There are many different views on the Trump phenomenon. From classic twentieth century racist in denial, to bold harbinger of a new ‘tell it like it is’ politics; what is undeniable about Donald Trump is that his sheer audacity to upset all things sacred has proved polarizing, even terrifying to some. There are many diverse perspectives and opinions on the new US president and the leadership phenomenon he embodies. Yet of the many lenses through which Donald Trump is viewed and analysed, precious little attention has been drawn to what is revolutionary about his often ill-advised leadership.
It may at first appear strange to think of Donald Trump as a revolutionary. Indeed, to most people, the notion of revolutionaries conjures up imagery of left-wing ideologues. Cutout screen prints of Lenin and Che Guevara pop into one’s mind. It is understandably difficult to imagine a right wing conservative as revolutionary.
Yet if we reflect on Donald Trump’s rise to power objectively; it fits the narrative of revolutionary change on many levels. First, Trump’s leadership represents a fundamental challenge to the existing US political establishment; both the Washington political establishment, as well as the conservative establishment of the Republican Party. Second, Trump was always regarded as a marginal figure, an outlier and a sideshow to US politics; someone who ran for president to increase his own ratings rather than to actually get the job. Even he admitted so, and was veritably surprised when he eventually won the US elections. Yet this is typically how revolutionary change occurs; what is regarded as an outlier – an aberration in the system rather than a norm – moves to the centre and induces a shift that ‘changes everything’.
While outliers may languish in relative obscurity for a long time, when the right conditions emerge for them to rise to authority they are quickly elevated and become symbolic enactments of the trends that had until then only persisted in the undercurrents. These conditions usually have a traceable but entangled history that explains its emergence retrospectively, but cannot be discerned while it is brewing. And indeed, the conditions for the rise of Donald Trump were in the making long before his ascendancy to the presidency. A lot has been brewing in 21st Century America.
The contestation around Barack Obama’s bid for presidency invoked a veritable backlash from the republicans. The discord within the party went so deep that it was hijacked by the Tea Party, which propelled a hopelessly inadequate candidate – Sarah Palin – into the spotlight. As right wing conservatism hijacked establishment conservative politics, the political climate began to change. Brash, confrontational and simplistic politics began to take centre-stage and establishment conservative leaders – who originally reacted with some concern – quickly came to understand that this new strategy was working for their party, even if it went against their sensibilities.
The frustration with establishment politics, liberal centrism and emphasis on human rights for marginal groups (such as LGBTQ people, Muslims and immigrants) – some of which fall far outside of the moral universe of religious conservatives in particular – was real and palpable; and moderate, establishment conservatives bent with the winds and changed their tune accordingly. Loud ‘take no prisoners’ styled soap-boxing began to masquerade as the ‘truth that everyone knows but is afraid to speak’. In this environment political correctness became more and more vilified as unfair shackles that were unfairly imposed on the conservative right; ‘robbing’ them of their fundamental right to free speech.
In this new ‘facts don’t matter’ political discourse, projecting strength and conviction in one’s own beliefs became paramount. Strongman and strongwoman leadership styles captured the public imagination and the more of a “maverick” they were the better. Globalisation’s discontents on the right – traditionalists and religious conservatives who felt they had yielded too much control over how society was evolving – were ecstatic that the “liberal establishment” were getting a long overdue shellacking!
When Obama won in 2008 conservative rebellion went into overdrive. Television adverts aired proclaiming “a thousand years of darkness”, delivered in a somber, foreboding tone by 80’s action hero Chuck Norris. Other conservative social media and Fox News styled media outlets joined the chorus of thinly veiled fear mongering that the ‘anti-Christ’ had emerged and usurped the reins of their beloved America. Less severe versions called Obama a Muslim, a Kenyan, definitely not an American, and Donald Trump was front and centre of the ‘how-low-can-you-go’ campaign that contested Obama’s American citizenship. Reality television had blown Donald Trump’s public profile up to gargantuan proportions; while at the same time the status of celebrity elites was being conflated with that of political elites. Celebrities and politicians were now equivalents; the new monarchy of global capitalisms ‘end of history’. All that mattered was being famous; it no longer mattered what one was famous for, as long as your television ratings were high.
In this milieu a new political terrain was being established; one where a celebrity populist like Donald Trump could ride the wave of a perfect storm; one that would build and wreak the damage of a storm surge upon America’s shores. Whereas anti-globalists were until then – rightly – thought of as left-wingers thumbing their noses and raising their fists at unbridled global capitalism, structural adjustment, debt-fueled growth, environmental destruction and its ill effects across the world, globalization’s new conservative discontents were undergoing a revolution from within. While invoking the imagery of Ronald Reagan’s and Margaret Tatcher’s conservative ‘strength’ in this new revolution, they were in reality – and ironically – rebelling against the very foundation of global capitalism that Reaganite and Thatcherite policies had seeded.
And the most prominent spokespeople of this new revolution took the form of Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Steve Bannon and last, but not least, Donald Trump. Yet it is Trump who has proven to be the most prolific and powerful of the lot; as it is within his power to effect changes that the entire world will reverberate to. As the most powerful leader in the world the reach of his decision-making is truly vast and extensive. His ambit of change goes far beyond mere puffery, way beyond all this ‘trivial’ Brexit nonsense; his agenda is one that will wreak havoc from near to far. Everyone will know his name!
Yet capitalism’s revolutionary is quick to point out that all he merely wants is to “make America great again!”, that his primary concern – over and above anything else – is America. He even went so far as to proclaim himself a “nationalist” in a controversial move that saw him draw criticism from both democrats and republicans alike. Many interpreted it as a deliberate effort to signal the white nationalists within his core support base; a veiled attempt to encourage them to get out and vote in the midterm elections.
And as has become customary with Trump, he dug his heels in, just recently restating his defense. “You have nationalists, you have globalists!” he proclaimed, in what at first seemed like a bizarre pivot that was intended to deflect attention away from his all-too-common flirtations with white nationalists and their sympathizers. On closer inspection, however, it is the perfect lens through which Trump’s political ideology can be understood. Capitalisms revolutionary is in reality a national capitalist.
National capitalism a la Trump is not a new ideology, even though it has re-emerged in a new era. It is a throwback to the colonial era; when elite-ruled countries were run like armed business enterprises that sailed the high global seas looking for quarry, while fortifying their own territories against all and sundry who would attempt to do the same to them. They had no real allies or enemies, only mutual interests that brought transient alliances, broken as quickly as they were secured. National capitalism a la Trump is nothing more or less than a revival of the political philosophy that led to the privateers of old. Here, the free market ideology of Reagan and Thatcher is bounded; less taxation, less restrictions on businesses and corporates within national boundaries, while outside of the national boundaries the free market ideology is spurned, and is instead replaced by a dog-eat-dog vision of the world, where all that counts is who supports you. There are no friends, there are no enemies; only alignments of purpose. Regionalism be damned!
And as Trump himself emphasizes, national capitalism in this era is profoundly anti-globalisation in many ways. First, it replaces outsourcing with in-sourcing; in a bid to boost local employment. Second, it is xenophobic and fanatical about retaining closed borders, again; in a bid to protect local employment from foreign ‘invaders’. Third, its foreign policy is protectionist; it shields national economies from foreign trade. Countries are not joined by mutual interest, but rather by mutual favours. Fourth, its foreign policy is anti-diplomatic; it exerts raw power, manipulates aggressively – often invoking intimidation and threat – and embarks upon proxy wars (e.g. trade wars) to exert its dominance; moreover allies are not truly allies if they do not pay up for the benefit of your defense. Fifth, foreign policy is framed exclusively in terms of national interest; global interests take a back seat and are denigrated as the prerogative of those who would want the liberal agenda to spread across the world.
Yet, to what end can a political ideology based on anti-globalisation alone extend itself? There are far too many of us on the planet not to be fundamentally interdependent; far too many economic, social and environmental linkages to live in a bilaterally determined world. Cooperation is necessary. Without doubt there are many problems with global capitalism in its present form, but they have only become a concern to the US now that it is having a negative effect on them. As long as they were ‘winning’ everything was okay. But with China and Russia making inroads on the global political economy, a new world order is threatening to take hold. In a world of debt, China’s savings are the main source of its power (Chinese savings constituted 46% of GDP in 2017 and 25% of the world’s gross national savings). This is true even without considering its highly skilled workforce, huge domestic market, ability to act at scale, large population and unparalleled historical legacy of diplomacy. The global order, fueled by unbridled free market global capitalism, is now considered a threat to America. And so Trump and his followers believe that it must be fought against, and every effort must be made to rein it in; yet only for as long as it threatens America. When that changes, Trump’s political ideology will likely be adapted to embrace open global markets again, but only as long as America is ‘winning’. And to be sure, Trump is not above rigging the game, as long as it brings power to his cause (and himself). For him, the ends justify the means. It’s national capitalism or bust!
Trump’s leadership style is well suited to this kind of philosophy. He presents himself as a strongman who has the ‘guts’ to take on existing systems and the stamina to defeat them. All he has to do is draw them into his fight, and he will eventually win. He is also patrimonial, extending favours and withholding rents to manipulate allies and foes alike. He is also nepotistic, and is quite unashamed of being so; indeed he conducts himself as a modern day monarch of sorts, keeping the business of ruling within the family. He is also unashamedly bombastic, taking every opportunity to put his foes on the back foot by reminding them of how much better he is than them, that is; at everything, it would seem. He is also iconoclastic; unafraid to shake up age-old institutions and replace them with his own (often half-baked) ideas about how things should be. He is performative; invoking high drama and spectacle in service of his agenda. He is duplicitous; contradicting himself regularly, often within hours of his last statement; he is insincere when appeasing and sincere when attacking. He also treasures loyalty to himself, while using and dispensing of people as though they were expendable. He is imperious and hierarchical; he is the primal larger-than-life alpha-male to whom all and sundry is secondary.
Trump’s world is one where spin masquerades as analysis. He is a specialist in this arena; he can easily spot the ‘spin as reality television’ strategy that the traditional media has so unthinkingly embraced. So his contempt for the press is borne from an understanding of their methods; that they are no different from the profit-driven survivalist models that reality television itself depends on. Moreover, the mythology around Trump is the “art of the deal”, which grants him an upper hand over the press; because his persona is constructed to solicit ‘support without understanding’. You don’t need to understand him; you just need to trust him. The press, on the other hand; are the ‘enemy of the good’ who simply can’t be trusted. Their hypocrisy is evident to him; and it makes him scornful of them. In his understanding of the press; they are simply running sensationalist news stories because it helps them make the profits they need to survive in the cut-throat world of advertising-driven media where click-bait rules. He sees through them because he knows the game; in fact, he can play it better than they can.
And to many Americans he is exactly what is needed to protect their interests. America’s ‘obsession’ (as they see it) with its global role has come at a great cost to those at home. In a peculiarly sanctimonious neocolonial twist; they believe that they have become the victims of their own ‘good will’ towards the world. Championing freedom and democracy across the world has ‘bled’ them dry of resources, and these resources could be better spent on the American people themselves. This simplistic, revisionist interpretation of the US’s global hegemony has proven to be an effective rallying cry for those who feel marginalized and forgotten, even irrelevant.
Yet, in what might otherwise have been a little covered event, the recent death of a US soldier in Afghanistan during the midterm elections shone a spotlight on how far the US had drifted from its post-WWII, cold-war foreign policy rhetoric of being driven by a global humanitarian cause; something that the average American believed in, and which in part constituted American identity. Major Brent Taylor, 39 years old, a former mayor of the town of Ogden, Utah, and a member of the national guard; voluntarily went on another tour of Aghanistan because he believed something different. According to his family he loved the people of Afghanistan, and believed so strongly in the “cause of freedom” that he set aside his personal interests (he is survived by his wife and seven children, the youngest of whom is 11 months old) and obeyed a greater call to duty. In his words, “the value of freedom is immeasurable”, and his last Facebook post was one advising Americans to use the freedom they had and to go out and vote. “Service is really what leadership is about” he stated, a view that would lead to him sacrificing his life in the real belief that the cause of freedom was one that extended to all human beings, irrespective of their nationality, religion, creed, or otherwise.
The reason that his death, occurring so near to the midterm elections, struck a deep chord within Americans; is that it echoed a long-held sentiment upon which the greater mythology of America’s global mission rests. Freedom! That has always been the US’s characterization of its struggle for global hegemony; that it is for the good of the world. That it’s mission is to bring American styled democratic freedom to the world. That is why Americans regard America as the “greatest country in the world”; it is it’s enduring symbolic power as a protector of freedom and liberty.
