“Nihilists! Fuck me. I mean, say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it's an ethos.”
The Coen brothers, in lines for Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski (1998)
So declaims Walter Sobchak, when told by Jeff Lebowski, AKA, the Dude, that he is being harassed by some ex-members of a German band called Autobahn, who claim to be nihilists. Regardless of whether these fictional miscreants actually meet the definition of nihilist, I think Walter may have been on to something, if not about the nihilists, then about the Nazis in comparison.
What makes me think of this passage from that film these days? Nothing else than the remarkable candidacy of Donald Trump for the Republican nomination for president of the United States. Mr. Trump has been subject to enormous scrutiny since he announced his candidacy in a hate-filled rambling speech given after descending the lobby escalator of his eponymously named tower in Manhattan a couple of months ago now. This is the speech in which he made his now infamous remarks about Mexicans being rapists and murderers, and some of them being good people, he guessed. Since then, there have been repeated prophecies concerning when Trump would “jump the shark,” as the show business phrase has it. As of yet, he has not suffered any decline in ratings (oops, I mean public opinion), even after his repeated insults of other candidates, his denigration of the Vietnam era hero and former presidential candidate John McCain, after his vitriolic attacks on Megan Kelly of Fox News following her critical questioning of him during the first Republican presidential debate, after issuing his first “policy paper,” which called for building a wall at the Mexican border using slave labor, after having proposed an end to the 14th Amendment guarantee of citizenship to those born in the United States, after having Jorge Ramos, the most prominent Latino journalist in the United States, thrown out of one of his press conferences, telling him “Go back to Univision!”, after hurling insult upon insult at his competitors for the nomination, the slurring of various minorities and their representatives (Black Lives Matter is a hate group, according to him, and Ferguson, Missouri is filled with gangs who had their origins in Mexico), Trump continues to gain.
As has now been noted by everybody, every time he does something conventionally called outrageous, Trump moves further up in the polls among Republican candidates for president. He berates Jeb! Bush for speaking in Spanish in his public appearances, and his poll numbers among Republicans increase. (I am reminded of the woman in Texas long ago who, insisting that everyone ought to speak only English, remarked, “If English was good enough for Jesus, it should be good enough for everyone.”)
Many of the explanations given for Trump’s enduring appeal as a candidate are convincing: he is expressing the frustrations of the right-wing white male nationalists and racists that now compose the core constituency of the Republican Party, doing so without any subtlety, subtlety being yet another sign of weakness for that subsection of the electorate; he is skilled at self-presentation, a natural on television as only someone long practiced in the free-form art of “reality” television can be, and hence is not thrown off message by challenges to the truth of what he says; his enormous wealth and decades of building the Trump brand have made him both familiar and widely admired among the Ayn Randians who compose so much of the core constituency of the GOP; his cheerful hatred, on display in every public appearance, mocking his competitors, denigrating anyone who disagrees with him, demonizing those he knows are hated by racists who seek someone to represent them in their hatred—all this provides psychic pleasure to those who love him and those who do not, stimulating a Lacanian jouissance as a core response to his persona by both those who hate the capital O Other and those who hate him.
Trump appeals to those who believe that the decline of the US is a consequence of foreign power and betrayal (sound familiar?) Consider for just a moment the opinions of those who currently support him. 66% of them believe Obama is Muslin, 12% that he is Christian. 61% believe Obama was not born in the US, 21% that he was. 63% want a Constitutional amendment to end birthright citizenship, 20% do not. But also consider this: these views are not unreflective of the overall GOP primary electorate. 51% of Republican voters say eliminate birthright citizenship, 54% say Obama is a Muslim, and only 29% affirm that he was born in the US (while 40% inaccurately believe that Ted Cruz was born in the US.) (Figures taken from Digby Parsons’ blog post on Salon, September 3). In other words, Trumpism resonates because the GOP has become a far right racist nationalist political party.
