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 fosters an unshakeable belief in the greatness of the American people and a pure hatred for the country’s “political establishment.”

He holds the latter responsible for the catastrophic state of the nation, which doesn’t come close to the magnificent achievements that Trump believes his countrymen capable of. Unlike his critics and competitors who arrive with reports about the success of the economic dominance of Silicon Valley and Wall Street, about the strength of the American military and about the openness, progressiveness and dynamism of the USA’s scientific and cultural life, Trump detects vast disasters in economic, domestic and foreign policies, not to mention in morals: the US is being beat in world trade by big and small competitors; the once glorious “heartland” of industrial world dominance has become a squalid “rust belt”; Americans ready for hard work are finding fewer and fewer jobs and making an ever worse living because today the industrial companies that they made great with their labor would rather have work done elsewhere. And America has not won a war in a long time, and not much in other respects as well. Trump diagnoses an unacceptable damage to the world power of the USA that it is no longer unambiguously acknowledged in the world as number one in every respect. This is simply impossible because, according to Trump, the greatness of the Americans – whoever they are or whatever they do as individuals – consists precisely in that they, as a collective of winners, outshine their competitors across the globe in every respect. No country and no people on this earth is as beautiful as America and the Americans, which for Trump means nothing and nobody can beat them in the battle that for him just makes up the world in all areas. So if the condition of the American people, the wealth of their nation, and the power of their state lag so far behind what this people is really capable of and predestined for, simply unparalleled and unreachable supremacy in every arena where nations are compared, then the American people are obviously being hindered from actualizing their greatness in their own country, thus are no longer kings of the castle.

This must be rectified.

A struggle against America’s politics as usual …

This correction first requires a thorough cleansing of politicians and a policy which, according to Trump, does not want to make full use of the wealth and might of America 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)

Second, it becomes clear that they do not want to govern for their 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 therefore they thirdly and conversely have allowed “crime and gangs and drugs … [to] have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.” (ibid.)

The superior fighting spirit of the American people must once again be supported and unleashed: this is the task that Donald Trump declares himself responsible for. In him – he makes this “oath of allegiance to all Americans” at his inauguration – not just a new man rises to the summit of the American political establishment, but someone who finally wrests power from it and gives 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.)

In Trump’s person, therefore, nobody other than the people itself exercises rule over the nation from now on: a closer identity between the ruled’s will for a state and the self-determined will of the elected ruler really isn’t possible. This immediate unity of the leader and the people which Trump programmatically announces, does of course include one distinction of decisive importance: in the will of the people, the leader has his court of appeal for everything he wants; in the will of the leader, the people learns what it wants. And what it wants, when it is heard because “everyone is listening to you now,” its new ruler has heard first and shouted to his people from ahead: “America first! America first!”

In this way, Trump defines the American people over whom he now governs from the capital, as director of the program for struggle that he takes to the capital; and completely in terms of this program for America, he designs the people who have properly brought him to power: he addresses his Americans as the collective of “the forgotten,” those betrayed by the previous rule – which is not an empirical finding about their situation or their own viewpoint, but a job description that from now on they have to apply for. However they may 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 American people who have been unjustly forgotten and neglected, they are all 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 and present himself as “the president of all Americans” upon his oath of office – which always means that the winner of the election is the executive of largely fixed and unchanging necessities and “objective constraints” of the office. Trump defines himself rather as the leader of a movement which, because its candidate won the election, can justifiably claim: “We are the people!” – with Trump as its voice and at the same time as the open ear which hears it. The rule exercised by the other politicians is thus over; his rule realizes, as documented by millions of ballots, the will of a no longer disenfranchised American people, so it is not rule at all, but the upholding of the right of this people to a proper, i.e. identical to it, leader. Or, as Trump likes to say to his critics: “You lost, I won.”

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

The fact that Trump likes to invoke the common man, the little guy, especially the impoverished inhabitants of the rust belt as the motive and the basis for his claim to power is usually regarded 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. However, Trump means his advocacy very seriously.

