Donald Trump and his people – united in the pursuit of happiness Ruthless Criticism

A victory for “populism” in the heart of democracy

Donald Trump and his people –
united in the pursuit of happiness

[Translated from GegenStandpunkt 2-17]

A great president serving a great people

At the end of January, a man comes to power in the USA who has an unshakable faith in the greatness of the American people and a pure hate for the country’s “political establishment.”

He holds the latter responsible for the disastrous state of the nation, which doesn’t reflect anything like the magnificent achievements Trump trusts his countrymen capable of. Unlike his critics and competitors, who like to present good news about the economic dominance of Silicon Valley and Wall Street, the strength of the American military, and about the openness, progressiveness and dynamism of American scientific and cultural life, Trump detects one big disaster when it comes to business, domestic politics, foreign policy and, not least, morals. The US is being beat in world trade by large and small competitors; the once glorious heartland of industrial world dominance has become a shabby Rust Belt; Americans willing to work hard are finding fewer and fewer jobs and making an ever worse living at them because the industrial companies they once made great by their labor would nowadays rather employ labor elsewhere. And America has not won a war in a long time, or much else either. For Trump, the USA as a world power is unacceptably damaged if it is no longer generally acknowledged in the world to be clearly number one in every way. This simply cannot be, because according to Trump the greatness of the Americans means that – whatever they are or do as individuals – they are a collective of winners who outstrip their competitors across the globe in every field. There is no country or people on this earth as beautiful as America and the Americans, which for Trump is the same thing as saying that nothing and nobody can beat them in the fight that he sees every aspect of the world to be. So if the situation the American people are in, their nation’s wealth and their state’s power lag so far behind what this people is basically capable of and predestined for, i.e., being unbeatably superior in every arena that nations compete in, then the American people are obviously being prevented from showing their greatness in their own country, they’re no longer master of the house.

This must be rectified.

Fighting America’s politics as usual …

To rectify this, it is necessary to do away with politicians and policies that, according to Trump, firstly are not even out to use America’s wealth and might as a means of competition for America:

“For many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry; subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military; we’ve defended other nation’s borders while refusing to defend our own; and spent trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay. we’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength, and confidence of our country has disappeared over the horizon.” (Inauguration Speech, Jan. 20, 2017)

Which secondly makes it clear that they are not out to govern for the people, but only for themselves:

“For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished – but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered – but the jobs left, and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs; and while they celebrated in our nation’s Capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.” (ibid.)

And in so doing they thirdly, and conversely, have allowed the country to be “robbed of so much unrealized potential.” (ibid.)

The American people are a superior fighting community which must be deployed and unleashed again at last: this is the mission Donald Trump declares his. Taking “an oath of allegiance to all Americans” at his inauguration, he purports to be not just a new man heading America’s usual political establishment, but someone who will finally take away its power and hand it back to the American people:

“January 20th 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again. The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer. Everyone is listening to you now.” (ibid.)

So in Trump’s person nobody other than the people themselves will be ruling the nation from now on – there really can’t be any more perfect identity between the citizens’ will to be governed and the elected ruler’s autonomous will. But this immediate unity of leader and people that Trump is making his agenda does of course involve one crucial difference. What the people want will serve the boss as the authorization he invokes to do whatever he wants, while what the boss wants will show the people what they want. And what they want, what can be heard when “everyone is listening to you now,” their new boss heard first and shouted out to his people right up front: “America first! America first!”

In this way, Trump defines the American people who he will now be governing from the capital as the ones dictating the fighting agenda he is taking to the capital. And it is completely in terms of this agenda for America that he construes the people who have brought him to power. He addresses his Americans as the collective of “the forgotten,” who have been betrayed by the previous rulers – this not being any empirical finding about their situation or their own viewpoint, but a job description they are supposed to apply to themselves from now on. No matter what they think, how they judge their own situation and the actions of their government, and regardless of all the differences and antagonisms that may exist between them: as members of the wonderful, wrongly forgotten and neglected American people, they are all supposed to see themselves as enemies of the politics that Trump promises to end. That’s why the newly elected president wouldn’t dream of following established tradition when taking his oath of office and presenting himself as “the president of all Americans,” which always means that the winner of the election becomes the executor of largely fixed and unchanging imperatives and “objective constraints” of the office. Trump instead defines himself as the leader of a movement that, because its candidate won the election, can justifiably claim, “We are the people!” – with Trump as their voice and at the same time the sympathetic ear that hears it. So rule by the other politicians is over; his rule is putting into effect the will that a no longer disenfranchised American people have documented on millions of ballots. So it is not rule at all, but the fulfillment this people’s right to proper leadership, i.e., to one identical to them. Or, as Trump likes to tell his critics, “You lost, I won.”