Any and all of these factors contribute to a sense of the power of Trump. But even as I list these factors, I feel a sense of unease. This is all too easy, in a sense. There are too many explanations here, and all of them make sense. Trump, we might say, is the over-determined presidential candidate.
But that isn’t quite it. In thinking about how to understand Trump, I returned first to a book that has, perhaps, not received the attention it may deserve, Diane Rubinstein’s This Is not a President. Deeply devoted to both Jacques Lacan and Jean Baudrillard, Rubinstein presents the American presidency as a sort of psychic sinkhole into which we collectively-- by way of popular culture, press, television, and increasingly social media--whisper our deepest and least respectable desires. The presidency thus is a screen onto which we project our affective responses to what we perceive to be our culture at large. In this sense, Trump is a figment of the collective imagination; he makes our secret desires acceptable; he has a way, like many other fascists, of making obscenity respectable. That is the first point concerning his art.
But I want to focus my comments elsewhere. For me, a deeper answer to the appeal of Trump can be found in how he operationalizes fascism in an American context composed of universal and highly fragmented media of mass communication and social media composed of increasing isolated affinity groups. My ur-text here is “The Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproducibility.” In that classic essay Walter Benjamin described the pre-conditions for the rise of fascism in Europe in 1939, namely, the proletarianization of modern man and the concomitant development of mass society. For Benjamin, fascism attempts to give the masses a way of expression while leaving property relations intact. He writes, “It sees its salvation in granting expression to the masses – but on no account granting them rights . . . The logical outcome of fascism is an aestheticizing of political life.”
Benjamin goes on to cite Italian futurists, whose manifesto for the colonial war on Ethiopia celebrates the aesthetics of war. “War is beautiful because – thanks to its gas masks, its terrifying megaphones, its flame throwers, and light tanks – it establishes man’s dominion over the subjugated machine. War is beautiful because it inaugurates the dream of metallization of the human body. War is beautiful because it combines gunfire, barrages, cease-fires, scents, and the fragrance of putrefaction into a symphony. War is beautiful because it creates new architectures, like those of armored tanks, geometric squadrons of aircraft, spirals of smoke from burning villages, and much more.”
Benjamin adds an interesting footnote to this observation, in which he notes that the newsreel is incredibly significant as a propaganda tool in the context of war, and that it works especially well in presenting the masses to themselves, in “recording” images, especially of mass movements that cannot really be comprehended by the naked eye. “This is to say that mass movements, including war, are a form of human behavior especially suited to the camera.” Hence, for Benjamin, war itself becomes the quintessential fascist event in the 20th century.
I would suggest that the European fascism of the first part of the twentieth century has its degraded counterpart in the form of an American fascism suited to the twenty-first. Trumpism is the current incarnation of this degraded fascism, in which the newsreel in the movie theatre is replaced by the resonating power of Fox News – William Connolly’s seminal essay on right-wing resonance machines is apropos here -- and the impotent admiration of the MSNBC resonance machine, especially as embodied by Chris Matthews, he who felt a thrill up his leg when he heard Obama speak at the 2004 Democratic National convention. In the month of August MSNBC devoted as much if not more time to coverage of Trump than did Fox News, in part to chase ratings, but also, I would suggest, in a new quest to find that leg thrill. If it is not the thrill of the beauty of war in the Futurists’ vision, it is nonetheless a thrill provoked by a thought of violence and vengeance.
It is here, on screens tuned in to the remaining shards of televised news, not in the rallies and demonstrations that accompanied 20th century fascism, that we find reflected the demonizing hatred that is widely celebrated by those who think of themselves as white (to borrow from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me), as patriotism, the ferocious protectionism of the nation by the building of walls (paid for by the blood and money of the once again newly conquered), and the eternal Manichean choice between us and them is brought into vivid focus by the shifting demographics of an imperial power in decline.