In the first place, he sees the inhabitants of the rust belt as living, or rather languishing, proof of all that has gone wrong in America for far too long. Trump sees the steady decline of these hard-working Americans, whose industriousness and ability to succeed has been sufficiently documented by the once worldwide dominance of American industry, as a symbol of the decline of the entire country. Regardless of the USA’s economic success stories, and regardless of how few unemployed Americans there may in fact be, the undeniable decline of these once core industries, the misery of these once core regions and their inhabitants shows that America definitely is not what it once was, i.e. successful and utterly superior in every regard. If America‛s once key industries and those who once toiled there have declined so drastically, this means that America is rotting to the core. So when Trump talks about lost manufacturing jobs, lost livelihoods and about his own promise to bring that all back, he is not simply talking about the specific concerns of a certain demographic, but about an all-American equation for which these people once stood and which is no longer valid: hard work, which makes the economy superior world-wide, a modest but solid livelihood for workers and a political and military power that is beyond any competition. By pointing to the loss of jobs and any basis for a livelihood in these regions, Trump conveys his diagnosis of a nationwide decline which he promises to correct; this connection is so direct that he even speaks of “our jobs” when referring to their jobs:

“For years, they 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 govern strictly “for the benefit of American workers and American families” stands in this respect for a program designed to restore America’s competitive superiority in every respect.

The second reason to take Trump seriously when he – as wealthy real estate investor, family man and winner of the election – identifies himself with the hard-working poor is that he thereby demonstrates just what a terribly abstract animal the so-called “hard-working American” is, this fictitious creature whose drive to take care of himself and his family constitutes the essence of an American people destined for victory in every regard. Trump’s talk of the loss of “our jobs” – the epitome of American success and the path to that success – exemplifies this abstraction quite well. In reality, this unfulfilled need for work is an expression of the completely dependent existence led by the one kind of American, since their livelihood completely depends on whether the other, “entrepreneurial” kind of American sees their hard work as a way to enrich himself. Furthermore, if these people need hard-working politicians to fulfill their need for work, then they obviously also depend on the resolute use of a state power they do not hold in their own hard-working hands. But if you simply ignore everything that counts, i.e. the actual nature and usefulness of the “means” with which these Americans earn their “livelihood,” and only consider their will to compete and take care of themselves and their families, then it is true that all Americans are equal: never slaves to the interests of others, always free and self-reliant. Provided an American relies entirely on himself in coping with his dependency on the jobs offered to him and does not become a burden on anybody else, he is a completely independent being. In this abstract, distorted view of the reality of the market economy, the American proletariat really is no different than the billionaire Trump; and in no way are their own interests contrary to his – it‛s just that his own “hard work” looks a bit different and the results turn out to be somewhat bigger. So what? Conversely, the most ostentatious wealth is perfectly acceptable as long as it is gained in free competition. So whether someone works hard or has hard work done, whether one works for an entrepreneur or is one, whether one has or searches for a job to survive or creates one in order to turn a profit, all these Americans share the ethos of competing independently with whatever means they have at their disposal. In light of this shared morality of economic competition, any real social differences or antagonisms between them simply pale.

Trump thereby represents a traditional American ideal of competition in the market, according to which everyone is only out for himself and his own, but in precisely this way is also part of a community of upward-bound, self-responsible fortune seekers. It doesn’t matter that this community might include such disparate figures as a “working class” and a 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 exercise freedom responsibly, always striving to do better and not be a burden on each other. Americans are entirely aware that market competition also constantly brings forth losers alongside winners, but that does not lessen their regard for this competition one bit. Given that competition forces everyone to strive to be better, it builds and strengthens the community. This ideal of a coincidence of competition and community is most clearly embodied by “the families” that hard-working Americans “support” when they go out and compete against each other. The family turns all the private viciousness of competition into a responsible act of moral duty; it bathes any cruelty that competitors show to themselves and to each other in the gentle light of devotion to a greater cause. Suffering and causing suffering for the family – this is not only the morality of popular American mafia films, but the American way of life par excellence. [1]

This is a striking deviation from 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 represent a community because despite all of their economic antagonisms as self-interested competitors, they are also subjects of one and the same state authority to which they owe equal rights and equal duties. According to this traditional American notion of economic competition, the latter is by no means the domain of an egotism that, while certainly productive, is nevertheless potentially dangerous to the public good and therefore requires various restrictions. 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. The Americans 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 morally reprehensible, 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 its success and strength leave something to be desired, then obviously all kinds of unAmerican activities have been taking place, to quote a keyword from the “McCarthy era” when “communism” was the catch-all term for the enemy of all hard-working Americans. The enemies of the people today are already firmly established with the definition of their victims: all those who, in Trump’s judgment, don’t fit the job description of hard-working American insofar as they call into question the identity of free and equal competitive striving with patriotism, thereby subverting or suppressing the American morality 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 called the “establishment” and is composed primarily of the politicians who hinder the people from freely competing. They do this with regulations – in terms of environmental protection, financial market speculation or health care, where Americans for a good seven years have been deprived of the freedom to go without the health insurance they certainly need but can’t afford. [3] Trump promises to give short shrift to such obstacles, which likewise applies to the – alleged – special treatment of all kinds of minorities, who therefore invite the accusation that they do not want to compete freely, but rather to freeload off the hard work of others. Politicians who do not stifle this assumed sense of entitlement, if anything promote it with the relevant laws, are themselves guilty of freeloading: they do not serve the people’s desire to compete, they serve themselves, are merely interested in their positions, thus an income they don’t earn by fairly competing and allowing competition.