… for the benefit of the neglected hard-working Americans …

So Trump likes to invoke ordinary people, especially the impoverished figures in the Rust Belt and rural areas, as the reason for his claim to power and for his fighting agenda. He identifies with them to the point of declaring that he shares not only one “home” with them but also, from now on, one “destiny.” This is regarded by his critics on both sides of the Atlantic as the height of hypocrisy. As if this stinking rich billionaire could ever be friend and advocate of the sad, angry creatures in whose name he speaks! Those who voted for him are said to have been fooled by a con man – which is all the more obvious in view of the fantastically wealthy members of his cabinet. Trump is thus accused of merely posing as a fighter for the little guy in order to promote and quite literally empower the richest of the rich – especially those in his own family. But Trump is absolutely serious about his advocacy for ordinary people.

In the first place, he sees these people as living, or rather languishing, proof of what has gone so wrong in America for far too long. For Trump, the continuing decline of these hard-working Americans, whose capability is sufficiently demonstrated by the worldwide dominance that American industry once had, stands for the decline of the entire country. No matter what economic success stories the USA is otherwise having, and no matter how small the number of jobless Americans may be, the undeniable decline of these erstwhile core industries, the poverty of these erstwhile core regions and their inhabitants, are testimony that America is definitely not what it used to be, i.e., successful across the board and superior in every regard. America is rotten at the core, being killed from inside, if its key industries and their toiling workers, once proud, now “angry white men,” are going to the dogs. So when Trump talks about the jobs that have been lost and that he promises to bring back, he is not simply talking about the specific worries of a certain section of the population, but about a ruined American equation that these people once stood for the validity of: hard work that makes the economy superior worldwide, yields a modest but solid livelihood for the workers, and is the basis for a political and military power that is beyond any competition. By pointing to the lost jobs and disappearance of the means of existence for these people and these regions, Trump conveys his diagnosis of a nationwide decline which he promises to reverse. He even speaks of “our jobs” as a collective good belonging to all Americans:

“For years, they [the politicians]watched on the sidelines as our jobs vanished and our communities were plunged into depression-level unemployment. Many of these areas have still never recovered. Our politicians took away from the people their means of making a living and supporting their families.” (Donald J. Trump: Declaring America’s Economic Independence, June 28, 2016)

His promise to make every government decision from now on strictly “for the benefit of American workers and American families” (Inauguration Speech) thus stands for the agenda of restoring America’s competitive superiority in every respect.

The second reason to take Trump seriously when he identifies himself – as the wealthy real estate investor, family man and winner of the election – with the hard-working poor is that this demonstrates what a terrible, abstract character the so-called “hard-working American” actually is. In taking care of himself and his family, he represents the essence of an American people destined to win at everything. This abstraction is also exemplified by the key term “our jobs,” the epitome of American success and the path to that success. In reality, ordinary people’s unfulfilled need for work reflects the totally dependent existence that these Americans lead when their livelihoods completely depends on whether their hard work is seen by other, “entrepreneurial” Americans as a way to enrich themselves. And if this condition can only be met if there are politicians who act instead of just watching, then their lives evidently also depend on the resolute use of a state power that they do not hold in their own hands, no matter how hard they work. But if you simply ignore what counts, i.e., what “means of making a living” these Americans really have, and only consider their competitive will to support themselves and their families, then these Americans are actually not the servants of other people’s interests but rather specimens of a free and autonomous breed of people. Because they rely entirely on themselves within this dependent relation, without becoming a burden on anybody else, they are supposed to be completely independent beings. In this abstract view that distorts economic reality, they are really no different from the billionaire Trump, much less have interests contrary to his – it‛s just that the means he has and consequently the results of his work are a bit bigger. Conversely, the most ostentatious wealth is perfectly acceptable as long as it is gained in free competition. So whether someone works hard or has others work hard, whether someone has a job or creates jobs to make money on them – regardless of the amount of capital he has – everyone shares the ethos of independently making something of his life with whatever means he calls his own. This shared morality of competition makes all the differences between people within the actually existing competition pale into insignificance.

With this point of view, Trump declares himself an upholder of a traditional American ideal of competition in the market, in which everyone is only out for himself and his own but, in this very capacity, part of a community project of independent pursuers of happiness, always striving for better. It doesn’t matter that this community might include such disparate figures as a “working class” and a whole lot of representatives of “small and big business” who are constantly at odds, long before they see each other in court. According to this notion, competition is simply the place where people are free and independent, always striving to do better and not be a burden on each other. It is no secret that this competition always brings forth losers along with the winners, but this doesn’t tarnish the image of competition on the market: by forcing everyone to strive to be better, competition supposedly builds and strengthens the community of Americans. This ideal of competition and community coinciding is vividly expressed by “the families” that hard-working Americans “support” when they go out and compete against each other. Family elevates all the private mutual viciousness of competition to the status of a responsible moral duty. It bathes every brutality that competitors show toward themselves or toward each other in the gentle light of selfless devotion to one’s (own) group. The things you do for your family! – this is not only the moral of always popular American mafia movies, but the American way of life par excellence. [1]

This is a striking difference compared to the democratic ideology that is mainly at home in Europe but also widespread in America. According to this ideology, the members of capitalist class society are actually a community because despite all their economic antagonisms, alongside their lives as competitors only thinking of themselves, they are under the authority of one and the same state monopoly on force, which they have to thank for equal rights and to which they owe equal duties. In contrast, in the deeply American idea of private materialistic competition for money, this competition is by no means the arena for an egotism that, while being productive, is a public danger and needs to be restricted. The market does not, in this view, create a division among citizens that must be healed by a patriotic sense of community that unifies all citizens beyond their relation to each other as competitors. Those who see competition for money as the complete and total fulfillment of their freedom, who consider competition to be the most effective way of organizing a strong community, and who glorify profit-making or the eking out of a livelihood as the true realization of the glorious ideal of self-determination, might make quite an uncivilized impression on Europeans for whom the realization of communal spirit is, of all things, a state monopoly of force that provides for the victims of the competition it imposes on its people. An American idealist of competition regards the welfare state and the accompanying virtue of “solidarity” as an artificial, state-imposed community, because he regards it as a poor substitute for, or perhaps even as the destruction of his own own ideal of a community of free competitors. For a hard-competing American, such a “nanny state” merely rewards the lazy with the money it takes from decent, self-reliant citizens and thus ultimately drags everyone down. That is not only immoral, but also “kills” the jobs that hard-working workers need to realize their self-reliance in freedom. Church and private charity take care of the rest of the necessary community spirit.

Of course, Americans also cherish patriotic duties to a higher state power, but when Trump reminds his countrymen that they all share the “same red blood of patriots” (ibid.) who love their homeland, he is not calling on them to look beyond their existence as competitors over money and commit themselves to a greater good and a larger community. Instead, they should reflect on the competition for money that is their community as Americans. In the way Trump defines them in the best but criminally neglected American tradition, these hard-working Americans with their family values represent as competitors a unified national community with a common cause, regardless of where they might find themselves in the social hierarchy. And as such, as competitors with drastically different means leading to drastically diverse social outcomes, but unified in their pursuit of self-interest and self-responsibility, Americans form a successful and strong nation, incomparably more successful and stronger than any other.[2]

That is the essential domestic substance of “America first!” It is the spirit in which Trump is so absolutely united with his people and the “forgotten.” For good and decent Americans, competition and national success, the morality of competition and nationalism go hand in hand.

… and against their enemies within

If success and strength leave something to be desired, then there have obviously been all kinds of un-American activities going on, to quote a term from the McCarthy era when “communism” was the catch-all term for the enemies of all hard-working Americans. The enemies of the people today are already firmly established with the definition of their victims: everyone who, in Trump’s estimation, doesn’t fit the job description of a hard-working American, thereby challenging the identity between free and equal competitive efforts and patriotism, undermining American morale, and driving the American nation into a not only moral “total disaster”:

– The main enemy of all good Americans has already been mentioned. It is known as the “establishment” and is composed primarily of politicians who prevent the people from competing freely. This they do by all kinds of regulations – relating to environmental protection, financial market speculation, or health care, where Americans for a good seven years have been deprived of the freedom to go without health insurance, which they need but can’t afford. [3] Trump promises to give short shrift to such obstacles, and this likewise applies to the – alleged – special treatment of all kinds of minorities, who therefore invite the accusation of not wanting to compete freely but rather freeloading off the hard work of others. Politicians who do not stifle such a supposed sense of entitlement, but actually promote it by passing corresponding laws, are themselves guilty of freeloading. They are not serving the people’s desire to compete, they are just using them, they are only interested in their own positions, i.e., in income they don’t earn by honestly competing or having others compete.

– The American people have not only been betrayed by bad politics, but also degenerated by a political culture that is fostered by the “liberal media” [4] and by “liberals” in the democratic intelligentsia. Team Trump sees them as its true opposition, because by propagating political correctness, demanding respect and recognition for and solidarity with the alleged victims of competition and the accompanying culture of autonomous competing, they erode the nation’s morale and deny respectable Americans the honor of restoring America’s greatness by their hard work and family values. Against the wrong criticism popular with “liberals,” that the victims of competition are not due to competition itself, but rather to a lack of respect and solidarity within competition, the right sets their general diagnosis: these are not victims of competition because in reality they only want to get out of competing – which actually makes them responsible for the real victims, the hard-working Americans whose money is taken away for social welfare and who are talked into having a bad conscience. “Liberal” defenders of the victims are accused of hypocrisy, because they help nobody, at best their own conscience, when they distort competition and look for ways to keep on extending the system of governmental nannying. Feminists are then reviled as “feminazis,” socially conscious activists derided as “social justice warriors.” This media, its protégés and allies in the universities, the better neighborhoods of cities and elsewhere, confirm how degenerate they are by crusading against the President of the Forgotten. Because this media falsifies the nation’s morality of competition, its critical reporting about him is definitely all “fake news”!

– The freedom to compete is a privilege; it is not forced on Americans, it is their right. It is not imposed from above, but protected. When people who can’t survive in their home countries come to America illegally and think they can just go ahead and enjoy the benefits of this competition, then they are showing how little respect they have for this national heritage, which singles Americans out as a special and especially magnificent people. This makes them criminals from the start – maybe not every one of them is a drug dealer or rapist, but when one is, this shows the true colors of all such people. Their illegal status proves that they too are demanding special treatment when they go to schools and hospitals – and enter the labor market, although they aren’t allowed to be here. The low wages they earn or the low prices they charge – often illicitly – for their tradesman and other services show that they have an unfair competitive advantage, making them the worst kind of parasites. When employers prefer to use Mexicans rather than Americans on either side of the southern border, wanting to earn dollars on the American market that way, then they are also being parasites and need to be punished. The morality of competition, of the general principle of bourgeois society – particularly in the fundamentalist American form of this morality – is really anything but inclusive in some universally human way. It exalts the American as a shining example, thereby most firmly closing him off – by a wall if necessary – from the rest of humankind, who would so like to be American.

The absolute right of a president committed to his people

The duty of a president serving the people is therefore to assert the freedom to compete against all those who hinder or abuse it. The right of the man devoting himself to the duty of fixing the national disaster is fairly absolute. It in any case does not keep to the limits of power set by the American system of checks and balances. His supreme authority does not derive from the office, but from the right of the hard-working American people who have put him in office – a right that neither knows nor tolerates limits. As everybody knows, that he has the people on his side is one of Trump’s core beliefs – and proving how right he is in this belief is one of his favorite pastimes, which he pursues by obsessively pointing out the size of his electoral victory and the number of people at his inauguration as well as the events he also holds after being elected. The brazen lies that are told are not only due to the president having an overblown self-image. His self-aggrandizement fits perfectly with the people-serving mission that Trump has issued to himself, making his will to power absolutely identical to the true will of the people, who are thereby released from being patronized in any way!

Trump handles his governmental power accordingly. For the greatest deal maker of all time, a politics serving the people does not mean closing deals as such, achieving some sort of balance between competing, but equally legitimate, interests. It is instead about exercising executive power in the strict sense of the term, that is, executing the people’s already established legitimate interest – quite in keeping with the sole true ethos of competition, which condemns the art of compromise as gutless and weak. [1] Interests standing in the way of that interest have lost any right and will be eliminated, while those who put themselves in its way reveal themselves to be enemies of the people and responsible for the nation’s misery. The other democratic institutions outside the White House – courts, legislature, intelligence services, etc. – have to act as levers and transmission belts for enforcing the will of the people as defined by Trump. If they use their power to assert aspects of the national interest that deviate from the government line laid down by Trump and thus hinder it in any way, then the democratic haggling between the president and the other powers will take its course even under Trump, but one thing is clear from the outset: others who are deviating are at least morally in the wrong. In the best case, these institutions are watering down the people’s will; in the worst, they are betraying it.