The apotheosis of this powerful movement here in the United States has been the staging of what are being called, with no irony, presidential nominating debates. These strange gatherings, in which real debate in the form of exchanges between candidates holding differing views is practically prohibited, now constitute the number one prime time special events programming for the United States. Twenty-three million viewers tuned into the first Republican debates. So now the medium for a fascist political spectacle is not the Nuremburg rally but a collective gathering before digital screens.
This is fascism; it is a new means for giving expression to the masses, while ensuring that the underlying economic arrangements remain intact. But I want to suggest something more -- that this is nihilism as well. Why? Fascism, as a totalitarian political force, insists upon an intense organization of its masses. That is a part of its aesthetic. Trumpism -- for lack of a better term – is not nearly so organized. In his presidential campaign Trump is closer to the character of the Joker in the second of Chris Nolan’s Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight, the man who, as Alfred the butler puts it, simply likes to watch the world burn. Like the Joker, for Trump there are no guarded moments, no forethought in his improvisations. His policy pronouncements are closer to being automatic writing than coherent attempts to demonstrate solutions to problems, sketches on the back of envelopes that are then farmed out to hack consultants to puff up in to white papers. I think that this is because at the heart of Trumpism is the branding of Trump. I suspect that a President Trump would be a new Peron without the military uniform. In short, as an ideology it would lack the courage of its lack of conviction.
But the core danger of Trumpism can be found if we continue with the Joker analogy, because what the Joker’s nihilism does in that film is provoke a vigilante response by both the District Attorney of Gotham and, eventually, in The Dark Knight Rises, the Batman himself. (See Steve Johnston’s 2012 post on that film.) In other words, even should Trump’s own campaign implode, he is already inspiring others to take up the racist cudgel and swing it. Hence Scott Walker’s call for a fence on the Canadian border; hence Jeb! Bush’s use of the term “anchor baby”; hence Mike Huckabee’s paranoid insistence that there is now a war against Christians being waged by the Supreme Court; hence . . . well, every day seems to provide yet another example.
The technological advances that have destroyed the middle class, the war against the commons that has precipitated educational decline, and the enormous demographic shift that has been taking place in the United States over the past thirty years, all of which can be traced back to the rise of neo-liberalism, from Reagan to Obama, provide fertile soil in which this degraded form of fascism can grow. It is actually possible that Trump’s campaign might succeed, especially if he doesn’t either get distracted by some other shiny object, or discovers that he might lose significant amounts of money if he actually assumes the presidency. Trumpism is a cartoon vision of fascism.
It is a black comedic expression of a nihilism that is very much like the nihilism Cornel West decried over a decade ago in reference to young African American men, a what the hell attitude that is really a product of despair. This time, though, it is the despair of the old, the people who call themselves white, the racist, the men who were once in charge but are no longer, and the young white men who see no future for themselves, still dreamers of the dream of an America in which they won’t have to be confronted by the Other in all of its terrifying Otherness.
Trump pours gasoline on this fire, but does so in such a way as to defy others to challenge him for doing so. He pokes fun at his competitors for the presidency, especially the men who pretend to be in charge, especially poor Jeb! Bush, because they are, in fact, more pretend than he is, hiding their hatred under dog whistle code words. They fail to admit that they hate, and even worse, fail to enjoy their pretense of not hating. Trump isn’t like that. He embodies those resentments of the privileged and powerful, he hates those who get in his way, but he hates cheerfully, and in the end he doesn’t care. He is actually having fun, again, very much like the Joker. His shrug, his facial grimace as he dismisses those who attack him as losers, his entire shtick, is devoted to fun, and to not caring. To have him as the American president would be to have someone who, not so much wouldn’t know what he was doing, as much as someone who didn’t care what he did, just so long as he continued to gather attention to himself. That is nihilism, American style, a new name for an old narcissism of those who still think of themselves as white.
(The initial incentive for writing this essay was an invitation to participate on a panel on the Art of Elections at the APSA Annual Meeting in September, 2015. Thanks to Nancy S. Love for the invitation.)