– The American people are betrayed not only by bad politics, but also by a political culture cultivated by the “liberal media” [4] and by “liberals” in the democratic intelligentsia. Team Trump sees them as its true opposition because they erode the national morality with their propagation of political correctness, their demands for respect, recognition and solidarity with all kinds of alleged victims of competition and the associated culture of self-reliant competition, and deny respectable Americans the honor of making the nation as great as it once was with their hard work and family values. Against the wrong criticism popular with “liberals,” that the victims of competition are not themselves responsible, but rather a lack of respect and solidarity in competition, the right sets their general diagnosis: these are not victims of competition because in truth they merely want to avoid competition – and are therefore actually responsible for the real victims, the hard-working Americans, because their money is taken away for social welfare and they are talked into a bad conscience. The “liberal” defenders of the victims are accused of hypocrisy because they help nobody, at best their own conscience, when they distort the competition and search for occasions to ever further expand the system of governmental micro-management: feminists are then reviled as “feminazis,” socially conscious activists derided as “social justice warriors.” This media, its proteges and allies in the universities, in the better parts of the cities and elsewhere, confirm their depravity when they march against the President of the Forgotten; because this media falsifies the nation’s morality of competition, their 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. If people can’t survive in their home countries and come to America illegally and think they can cavalierly enjoy the benefits of this competition, then they show how little respect they have for this national heritage that distinguishes Americans as a special and uniquely magnificent people. They are therefore criminals by nature – even if not every one of them is a drug dealer or rapist, each such case casts an apt light on this whole breed of human. Their illegal status proves that they also claim a special treatment when they go to schools and hospitals – and show up on the labor market, although they might not here. The low wages they earn or the low prices they charge – usually on the blackmarket – for construction and other services show that they have an unfair competitive advantage, hence are the worst parasites. If employers prefer to use Mexicans rather than Americans on either side of the border and want to earn dollars on the American market while doing so, then this is also a type of parasitism that needs to be punished. The morality of competition, the common principle of bourgeois society, is precisely in its fundamentalist American form anything but universally human: it quite decisively ennobles the American as a model and as such demarcates him – if necessary, by a wall – from the rest of humankind, which so wants to be American.

The absolute right of a president committed to his people

The duty of a president who serves the people therefore consists in asserting the freedom to compete against all those who hinder or abuse it. The right of the man who gives himself the duty of fixing the national catastrophe is quite absolute. In any case, it is not relativized within the limits to authority drawn by the American system of “checks and balances.” His higher 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. One of Trump’s basic convictions is, as is well known, that he has the people on his side – and proving how right he is for them is one of his favorite pastimes, and he happily pursues it with obsessive references to the size of his electoral victory and the number of people at his inauguration, as well as the events he holds even after his election. The president lies for all he’s worth not only because of an overblown self-image: Trump’s self-aggrandizement fits perfectly with the people-serving task that he gives himself and absolutizes the identity of his will to power with the true will of the people, which precisely in this way exempts him from any type of patronizing!

Trump similarly goes to work with his government power: for the greatest dealmaker of all time, a politics serving the people does not just consist in closing “deals” in the sense of some sort of balance between competing but equally legitimate interests. His task consists rather in exercising executive power in the strict sense of the term, that is, in enforcing the already set, legitimate interest of the people – entirely in the sense of the sole true ethos of competition which despises the art of compromise as gutless and weak. [1] Interests opposed to this have lost their rights and are to be cleared out of the way, and those who oppose him unmask themselves as enemies of the people responsible for the misery of the nation. The other democratic institutions outside the White House – courts, legislature, intelligence services, etc. – have to function as levers and transmission belts for enforcing the will of the people as defined by Trump. If they use their power to assert viewpoints on national interests that deviate from the government line laid down by Trump and thereby hinder it in any way, then even with Trump the democratic bargaining between the president and the other powers certainly goes on, but one thing is clear from the outset: by deviating, the others are at least morally in the wrong; in the best case, these institutions dilute the will of the people; in the worst, they betray it.

That’s why from his very first day in office Trump does his best not to leave its realization to chance and simply bypasses the institutionalized procedures of the American state: he rules as much as possible by executive order – and not, as was normal for his predecessors, only in response to obstructions by other institutions, but as the logical way politics is done for the people and not for the establishment. He ignores the latter as far as possible, leaving numerous posts in the federal bureaucracy unfilled, which is neither due to a lack of willing candidates nor unfinished business: in line with Trump’s advisor Bannon, the primary programmatic point of the new government is not the suitable replacement of administrative posts, but the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” Representatives of the establishment are removed from the offices that are retained and that the White House itself can decide on and replaced either by family members who are distinguished by their distance from the establishment and their closeness to Trump, hence to the people, or by businessmen and generals who know little about politics, which doesn’t count against them but all more in their favor because they know how to win either in the market or on the battlefield – these are one and the same as stages for proving oneself in competition anyway. Trump handles the necessary dialogue between the president and his people, which consists in suitably numerous but brief messages about who is a friend and who is an enemy of the people, directly through Twitter – thus without a detour through the press whose critical reporting shows its sinister nature and hostility to the people. So the manner in which Trump exercises power realizes the ethos of his presidency, the direct unity of his will to decide and the sovereign will of the people – signs of the ruler’s capriciousness signal the liberation of the ruled from the arrogance of the establishment. For a large part of the public on both sides of the Atlantic, Trump just provides evidence for his missing psychological and character suitability for the office: for his thin skin and his inability to tolerate even the slightest contradiction – as a result, the political substance of his behavior is never appreciated. In another part of the public, the whole thing raises the question whether the “populist” Trump is even a democratic politician at all or not rather an authoritarian dictator, perhaps even a fascist.

In fact, Trump can’t be accused of an open contempt for the political system and its agents. When he uses the occasion of judicial rulings against his travel ban on six Muslim countries to call into question the “so-called” judges, rejects unfavorable reporting out of hand as “fake news,” declares almost the entire “mainstream” press an “enemy of the American people,” is so bothered by the inopportune leaks and worries of the intelligence services that he denounces them for spearheading a conspiracy against him and, if need be, fires their top directors, and finally threatens to withdraw federal funds from cities that declare themselves sanctuaries for illegal immigrants: then all this is by no means a program to abolish the country’s democratic institutions, its system of “checks and balances,” the shared responsibilities within Washington and between the federal government and the states; and conflicts between the president and the other branches of government and the political media are certainly nothing new. However, Trump’s standpoint is unmistakable in that he, in line with his program to make America great again, has to carry out a struggle within the state which no longer tolerates the normal functioning of American democracy. And in doing so, Trump comes very close to the fascist element in the system of bourgeois rule: he radicalizes a criticism of democracy that is at home in 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. In this sense, he keeps on pushing against the restrictions on the competition between the branches of state power institutionalized in the democratic form of government because they hinder smooth-running government without opposition, and considers a free press to be destructive of the state because it institutionalizes the standpoint of constructive doubt in the state’s approved road to success. Trump’s programmatic standpoint and his programmatic challenge are aimed at politically rescuing America from the fundamental national and imperialist emergency that he has diagnosed. But in Trump’s eyes this rescue does not require – this is the special American twist in his government style described as “fascistoid” – the subordination of the private materialism of self-interested competitors under the necessities of state power. His rescue of the nation consists rather in giving radical rights to the standpoint of private competition, that is, obligates people and politics to him without reservation: this is precisely how to “make America great again.”

Footnotes

[1] That’s why for his supporters, when Trump very openly practices nepotism, it by no means counts as shady, but rather as a proof of trustworthiness and closeness to the people.

[2] As president, by the way, a hard-working American shouldn’t have to distance himself from his extremely successful business in order to serve the nation; his private success has indeed been his sincere contribution to the nation and can only strengthen the benefit that the nation will get from his reign.

[3] According to Trump’s recently introduced budget plan, heating assistance apparently also counts among the rapes of freedom – in the world of free competition, one just has to warm oneself.

[4] A “liberal’ in the USA – especially in the eyes of right-wing, freedom-loving Republicans – is not characterized by the traditionally American belief in the blessings of a market that is as free as possible, hence a competition for money that is liberated as much as possible, 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 happen so reliably in the world of free competition. In the land of the free, even the friends of welfare-state intervention into free competition do not let it be said that they want to restrict freedom in some way.

[5] Trump’s business tactic is very appropriate: “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).