With Trump finally leaving office I asked some Trump fans to write with their view on his Presidency. None took up the offer, so I thought I would write something myself, a sequel to my blog on Nightmare Trump Art:
There are lots of ways you can categorise politicians; left and right, liberal or authoritarian, transformative or performative.
Transformative politicians want to change the world, or re-shape it in their own image. Attlee, Thatcher and Blair in the UK, Reagan and LBJ in the US.
Performative politicians care about the process of politics, not the outcomes – the speeches, slogans, campaigns. At the last General Election the UK had a choice between 2 performative politicians; Corbyn and Johnson – both great at slogans but rubbish at policies. Voters chose the best performer. Boris is a great campaigner, but a hopeless PM. Corbyn would have been just as disappointing.
Performative politicians are popular among voters for whom political choices are statements of identity rather than choices between different sets of policies. It’s fashionable to talk about identity politics as if it were solely a left wing phenomenon, but Trump and Brexit were both the expressions of right wing political identities; it is the right not the left that is obsessed with the symbols of identity.
These identities are often noisily asserted but at the same time are fragile and require regular reassurance and reinforcement.
For lots of American right wingers their political identity is based on insecurity in a changing world, anxiety about their position in a social and racial hierarchy, and carefully nurtured grievances about how unfair the world treated them. While Trump was born a millionaire – a New York Little Lord Fauntleroy – he connected with them. He was palpably insecure, anxious and neurotic, obsessed by petty grievances and imagined slights. He might have been a snobby member of an elite which looked down their noses at blue collar America but they could connect with because they shared common emotions.
Trump was the most performative politician of the modern era, a reality TV star washed up in an era when his audience had switched over to watch box sets on Netflix.
He also had some amazing slogans; Build The Wall! Lock Her Up!
It didn’t actually matter that the Wall was never built, or that Hilary was never locked up. Or that his policy triumphs were imaginary – President Kim of North Korea was given the credibility of a US Presidential visit, but did nothing at all in return, and continues to test long range ballistic missiles.
All that mattered is that he said those things, which appealed to voters who liked to say those things too. And by saying those things he gave permission to his followers to say lots of other extreme or offensive things, at times revelling in the offence he caused to his opponents.
There was always going to come a moment when performance met reality, and it happened when a mob of his fans stormed the Capitol.
This is nightmare Trump art brought to life.
I often quote The 18th Brumaire by Karl Marx, written by Marx as he observed the rise to power of Louis Bonaparte, who styled himself as Napoleon III, another grotesque mediocrity with authoritarian pretensions. A real life fancy dress coup d’etat. He grasped the attraction of revolutionary cosplay:
“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.”
The crazy costumes and the inability to decide if they were revolutionaries or tourists was typical of an American right wing movement that left reality long ago and embraced a fantasy world of overheated conspiracies, lurid claims and outright weirdness. Among them were the Gravy Seals, fat blokes squeezed into camo fancy dress.
They live streamed their fantasy revolution on social media as if the footage made it more real, made their fantasies come true. The ease at which law enforcement tracked them down goes a long way to explain why their predecessors wore white hoods. The crash of performance politics into hard reality was shocking, not just to onlookers but to the participants, mostly shocked by their own actions.
Allegedly leader of the House Freedom Caucus, Republican Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona, along with Reps. Paul Gosar of Arizona and Mo Brooks of Alabama, helped plan the January 6 event . I doubt they knew how serious things were going to get, and thought that they were going along with a harmless, eccentric, but influential part of their constituency . The exception to this I think is Lauren Boebert who has who has fully embraced the crazy and made it her own
It may look weird to outsiders but this descent into fantasy has a long history on the US right; after Nixon’s impeachment US Conservatives preferred to construct a fantasy world than deal with the reality of a USA which no longer shares their values or worldview. From Nixon’s southern strategy onwards these fantasies have explicitly included aspects of white supremacy, which Republican leaders tacitly encouraged to keep the loyalty of a key block of voters. Europeans may be shocked at the extent to which police forces collude in these racist fantasies, but many US law enforcement organisations started out as slave patrols and never really lost that ethos.
And at heart of it all is QAnon, the every shifting mutating conspiracy theory that exists as a secular gnosticism – an evil world, about to be overthrown by a secret group connected by occult knowledge.
A lot of people saw the attack on the capital and made comparisons with the rise of Fascism.
I don’t think for one minute that Trump was ever another Hitler. Adolf was obsessed by creating an ideology, which provided a rigid template for every citizen to obey. Donald had no such ideology, changing his mind and his policies day by day and expecting his fans to forget the contradictions or explain as some kind of genius masterplan.
But that doesn’t mean that such fantasy politics is harmless. Authoritarianism, performance and fantasy have always gone together. Hitler has his own candle lit torches and his own version of QAnon – the belief in the occult destiny of the Aryan people, the search for the Spear of Destiny and the journeys to India and Tibet.
Along with the 18th Brumaire Hannah Arendt’s “Origins of Totalitarianism” has been a guide to current events. She captures the way in which authoritarianism and fantasy intersect:
A mixture of gullibility and cynicism had been an outstanding characteristic of mob mentality before it became an everyday phenomenon of masses. In an ever-changing, incomprehensible, world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything is possible and that nothing was true. The mixture in itself was remarkable enough, because it spelled the end of the illusion that gullibility was a weakness of unsuspecting primitive souls and cynism the vice of superior and refined minds. Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.
What will happen next to Trump is in the hands of the Senate and the courts. He is likely to be found guilty in a Senate trial, and from there he will face multiple lawsuits as will his family. He must face the possibility of jail and bankruptcy.
The more difficult question is what will happen to his supporters now it is all over?
The QAnon crowd will continue to believe strange things, but will get smaller and smaller, as each prediction and prophecy fails to come true. They will end up as a pseudo-religious cult
Others will blame a sinsister imaginary conspiracy of liberals and lefties, clinging to a faint belief in Trumps righteous.
But there will be a lot of mourning on the US right. America has been changing radically over the last few decades; more liberal, racially diverse, better educated, more tolerant. The reactionary values of small town white right wingers are becoming less and less common. The US economy is dependent on highly educated liberals on the East and West Coast and as a consequence those same liberal have great power and influence.
That’s why lots of people who didn’t much like Trump voted for him in large numbers. He was the last stand, a final hope to turn the tide of American history so it flowed backwards.
Some will shift to a mainstream conservatism which will attempt to accommodate itself to these changes in order to return to power, but others will never be reconciled, and will continue to harbour their anxieties and grievances until another opportunity arises to storm the Capital again.
This time with guns.
Historical post script.
A lot of commentators remarked on the image of the protestor carrying a Confederate Flag in the Capitol 150 years after the Civil War.
This is the flag of the Confederate States:
This isn’t the Confederate flag. It may have been carried into battle on a few occasions by Confederate troops, but it’s use is entirely modern, and is a symbol of white nationalist identity: