Welcome to the Trumpocalypse/Trumptopia

Douglas Lain’s dystopic sci-fi novel After the Saucers Landed imagines an alternate reality in which the dreams of UFOlogists are realized and aliens really do come to earth. These aliens, anticipated by everyone as an apocalyptic force with the power to radically transform everything for the better, turn out to be dull, boring and complicit in the most banal forms of capitalist mundanity. They drink Pepsi, build corporations and enroll in undergraduate courses. In short, very little changes.

Donald Trump is not quite such an alien. Things will significantly change in the Trumpocalypse, and they will of course change for the worse. In fact, in anticipation of his landing, they already have. Yet, there is nevertheless a similarity between Trump and the boring and conformist aliens. The aliens are heralded and welcomed as the embodiment of the “anti-establishment.” They appeal to dissatisfied workers, the unenfranchised classes and, in many cases, even to the academic and learned classes who dream of destroying the status quo: “The aliens may destroy us, but at least things will be different.” Those desperate to break with existing models of experience and politics invest in the aliens as a dream of something that is at least new. Like Trump, in promise, the aliens can be whatever the dissatisfied worker wants them to be, a kind of utopia. More universally, the aliens appeal to those with a desire to say no to the system, but with no way to transform this no into a coherent political alternative.

It is only as a dream that the aliens promise dramatic imaginary change, and on their arrival, all possibility of a radical overthrow of the corporate center is extinguished and things go on as they were. Trump may well end up playing something like this kind of role for his own UFOlogists, to whom it will gradually become apparent that he will be complicit in all the things his identity seemed so much to be defined in opposition to. Just as the identity of aliens is defined by what is not human, Trump has been defined (by himself and his supporters at least) as what is not currently politician. At worst, he will be a great deal more dangerous than this and will, as Italian philosopher Franco “Bifo” Berardi has written, turn back against those very workers whom he promised to weaponize and lead them into disastrous racial warfare. We know from philosophy, but also from experience that fascism can take hold by offering itself to those with an impulse to say no, but with no political options and no way to translate this rejection of contemporaneity into organized resistance. So did Trump, and he used it to organize his landing on the White House lawn.

For the left, Trump offers not utopia, but apocalypse. People have been making the connection between Trump and fascism since his campaign gathered momentum in early 2015. Most sensible commentators have noted that while the associations are worryingly possible, the claim that Trump is the new Hitler is too simplistic. Alongside this accusation of fascism is another prominent idea: the idea that with Trump’s election the end of the world as we know it has finally arrived, that we are living in a dystopic future and that the apocalypse is upon us. These two dominant appraisals of the situation are not unrelated: What we fear the most, on the left at least, is an apocalyptic fascism or fascism as apocalypse.

But there could be a considerably worse possibility: the possibility of fascism not as apocalyptic chaos, but as continuation of the same, as something that is not a rupture from the present, but an extension or development of it. Such kinds of structural fascism underlying our own ideology (which paradoxically presents the fascists to us as aliens themselves) have been discussed by the three German-Jewish philosophers: Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno and most controversially, Hannah Arendt, the writer responsible for the often misused cliché “the banality of evil.” A recent Los Angeles Review of Books article noted Arendt’s sudden social media prominence, and such moments should be seized upon to force discussions of fascism that go beyond typical platitudes. For Arendt, writing a series of articles on the topic in The New Yorker in the 1960s, “banality” meant not so much boring, as has been assumed by many second-hand readers, but devoid of imagination. As such, Arendt’s definition of the fascist as banal (her example was Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann) meant that the fascist can only speak in clichés, repetitions and copies. Trump is clearly exactly such a figure, whose comments endlessly echo existing ideas and concepts, concepts which are already old, out-of-date, clichéd and caricatured.

This, in a certain sense, is the direct opposite of an apocalypse, which in secular terms is usually thought of as a disaster resulting in drastic and irreversible damage, (in fact the most recent meaning of apocalypse retained by the Oxford English Dictionary). In referring to the situation as apocalyptic, a diagnosis that has been heard echoing around university corridors and classrooms as we run up to the January 20 inauguration, the intention is to stress how hopeless and terrible the situation is. Yet, there appears to be an odd grain of unconscious hope in such comments, a belief that people will respond to the arrival of Trump with the level of outrage appropriate for the end of the world, and perhaps even a hope that Trump really does at least represent (or could later open the possibility for) genuine radical change from the establishment. There is a strange dialectics in these comments then, which show both an impulse to see the establishment destroyed and a simultaneous impulse to save the establishment by distancing it from the fascist turn it has just taken and which it apparently did not anticipate. The establishment thereby becomes “human” in comparison to the alien fascists. This logic is, of course, inherently fascist itself. So there is, in the use of the term “Trumpocalypse” and indeed in the much funnier “Trumptopia,” a failure to see what exactly is banal about evil: that it is not a rupture in the present from outside, but a revelation (the original meaning of “apocalypse”) of what the present was already destined to become.

The former finance minister of Greece and core member of the Democracy in Europe Movement Yanis Varoufakis has written that “the establishment’s pro-globalisation camp (Clinton and Cameron) and the populist anti-establishment camp (Trump and Johnson) are, in truth, accomplices.” The aliens and the humans are working together, or as Walter Benjamin (the theorist who committed suicide to escape fascism in 1940)would have said, the fool (Trump or Clinton) and the tyrant (Trump or Clinton) are friends who will do each other no harm. Had Clinton been elected, undercurrents of fascism would perhaps have remained more well obscured. Now they are more visible, and this visibility will have real and concrete effects on the streets in the US and beyond. Though Varoufakis may be right that there may be little enough concrete difference between the establishment-center and the populist far-right, the difference in perception is more than enough to have real effects.

The real worry, though, could be that there will not be much of an apocalyptic or utopic feel to these events, and that what will be heralded by the Trumpocalypse will be more of the same — indeed, a more extreme version of the same — with the added problem that it will be incredibly easy for the US and European establishments to distance themselves from what is on stage in Trump’s America, rather than admitting their complicity. The task of the left in this context must be to take advantage of the visibility of these fascist undercurrents that are more perceptible than ever, and to ensure that the neoliberal center is not able to use this distancing technique to absolve themselves of complicity. The banal nature of this moment of fascism ought to teach us that fascism is not alien at all, but inherent to where neoliberal democracy has been heading for years. Trump’s landing will be used as an excuse to return to the establishment center, but it could also be the opportunity to ensure we never go back in that apocalyptic direction.