Defying almost all political predictions, Donald Trump has officially become the Republican nominee for President. His acceptance speech was filled with the type of empty promises and trademark arrogance that has made him both despised and troubling appealing to many. Without a hint of satire, this silver spooned tycoon proclaimed to politically disenfranchised and economic depressed Americans “I am your voice.”
If there was every a time when the joke of Trump lost all its humor, it is clearly now. Americans are waking up to the serious threat he poses to win the White House and assume real power. Yet even if he ultimately falls short of this no longer impossible dream, his candidacy may have lasting damage to US democracy. Through his massive rallies and almost permanent media presence, he has given explicit voice and a dangerous legitimacy to values of racism, xenophobia and authoritarianism.
"If Trump portends the death of democracy then the road to its demise was paved by a capitalism allowed to run amok."
There are even darker undertones bubbling to the surface on the back of his popularity. His spirited triumph is a far cry from the hope of Obama or the revolutionary optimism of Sanders. His election could instead portend the end of US democracy – leading the country confidently toward a bleak future of fascism and genocidal white power.
Yet to simply declare that Trump’s brand of politics is un-American misses just how fundamentally it reflects so much of modern America. It is a culture that links to value exclusively to “winning” and assumes even the most sacred things can ultimately be bought and sold to the highest bidder. Indeed, if Trump portends the death of democracy then the road to its demise was paved by a capitalism allowed to run amok.
A Dangerous Market Politics
On both the Right and the Left, this election has been largely defined by the growing anger over corporate power. The rise of the “anti-establishment” candidates of Trump and Sanders spoke in different ways to a rising disdain for the status quo and strong desire to upend the country’s political and economic oligarchy. Trump’s surprise ascendancy highlights a populist reaction to elite rule and values.
It is ironic then just how heavily his campaign has drawn on a distinctly corporate ethos. While much of the media understandably focuses on his outlandish racist statements against Mexicans and Muslims, his appeal perhaps more in his optimistic promise to “Make America Great Again” through his quite literally legendary abilities as a capitalist dealmaker. Moreover, he continually highlights his experience as a private executive as proof that he uniquely has what it takes to defeat America’s national rivals.
Thus in contrast to past authoritarian movements that were largely sincere in their misguided extremist beliefs, Trump appears to only believe in himself. He will support whatever is currently popular at the moment in order to sell his political brand to hungry voters. In this respect, he is not so tremendously different than his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton whose positions seem to “evolve” to match what voters want to hear. Trump has simply taken this consumerist political ethics to its extreme – he is willing to say or support anything so long as people are willing to buy it.
"Whatever else one may say about Trump – and there is plenty of criticism that one could levy at him – he did not create this toxic political product of crypto-fascism and racism."
Nevertheless, it is exactly this nihilism that is so deeply troubling. Whatever else one may say about Trump – and there is plenty of criticism that one could levy at him – he did not create this toxic political product of crypto-fascism and racism. He was merely packaging it and putting it on sale for a large section of the American populist that was only to happy to readily consume this authoritarianism.
At its heart Trump’s campaign reveals the full scale marketization of American politics. For the past three decades at least, many Left wing voices have warned about the negative effects of “privatization.” Recently, the scholar Wendy Brown has decried the rise of what she calls the “undoing of the demos” to the proliferation of the “homo economicus.” In this spirit, U.S. democracy is being transformed into something that is more akin to a corporate marketing campaign than a traditional democratic election. And it is being led by an increasingly seen as “heroic CEO politician.”
He is not so much promoting a particular brand of politics as he is selling to the American public his corporate “brand” for President. Like all flashy products, specifics matter less than its trumped up promises of happiness through consumption. He is going to “Make America Great Again”; “Build a Wall”; “Ban Muslims”.
In this spirit, he has translated the fear central to mass consumption to the political arena. Marketers rely on creating anxieties in consumers that only their product can alleviate. If you don’t use this face cream you will never find love, if you don’t use this laundry detergent people will hate you, if you don’t buy this new updated phone then history will leave you behind. Trump preys on the same base capitalist instinct – if he isn’t elected then the country will be lost to civil disorder and its eventual ruin. Only his victory can save the country from such an ominous fate.
Similarly, he derives his legitimacy not on the basis of his ideas but his popularity. It doesn’t matter if Coke really tastes better than Pepsi or if Levi fits better than Wrangler. Their success if entirely premised on how they sell – how much bigger their consumer market is than their rivals. Trump also uses this market metric to defend his own positions. His racism and scaremongering is fully justifiable, in his mind, as long as his ratings remain high. Policy details and clear ideological principles are for “losers” who fail to aggressively respond to a rapidly changing political marketplace.
Selling out Democracy
Just as the characteristics of Trump’s campaign are fully capitalist, so too are its potential consequences. The 21st century has bore witness to the large scale threats of marketization and financialization. It is one in which short term gains lead to long term crisis – where elites wield power for themselves at the expense of an exploited and increasingly desperate majority.
It goes without saying that like the neo-liberalism that birthed it, Trump’s politics will only exacerbate deeper structural problems plaguing the country and world. The shift to a “financial economy” has led to an infrastructure in disrepair, chronic under- and un-employment, a perpetual war on terror, and the looming threat of climate change. In the same way, a Trump presidency will exchange bluster and empty promises for real solutions and positive change.
However, such substantial ambitions were never the real goal of Trump or those of his financial ilk. They want to make as much profit as fast as they can, regardless of the destructive crash this ethos produces in its wake. Trump is doing more or less than what the financial industry has been doing to the economy for over 30 years – short-selling America.
It is no surprise that as an executive, despite all his exaggerated claims of genius, Trump has gone bankrupt multiple times. He loves to make deals for his own gain no matter what the ultimate cost. Akin to CEOs who are given a “golden parachute” after running their company in the ground, Trump is secure in his gilded status of an elite no matter how much he destroys the country. For his own personal profit, he is wiling to bankrupt the nation and sell-out its democracy in the process.