Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Presidential politics and the power of "dialectical Trumpism": An analysis of a populist billionaire's Hegel-Marx-and-Engels-influenced campaign

Despite a well-received parody of Donald Trump's rhetorical style posted here last month, I am revoking a personal pledge to allow that to be my unique entry into the bulge and bilge of commentary on him.

Trump fatigue is unlikely to be worsened much by a return to the battlefield from my small redoubt of the blogosphere. So I'm not apologizing, but I ought to explain: What prompted this post was my nagging wonder about Trump's durability as a billionaire populist. I'm not referring to his appeal  in light of the way he keeps managing to de-gaffe the gaffe on the campaign trail, but to his relationship with adoring audiences he simultaneously flatters and positions himself as superior to.

The billionaire populist stirs the pot from an openly declared position of superiority.
What other current candidate acknowledges the applause with copious thanks before he starts speaking, and also thanks the crowd for their applause in mid-speech?

Who else interrupts his remarks when he sees a copy of his book held aloft and insists on autographing it then and there?

Who besides Donald Trump keeps inserting "you know that" as a tag to an unsupported assertion ("Unemployment isn't 5.6 percent, you know that"), while in the next sentence telling audiences things they couldn't have known before he tells them? He places himself well above them in status, and often refers to the sacrifice he's making, putting aside his business interests in order to seek the presidency.

Here's my paraphrase: "I love you, but I've got an inside track. I value your love, but because I'm so much above you in access and prestige, you've an obligation to relieve some of your ignorance by listening closely and staying with me."  How does he manage that?

He does it by a personal adaptation of the dialectic of G.W.F. Hegel, who influenced Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the creators of a form of "scientific" socialism the world learned to deal with as Communism. In the original, the dialectic describes the process by which opposite forces contend and resolve into a higher form. Marx and Engels called this contention the class struggle. Economic forces pitted the classes against each other; control of the means of production determined what kind of thought, art, religion was dominant in any society.

For the idealistic Hegel, an economics-based class struggle was no part of the dialectic. His theory  comprised Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis as a cyclical process driven by Spirit and Matter, whose interaction assured that no synthesis would be permanent. For Marxists, materialism governed all, and its notion of a scientific foundation ensured that a classless society could finally be achieved, meaning the dialectical process would come to a natural end.

Donald Trump is more Hegelian than Marxist.  He extols the American spirit. He derives his Thesis vision of America from a mythical blend of the Eisenhower and Reagan eras. A believer in American exceptionalism, he is capable in the same speech (Lowell, Mass., Jan. 4) of praising both Boston Marathon bombing survivors and U.S. border patrol agents, including presumably the one who shot and killed a Mexican teen across the border, in similar terms: They are "great, amazing people."

They are carriers of the Thesis of America, like most of us, who are being oppressed by an Antithesis that has hypertrophied — not the Marxist Antithesis of capitalism, of which Trump is a proud champion, but the political class, who run government with a high degree of incompetence. The businessman's outspoken scorn for his political rivals doesn't stem from a mean disposition, but as a way of underlining his distaste for politicians and their media and special-interest enablers.

Engels and Marx believed they had superseded philosophy.
In describing the current Antithesis, Trump has to be especially careful on two counts. He must avoid any suggestion of proposing reforms to the suppression of popular will and energy by the political class. Reform is wonkish, boring, and to focus on it would be to fall into what the Marxists fought against as the abominations of social democracy and Utopian socialism.

The second thing he has to avoid is the language of victimization. He must describe what amounts to America's victimization, thus earning the sympathy and assent  of his audience, without making them feel like victims, who in political terms are "losers." It's a favorite word in the Trump lexicon; he has interrupted speeches to savor the word, especially as applied to Secretary of State John Kerry, an inept negotiator compared to the candidate, he asserts.

If Trump avoids those two traps in analyzing the components of the Antithesis, he is fully prepared to articulate the Synthesis. Even this is risky, since that resolution of conflict is highly centered on himself. He softens it by emphasizing the extension of himself through wealth, access and know-how. He told the Lowell audience, after mocking a rival who recently echoed his suggestion to build a wall along the Mexican border: "He wouldn't know where to start," then proceeded to sketch in the engineering process behind wall-building. The description faded into a burst of admiring applause.

Dialectical Trumpism positions Trump as the agent for resolving internal contradictions that obstruct American achievement and reduce its stature in the world's eyes. A true leader combines his insight into the ambitions and weaknesses of other leaders with a steady vision of the position America should occupy under his leadership. One of his most revealing boasts (at last summer's Freedom Fest in Las Vegas) is that a Chinese bank, "the largest bank in the world, is a tenant in one of my buildings."
      
Trump's power overlays China's, in other words. And he is personally acquainted with government and business figures around the world, particularly those challenging the U.S. economically, who confirm our government's inability to protect American interests by telling Trump: "I can't believe we're getting away with this." In contrast, Trump will preside over the make-America-great-again  Synthesis by virtue of special knowledge and dynamism that can stir the emotions of audiences whose imperiled self-worth parallels what Trump identifies as national decline. "We don't have victories anymore. We used to have victories. We used to be great."

Father of the dialectic: G.W.F. Hegel created a system accounting for the absorption of conflicts and partial truths.
Like Hegel, Trump distrusts abstractions. His rhetoric prizes sketchy anecdotes. If he wants to denounce the way our government makes deals, he'll say normal practice can be summed up by one of the most unpopular deals: the exchange of five suspected terrorists for a disgraced soldier, Bowe Bergdahl. "All our deals are like that," scoffs the author of "The Art of the Deal." If he wants a vivid way of presenting his disgust for Nabisco's moving a factory to Mexico, he won't relate the move to the big picture of globalization. He'll promise not to eat Oreos anymore.

Given the long-contending forces of Thesis and Antithesis, it's no wonder that political discourse, from the center rightward, shifted from demonizing "bureaucrats" to disparaging "Washington" as a metonym of "out-of-touch" government. Trump's innovation has been to expand the enemies of American excellence to politicians in general. "They talk and talk, and run for office, sometimes they win, sometimes they lose — they're all talk and no action," he has said.

The inanity of conventional political discourse contrasts with Trump's coming from the outside, from business, a world of action. "They think I'm in this for fun," he protests. "I could be doing all sorts of other things," he told the CPAC Conference last year. There's always the reminder that Trump is something other, and better,  than a politician, just as Marx and Engels insisted their ideas amounted to something other than philosophy.

But as Marxism's critics, including Albert Camus in "The Rebel," have pointed out, no dialectic can exist anywhere but in the mind. The metaphysical side of dialectical materialism is inescapable. No wonder the founders were so defensive. Marx famously trumpeted: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it." And in "Socialism: Utopian and Scientific," Engels boasted: "Modern materialism is essentially dialectic, and no longer requires the assistance of that sort of philosophy which, queen-like, pretends to rule the remaining mob of sciences."

It's likely that both men were haunted by these words from their master, Hegel, who threw cold water on philosophy as a force for change: "Preaching what the world ought to be like, philosophy arrives always too late for that...When philosophy paints its gray in gray, a form of life has become old, and this gray in gray cannot rejuvenate it, only understand it. The owl of Minerva begins its flight when dusk is falling..." In other words, wisdom thrives only after whatever it is scrutinizing has lost vitality.

Trump never stops at this quasi-academic stage of understanding, and seems a deliberately slipshod thinker, preferably poised on the cusp of action. That doesn't mean he's incapable of thinking, however — far from it. He knows what to emphasize and what to leave out. "We have to rebuild our infrastructure," Trump declares, comparing our roads and bridges unfavorably with their pristine counterparts in the Middle East. But he names only bridges and roads, because they symbolize to Americans the freedom to move in first-class, individualistic style. He doesn't mention infrastructure difficulties involving water security and scarcity. Messy, underground, complicated! Don't go there!

A nation led by Donald Trump will reverse the decline caused by "incompetent" leaders. It will push to the margins "losers" of all kinds. The dynamic example of Trump will provide a counterweight to the ineffectual talkers who mismanage the domestic economy and internationally set the USA on a slippery slope of declining prestige and respect: "They're mocking us," he says. "Mexico is treating us like a bunch of babies." "They laugh at us." "There's no respect."