Trump has thrown all of that out of the window. He couldn’t care less about the grand ideology of freedom. Freedom, to Donald Trump, is the freedom to get rich. The only freedoms he is concerned with and vigorously defends; are that of the national market, and the freedom of elites from taxation. He is entirely unconcerned with the project for global human freedoms. It is not paramount in his value system. His value system is simply about winning. If you are a winner, then you deserve to be free. If not, well tough luck! Losers must endure their lot. Survival of the ‘fittest’ is central in his conception of the world. And the ‘fittest’ are those with power! Irrespective of whether they are truly the ‘fittest’ or not, as long as they possess power, then they deserve their place in the world.
A primal game of dominance emerges from this brand of politics. It is, in its essence; anti-freedom, anti-social, anti-equality; even anti-political! It does not even bother to be Machiavellian, where real power motivations remain hidden or unacknowledged. Instead, open, brash and unconstrained – even unhinged – performances and spectacles dominate the public sphere. These unravel loosely; the way a mob does, unpredictable, never far from a great act of volatility. This kind of leadership easily breeds a state that can turn against its own people and presents a danger to the world. It is an uncontrolled revolution; one that proceeds by random-walk rather than a clear plan.
There are those that will balk at such comparisons, relegating them to the realm of hyperbole and paranoia, but it is worth remembering how quickly and easily outlier political ideologies can escalate into existential threats for those who do not fall within its ideological echo-chamber. This is true whether the ideology lies to the left or the right. History has shown us that much. There are too many examples to account for here, but there are clear signs that precede the emergence of such an existential threat.
It may be surprising to cast Trump as a revolutionary, but that is indeed what he is. He just does not fit comfortably into the historical stereotypes associated with revolutionaries. He is a revolutionary of another kind; one that represents; not the oppressed and exploited, but those whom liberal centrism threatened to render irrelevant (as Noah Yuval-Hariri puts it). His revolution is as much that of his constituency’s, that is; the struggle against irrelevance. For four decades they have stood by as the world moved on without them, as their worlds have grown smaller, as their normativity and primacy has receded, and they are deeply aggrieved at their displacement. This is not restricted to religious and traditionalist conservatives in the US; it is a sentiment shared by many across the globe who have lived traditional and religious existences and who feel that the globalization of liberal Western sub-cultures threatens the fabric of their societies and communities.
Whether it is the Taliban, or the religious right wing conservatives in the US, or traditionalist European, African or Asian cultures; globalization has presented them with deep, existential challenges of their own. It is no surprise that they would resist it and retreat further into their narrow worldviews, as they feel the threat of erosion of their historical foundations. And to be sure, it is mainly patriarchal systems that have come under threat, so it is no surprise that men, in particular, are reacting to these changes in the manner they have. It is also no surprise that they would invoke God and their ‘way of life’ in their protests against a changing world.
Globalisation's discontents, as it turns out, are not just a bunch of old left-heads who are high on Marxist rhetoric and revolutionary fervor. Rather, they constitute huge swathes of the global population who have not kept pace with either the economic or socio-cultural changes of this era. And they are elevating their own revolutionaries to power in rapid succession. Whether it is Europe, Eastern Europe, the UK, the US, India, the Philippines, Brazil, or the “country first” rhetoric that has been adopted by African leaders (e.g. South Africa and Kenya); the mood has swung, and those who previously felt powerless in the face of global change have asserted themselves.
Capitalism’s revolutionary, however, has gone much further. He is fast building an ideology out of the anti-globalisation movement; an ideology that takes its cues from the right, and which presents a serious quandary for the left. It may well result in a shake-up that leaves both the left and the right barely resembling their origins. And its nationalist emphasis may well result in a breakdown of global cooperation mechanisms and a new, more defensive world where each country is left to fend for itself. Ultimately, capitalism's revolutionary might be the prophet of the Kali Yuga; the age of disintegration. It is clear that he does not intend to raise the level of the debate; he is going to drag it down into the muck where he is comfortable. And if in the end everything descends to the same level that he drags things down to … well … then God help us all!