying, shouting and unfettered arrogance.
Don’t Get Distracted by the Buffoonery
Rather than focusing on Trump’s idiotic statements, which offers him endless platforms in which to turn his buffoonery into a performance, there is a need to critically engage his performative displays within a broader context of political, economic and social corruption and the criminogenic policies and practices that sustain it and offer people points of identification. One important line of inquiry might focus on what cultural circuits, points of connection, internalized values, discourses and pedagogies of repression are responsible for both producing and legitimating the likes of Donald Trump. What does Trump’s celebrity status and the conditions that produce it say about his connection to the group of despicable patriotic fakers, who largely constitute the Republican Party, a party with a long legacy of racism recently made clear in the debate over the Confederate flag and the synergies of hate it inspires?
How might Trump’s sudden popularity among conservative constituencies be understood within a plethora of media platforms that serve to flatten consciousness, erase public memory and champion the thrills of the digital revolution at the expense of what Leon Wieseltier calls “the old pleasures of erudition and interpretation.” (14) What is the role between money in politics and Trump’s run for the Republican presidential nomination? What does Trump’s appearance within the current historical conjuncture suggest about the crisis of historical memory, agency and democracy? How might Trump’s campaign be used not in the service of the spectacle but as a serious starting point for analyzing the deadening economic policies, persistent racism and culture of cruelty that mark neoliberal capitalism? How might the historical transition from the high point of social democracy under Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson to the start of neoliberal rule under Ronald Reagan and its endpoint under the presidential nomination of Donald Trump be understood in political, economic and pedagogical terms?
Rather than despair or laugh over the spectacle of Trump’s media romp, a more promising beginning might be to recognize the utter intellectual, moral and political bankruptcy of the extremists now running the US government and economy of which Trump is symptomatic. This suggests the possibility of rethinking politics in the way the Black Lives Matter movement is doing, one that is connecting different groups under the banner not of isolated and short-lived protest demonstrations but calls for real ideological and structural change.
I believe that Trump’s candidacy offers the possibility for a new discourse of critique and hope, of sustained criticism and the possibility to imagine what the next decade could be like in the advent of a massive, innovative social and political formation willing to unite a fragmented left around a call for a radical democracy, rather than simply liberal reforms. The good news is that economic domination, which is what Trump personifies, cannot by itself maintain an oppressive social system. Ruptures and contradictions happen under neoliberalism but they must be seized as a matter of informed consciousness, as a detour through new framing mechanisms and as an investment in new concepts, ideas and thoughts that unsettle common sense, offer new alternatives and infuse the present with a sense of a future that is ripe with new possibilities.
1. As is well known, a number of studies repudiate Trump’s remarks. For example, see: Esther Yu-Hsi Lee, “An Undocumented Immigrant Killed An American. That Doesn’t Prove All Immigrants Are Criminals.” ThinkProgress (July 7, 2015). Online: http://thinkprogress.org/immigration/2015/07/07/3677443/san-francisco-killing-woman-immigrant/; Esther Yu-Hsi Lee, “Native-Born Americans More Likely To Commit Crimes Than Immigrants, Study Finds,” ThinkProgress (October 20, 2013). Online: http://thinkprogress.org/immigration/2013/10/20/2807051/native-born-commit-crime/; Steve Chapman, “Trump and the Myth of Immigrant Crime,” TownHall (July 5, 2015). Online: http://townhall.com/columnists/stevechapman/2015/07/05/trump-and-the-myth-of-immigrant-crime-n2020695/page/full
2. Ginger Gibson, “Donald Trump Immigration Statements Draw Criticism, Praise,” International Business Times (July 5, 2015). Online: http://www.ibtimes.com/donald-trump-immigration-statements-draw-criticism-praise-1996126
3. CBS News, “Santorum on Trump: ‘A unique individual'” CBS News (July 5, 2015). Online: http://www.cbsnews.com/videos/santorum-on-trump-a-unique-individual/
4. For a summary of the comments by Republican Party leaders in response to Trump’s incendiary remarks, see Esther Yu-Hsi Lee, “What Republican Leaders Have To Say About Donald Trump,” ThinkProgress (July 6, 2015). Online: http://thinkprogress.org/immigration/2015/07/06/3676622/donald-trump-republicans-stance/
5. Jonathan Chait, “Why Are Conservatives Defending Donald Trump?” New York (July 2, 2015). Online: http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2015/07/why-are-conservatives-defending-donald-trump.html
6. Cited in David Roediger, Toward the Abolition of Whiteness (London: Verso Press, 1994), p. 8.
7. Chauncey Devega, “The GOP’s secret “n-word” politics: What their latest Obama outrage is really about – In the Age of Obama, conservatives continue their tradition of racial slurring – without actually saying the word,” Salon (June 24, 2015). Online: http://www.salon.com/2015/06/24/the_gop_is_still_the_party_of_the_n_word/
8. Frank Rich, “A Bonfire of the Vanities,” The New York Times (December 22, 2002), p. A35.
9. Eugene Robinson, “Trump: A Farce to Be Reckoned With,” Truthdig (July 3, 2015). Online: http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/trump_a_farce_to_be_reckoned_with_20150703; Juan Cole, “For Donald Trump, Forgetting to Use Racial Code Words Was an Expensive Mistake,” Informed Comment (July 3, 2015). Online: http://www.juancole.com/2015/07/comments-expensive-mouthing.html
10. Chris Hedges, “The Radical Christian Right and the War on Government,” Truthdig (October 6, 2013). Online: http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/the_radical_christian_right_and_the_war_on_government_20131006
12. Noam Chomsky, “An Ignorant Public Is the Real Kind of Security Our Govt. Is After,” AlterNet (March 3, 2014). Online: http://www.alternet.org/chomsky-staggering-differences-between-how-people-and-powerful-define-security
13. Cited in Judith Shapiro, “Staying Smart in Dumbed-Down Times,” Inside Higher Ed (June 13, 2008). Online: http://insidehighered.com/views/2008/06/13/shapiro. See: Susan Jacoby, The Age of American Unreason (New York: Vintage, reprint, 2009).
14. Leon Wieseltier, “Among the Disrupted,” International New York Times (January 7, 2015). Online: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/18/books/review/among-the-disrupted.html?_r=0