That’s why from his very first day in office Trump has done his best not to leave his plans to chance, he has simply bypassed the institutionalized procedures of American rule. As far as possible he rules by executive order – not, as his predecessors usually did, only in response to being obstructed by other institutions, but as the logical way to govern for the people and not for the establishment. Whenever possible he ignores the latter, and leaves numerous posts in the federal bureaucracy unfilled, this being neither due to a lack of willing candidates nor unfinished business: in line with Trump’s advisor Bannon, the primary item on the new government’s agenda is not to find suitable replacements for administrative posts, but to “deconstruct the administrative state.” The posts to be retained and that the White House itself may choose the staff for are cleared of representatives of the establishment and filled with family members, who are distinguished by their distance from the establishment and their closeness to Trump, i.e., to the people. Or they are filled with businessmen and generals who know little about politics, this being not a deficit but rather a merit, because they know how to win either in the market or on the battlefield, which – as two arenas for proving oneself in competition – are the same thing anyway. The necessary dialogue between the president and his people, which consists in numerous but brief messages about who is currently a friend and who an enemy of the people, is handled by Trump directly through Twitter – i.e., without the intermediary of the press, whose critical reporting shows how malicious and hostile to the people it is. Thus, in the way Trump exercises power he puts into effect the ethos of his presidency, the direct unity between his willed decisions and the people’s will to be ruled. When the ruler shows signs of arbitrariness, this signals that his subjects have been liberated from the presumptuous establishment. A large part of the public on both sides of the Atlantic sees this as Trump repeatedly displaying the psychological and character defects that make him unsuitable for office: his thin skin and not being able to stand being contradicted – the political substance of his behavior is not even mentioned. Another part of the public sees only the question of whether the “populist” Trump is a democratic politician at all, or an authoritarian dictator type instead, or maybe even a fascist.

Indeed, it cannot be denied that Trump has open contempt for the political system and its agents. A court ruling blocking his travel ban on seven Muslim countries prompts him to dispute the “so-called” judge’s aptitude; he rejects unfavorable reporting out of hand as “fake news,” declares almost the entire mainstream press an “enemy of the American people,” reacts to inopportune reports and concerns of the intelligence services by denouncing them for spearheading a conspiracy against him and by firing their leading representatives if need be, and threatens to withdraw federal funding from cities that declare themselves sanctuaries for illegal immigrants. But none of this is any agenda to abolish the country’s democratic institutions, its system of checks and balances, or the distribution of powers within Washington and between the federal government and the states. And conflicts between the president and the other areas of politics and the political media are certainly nothing new. However, Trump unmistakably has the standpoint that his agenda to make America great again means fighting a fight within the state that no longer tolerates the normal functioning of American democracy. And this brings him very close to the fascist element within the system of bourgeois rule. He radicalizes a criticism of democracy that is at home within democracy, namely, the criticism that respect for individual interests only weakens the people and the power of their state, and that the people and the state can’t afford this if they want to successfully overcome their national crisis. So he keeps fueling reservations about the competition between the branches of state power that is inherent in the democratic form of government on the grounds that it hinders smooth governance without regard for resistance. He considers a free press subversive because it institutionalizes the standpoint of constructive doubt in the road to success that the state has decided on. Trump’s fighting agenda is aimed at politically rescuing America from the state of fundamental national and imperialist emergency that he has diagnosed. But in Trump’s eyes – and this is the special American twist to his government style some call “fascistoid” – this rescue does not require subordinating the private materialism of self-interested competitors to the necessities of state power. His rescue of the nation consists rather in radically affirming the standpoint of private competition, that is, committing people and politics to this standpoint no holds barred. This is exactly how all of America is to be made “great again.”

Footnotes

[1] That’s why Trump’s supporters don’t find it at all offensive that he practices nepotism so openly. It is proof of his trustworthiness and closeness to the people.

[2] As president, by the way, a hard-working American therefore shouldn’t have to part with his extremely successful business in order to serve the nation. After all, his individual success was his honest contribution to the nation and can only strengthen the benefit that the nation will get from his regency.

[3] According to Trump’s recently introduced budget plan, heating assistance is apparently also one of the violations of freedom – in the world of free competition, you obviously have to wrap up warm.

[4] A “liberal’ in the USA – especially in the eyes of right-wing, freedom-loving Republicans – is characterized not by the traditionally American faith in the blessings of a free market, i.e., unleashed competition for money, but by his good faith in the blessings of a welfare state which complementarily corrects the freedom of the market, and in the salutary effects of a culture of tolerance and concern for the victims who are so reliably produced by the world of free competition. In the land of the free, even those who favor welfare-state intervention into free competition won’t have it said that they want to restrict freedom in some way.

[5] This is well matched by Trump’s self-praised negotiating tactic: “I aim very high, and then I just keep pushing and pushing and pushing to get what I’m after.” (Trump: The Art of the Deal).