Numerous allegations of sexual assault have delivered what may be a fatal blow to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. His lewd remarks have been rightly condemned in the strongest terms by the mainstream media, his Liberal opponents and even members of his own Party. More than just heading for certain defeat, he has been accused of bringing disrepute to the very idea of American democracy.
While the public focus has quite rightly been on the problem of violence against women, what Trump’s sexual braggadocio also reveals is the dangerous culture of authoritarianism that is patently present in contemporary American democracy. The Trump tape scandal highlights how the idolization of executive and celebrity figures imbues them with dangerous levels of power. Even more perilous is how this adulation leads them to act as if they can ignore accepted social mores and rise above the law.
In Trump’s own words, “when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything.” Trump was of course talking about a scurrilous penchant for assaulting women, but his cavalier views on sexual violence extend also to his exercise of political power more generally. For some Trump is praised for his ‘telling-it- like-it- is’ approach. But what he tells us about sexual assault really does get to the heart of contemporary American politics and society more generally where elite authority all too often knows no limits, and doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. It is also a politics and culture that is patently anti-democratic.
From the very beginning of his campaign, Trump has stood for the most deplorable aspects of American democracy. His xenophobic attacks on Mexicans, women and the disabled go beyond the pale of not only of political correctness but basic morality. He is quite simply, as one mainstream commentator so bluntly put it, “the worst of America”.
More ominously he poses an existential threat to democracy itself. His politics reeks of populist violence, majoritarian oppression and demagoguery. Just recently he promised to “jail Hillary Clinton” if the electorate sent him to the White House. These were the words of a would be dictator rather than of a potential President elect. For many, his very candidacy symbolizes a “dress rehearsal for fascism” in the United States.
While Clinton looks poised for a landslide victory, Trump appears to be sowing the seeds for a coup. He is already trying to instill the idea that the election is going to be rigged and hence invalid. He is also, for good measure, stoking the dangerous fires of racial tension for advancing his cause.
These concerns appear even more urgent after the end of the final televised debate between the two candidates. Trump publicly declared that he was not even sure if he would accept a Clinton victory. When asked directly he stated only that “I will tell you at the time, I will keep you in suspense”. Even more worryingly, is that such anti-democratic bravado might actual appeal to voters whose support of him is linked to their own underlying authoritarian values that prioritize law and order, traditional values and a strong decisive leader.
Clinton by contrast is being positioned as a defender of democracy. All her less than ideal qualities are conveniently brushed aside as she takes charge of fighting the rising fascist upsurge. She has become reimagined as a proverbial beacon of hope as America looks for a toe hold from which to prevent the end of its democratic experiment.
Now, in the final stages of the campaigns, the country's very political ideals and survival are supposedly at stake. Trump is not only allegedly guilty of assaulting woman he is also accused of assaulting US democracy itself.
This increasingly accepted morality tale is hypocritical to the extreme. Clinton may just be the last defense against fascism but she is still the candidate of Wall Street and “the war machine." This is, after all, the style and substance of the Democratic Party. Even the moral righteousness of Obama loses much of its luster when we remember that he presided over a record number of arms sales abroad, the dramatic expansion of the drone warfare program, and the deportation of more immigrants than any other President before him.
Hidden behind the differences between Clinton and Trump is the worrying reality of what they both represent; the already present anti-democratic authoritarianism of the American political status quo. It is no secret that the US has a long history of overthrowing democracy when it serves its interests. Or that Clinton herself is guilty of supporting the coup in Honduras as well as being a key cheerleader for the disastrous Iraq invasion. This also speaks to a liberalism at home that is marked by mass incarceration, legalized torture and racially biased please brutality.
Reflected here is the profound authoritarianism plaguing contemporary American culture both within and beyond the political sphere. Outside the heavily regulated political arena, Americans have little opportunity to legitimately practice democracy or democratic decision-making. Instead for the majority of citizens it is their boss and the demands of capital rather than voting or public deliberation that determine their everyday choices and long term fate.
Four decades of neoliberalism have dramatically eroded American democracy. It has witnessed, to quote political theorist Wendy Brown, the transformation of its citizens from “homo politicus” to “homo economicus”. With this the new ideal of citizenship is based on the “image of man as an entrepreneur of himself”. Industrial democracy is withering away and the potential for civil power is on the wane.
In its place has emerged a corporate culture that has infiltrated all parts of life. This is a society and economy characterized by managerialism, hierarchy and constant demands for increased productivity. This is a situation where members of a progressively economically insecure and precariously employed population must compete with each other for less and less good jobs. In such circumstances the threat of unemployment and the lack of work protections pressure individuals into accepting whatever terms and conditions their employers choose to apply to them.
The reprehensible remarks and actions of Trump are tragically not the exception but the rule in this ever more corporatized culture. Powerful figures whether they be executives or even celebrities are too often perceived to be above the law or even public reproach. Whether it is Trump bragging about sexual assault or the Wells Fargo CEO escaping almost unscathed after overseeing a fraud that cost its customers billions and many of its employees their jobs. Power like wealth rarely trickles down in modern America.
It is tempting perhaps to attribute this double standard to a simple case of capitalist excess. In actuality it is symptomatic of America's deeper authoritarianism. In the present realities of the United States, economic and social elites are all too often granted sovereign privilege without any sense of responsibility or accountability. It is the very definition of an authoritarian culture dressed up as political democracy.
Democracy, Corporate Style
The current presidential election is critically portrayed as a choice between Clinton and oligarchy, or Trump and fascism. Implied is that the lesser evil of oligarchy is, for all its failings, still democratic. This is a false dichotomy that masks just how profoundly authoritarian and anti-democratic existing liberal democracies have become.
Even more troubling is how readily this authoritarian culture has been consumed by such a wide diversity of Americans. The cult of the CEO, like that of celebrity, is an emotionally resonant and idealized vision of present day power. It is an alluring market fantasy of being able to acquire enough money and status to do anything one wishes free from social, moral or even legal consequences. The silver spooned business Titan and reality star Donald Trump is the coiffured flag waving poster boy of this new authoritarian American dream.
With the 2016 election, this authoritarian fantasy has enabled a corporate takeover of the country's democracy. Voters long for a hard charging maverick who will shake up the establishment in order to “make America great again”. The appeal of the populist demagogue is the same as that of the all-powerful CEO. Both celebrate and authoritarian and anti-democratic notion of leadership.
This is a culture where winning at all costs and vanquishing opponents is prized while deliberation and shared power is scoffed at as weak and girlish. The goal is the domination of others for one’s own pleasure and profit. Trump’s much reported history of making unwanted sexual advances on women is a consequence of this macho and patriarchal authoritarian mentality. Anyone who dares to publicly object to such elite violations is all commonly easily dismissed, punished, threatened or silenced.
The rise and fall of Trump should be a wake up call alerting the country of its alarming authoritarianism. The task ahead for progressives, regardless of who wins the election is to turn back the tide of this corporate authoritarianism and to reimagine the possibilities of democracy.