Harvard prof thought great men were obsolete.
I don't believe Trump is a great man, but he has cast himself in the mold of great men. Already in the 19th century, some in the political and academic elite were proclaiming the American experiment to be so thoroughly reliant on its institutions that individual greatness was passe. Edward Channing, who held Harvard's Boylston Chair of Rhetoric from 1819 to 1851 and whose illustrious students included Emerson, Thoreau, and Richard Henry Dana, said: "We never need great men now to take the place of laws and institutions, but merely to stand by them and see that they are unobstructed and unimpaired. A great man is perpetually taught that the world can do without him."

In contrast, Donald Trump is out to convince the body politic that our world can't do without him. Our institutions have failed; the political class has ruined them. In making that case, Trump may channel the anger of a significant portion of the electorate, but he doesn't come across as angry.

Watch those videos! He conveys his indispensability through casting his arms wide, shrugging and raising his voice in disbelief at the idiocy of leadership he sees everywhere around. His eyes twinkle and he relishes off-the-cuff, sometimes caustic wit. He's a master of several rhetorical devices, including one known as praeteritio, as when he says he's not going to bring up the shortcomings of Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, and Jeb Bush, then does, once again. He has made effective use of the common device of anaphora, the use of the same words at the beginning of clauses and sentences: "I would just bomb those suckers [ISIS], and that's right, I'd blow up their pipes, I'd blow up their refineries, I'd blow up every single inch, there would be nothing left."  (Ted Cruz's promise to "carpet-bomb" ISIS, using a term for geographical devastation designed to neutralize advancing armies, is both archaic and rhetorically weak in comparison.)

Trump is different from politicians who mention what's wrong and needs to be fixed, who hold out hope for a better America that connects with Americans' deepest values. Dialectical Trumpism puts a structure over aspiring politicians' hackneyed messages. The appeal to traditional values takes on substance as a founding myth (Thesis), even if it is short on historical detail. Trump's real innovation is his choice of Antithesis: He proposes that, even if lower-class immigrants are a threat, the real obstacle is highly placed but incompetent leaders. Synthesizing the resultant conflict is a job for an energetic outsider, a builder and  developer — with all the symbolism those specialties promise to bring to the civic sphere.

Dialectical materialism was highly attractive to 19th-century intellectuals for its claim to a scientific
Sexy intellectual: Edmund Wilson traced the attraction of three.
basis,  but also for its three-part format. Humankind loves things and ideas in groups of three. Hegel's "triad was simply the old Trinity, taken over from the Christian theology, as the Christians had taken it over from Plato," Edmund Wilson wrote in "To the Finland Station," his examination of the growth of socialist thinking in Europe.

The foxy literary and social critic goes on to say: "It was the mythical and magical triangle which from the time of Pythagoras and before had stood as a symbol for certainty and power and which probably derived its significance from its correspondence to the male sexual organs."

Wow! Does this make too much of the subliminal attraction of things in three? Wilson stifles the objection immediately by quoting Marx, putting down philosophy somewhat like the way Trump puts down politicians: "Philosophy stands in the same relation to the study of the actual world as onanism to sexual love."

Now we can put in context Trump's singsong criticism of politicians. To reiterate: "They talk and talk and talk, they run for office, they win, they lose, they run again." What does that sound like? His rivals are wankers, to borrow a British term. Machismo lies behind Trump's energy. My invention of dialectical Trumpism is a flimsy but suggestive imposition of an intellectual triad onto the sexual drive behind Trump's candidacy.

Trump wants his vaunted knowledge of the world to feel both carnal, and, by extension, truly loving. When it comes to our enemies, Trump envisions the chastity belt of a huge wall to keep out immigrants, some of whom he notoriously labeled rapists. When other enemies threaten violence against us, Trump's language can be more revealing than his famous pledge to "bomb the s--- out of ISIS." It happened when he pledged that his response will be "hard and firm and fast." Like a poster boy for the alleged rape culture, Trump is determined to score. If politics is about winning, so will governing be, in his view. The wankers in the political class will be left on the sidelines, pleasuring themselves.

Trump knows he's not boring, so he jokes with his audiences while reinforcing a major theme by saying that when he's president, America will be winning so much that "you'll be getting bored with winning."  But he and his fans know that Americans never get bored with winning. It's what we expect, and that's no joke. Neither is the prospect that dialectical Trumpism might sweep the field in the year just begun.