For all his intrinsic faults, and dubious merits, it can be said that Trump ascended to the heights of power through the allure of an innovative ideological vision. Bypassing hackneyed public relations standards, and conventions of the office, he appeared to usher in a new era of nationalist populism in the West to the chagrin of cosmopolitan circles as much as to the delight of the left-behinds of the neoliberal consensus. Indeed, as it had been argued previously, the election seemed like a welcome wrecking ball to the “business as usual” politicking of the patrician classes, who had now been forced to awake from their slumber by the agitated masses.
A year or so down the line however, it appears that Trump has descended to the depths of the ‘Washington swamp’, having failed to drain it, being surrounded by a coterie of advisors whose aspirations are diametrically opposite to the best interests of the rank-file Trump voters. With a Republican Congress, under the direction of veteran careerists, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, whether by accident or design, it nevertheless seems that out of the fog of war of 2016, what has emerged is nothing less than an emboldened corporatist phalanx. The tragedy of this spectacle is that stripped of its guiding lights, and consequently any attempt at reform, support for the Trump administration survives in the form of a cult of personality.
It is notable how Stephen Bannon, despite being the intellectual architect of Trump’s triumph among the disenfranchised white working-class, has been cast into the darkness without any tangible backlash from these very same supporters. In fact, far from sympathy, Bannon’s excommunication was immediate and universal, once doubts as to his loyalty to the Chief emerged. Much has been said of Bannon’s lately voiced misgivings as to the President, and the conduct of his closest associates, expressed in the recent book Fire and Fury, but this is beside the point. The allegiance to Trump, on the part of his supporters, has been shown to be grounded on the person; it appears increasingly that his ideas are championed by virtue of their provenance, and not the other way around. Naturally, if forced to choose between Bannon, the behind-the-scenes visionary, and Trump the swashbuckling hero, hero-worship would win the day any time.
It is for this reason that dramatic gestures have become the modus operandi of the administration, to reassure the support base that Trump is fighting the good fight in the culture war, as much as it serves to bewilder and enrage partisan and ideological opponents. The result nevertheless is one of obfuscation and distraction. As Noam Chomsky once pointed out, this strategy was, and still is, in full display in the proceedings of the Russian collusion conspiracy and its investigation, a political theater in which both Democrats and Republicans participate. As the philosopher noted, “While everything is focusing on that, the Paul Ryan republicans, who are, in my view, the most dangerous and savage group in the country, are busy implementing programs that they have been talking quietly about for years. Very savage programs, which have very simple principles. One, be sure to offer to the rich and powerful gifts beyond the dreams of avarice, and [two], kick everyone else in the face.”
While the veracity of Michael Wolff’s book has been questioned, in any case a cynical reading of events would compel us to the conclusion that, having instrumentalized the bitterness of the masses, Trump has allowed its chief mouthpieces to be neutralized for the sake of expediency. Namely the expediency of the political class, and their benefactors. To some degree, if Fire and Fury account is to be believed, this is in no small part a fruit of the President’s erratic nature, and lack of credentials for the job. Certainly, what has come to pass since 2016 has turned out to be a world away from the insurgent Bannon promises of doing away with the status quo.
This isn’t to say that there haven’t been novelties to the administration; in certain areas, nevertheless, in tone and policy, there certainly have been revolutionary deviations from precedent. On immigration, Trump has clearly gone to great lengths to ensure law and order were reigning principles, in contrast to Obama’s lack of preoccupation with the potential threat offered by Muslim arrivals and Mexican illegals- sometimes, one must concede, to the point of injustice. While in foreign policy, notably, the pretense of cordiality with well-known rogue states like North Korea has decidedly been abandoned- in episodes that have yielded a mixture of amusement and dread on various presidential Twitter spats. Likewise, with his judicial appointments, the President must be given his fair due for counter-balancing the liberal judicial activism long fostered by the Obama administration. A true triumph for Trump, this arguably heralds the opening up of space for genuine debate on controversies that are far from settled in the US population, but which lately have been decided at the stroke of a pen, to the dismay of many- such as the question of same-sex marriage.
In spite of all this, we must contend with the fact after all that a campaign whose only selling point, aside from the Trump brand itself, was its anti-establishment and anti-Big Media ethos has metamorphosed into another conventional Republican administration. One replete with Fox News as its cheerleader (despite previous bad blood), and a seeming resurrection of old Reaganite “trickle-down” voodoonomics (with Exxon’s Rex Tillerson in the cabinet, to boot), not to mention the risible posturing in foreign policy, such as the ‘Jerusalem as Israeli capital’ gambit. The latter is especially grotesque, in light of the choruses of “America First” that featured in Trump rallies. Even as promises of patriotism were made, it seems the administration’s idea of putting national interests first nevertheless entails subservience to the Israeli state. . Most disappointing however, has been the stalling of Bannon-influenced proposals, such as the promised infrastructure projects- which could have conceivably attained bipartisan support, and go a long way in catering to the neglected American working class.
At this point there are two possible interpretations as to the true colors of the Presidency. Either we are contending with a frustrated populist putsch, emasculated by the wheeling-and-dealing of Congressional partisan factions, or alternatively with an accidental alignment of factors that by the cruel hand of fate have led to the election of a US President bereft of a plan, who didn’t expect to win, and who is potentially undergoing a psychological breakdown. Either way, these are times that ought to make Trump supporters pause for thought, and reflect on how much of the discourse on protectionism, or even immigration (whatever happened to the Wall?) has been diluted along the way, if not ditched altogether.
As we contemplate both scenarios, it should be noted that equally, the Democrats have not only substantially shaped this outcome, but are increasingly influenced by it. Much as Hillary Clinton’s nomination, the establishment stooge per excellence, and subsequent defeat has now naturally led to half serious endorsements of Oprah Winfrey as the party’s own “celebrity candidate”. It is a development that speaks of the impoverishment of American political culture, where ideals and competence take second place to personalities, and “brands” manufactured in the tawdry world of popular entertainment. The coalition of leftists and liberals who revolve around the Democratic party not only failed to come to grips with the frustration and anger that led to their chastisement in 2016, but have also been determined to learn the wrong lessons from it.
It can be said that the degeneration of the Trump presidency is only an episode in the greater drama of degeneration of the American political scene as a whole. This was something already tangible during the election, if one considers the record-breaking unpopularity of both candidates, and the unusual level of vitriol and untruth that characterized the public discourse. If before it was the case of navigating unsteadily through a barrage of fake news and distortion, now America sails on bravely into unreality- one ought only to consider how hard it is nowadays to distinguish genuine news from satire.