The Trump Mediation

From 1984 into Brave New World

Whenever you hear a prominent American called a Fascist, you can usually make up your mind that the man is simply a loyal citizen who stands for Americanism.

—William Randolph Hearst, 1935

No matter who you vote for, the Government always gets in.

—Anon.

Trump has gone, but his legacy is filled with foreboding. ‘I will return in some form’, he prophetically declared as he left Washington on Joe Biden’s Inauguration Day for Mar-a-Lago, his ‘Winter White House’, where he appears to be setting himself up as president-in-waiting. At the end of four years of virtual war against established US democratic institutions and policies, Trump echoed General Douglas MacArthur’s famous statement after his flight from Japanese forces in the Philippines in the early stages of the Pacific War. What form might Trump’s return take? 

Our guess (a risky gamble in these times when almost anything seems possible) is that Trump will fade. There are doubtless many others, similar or worse, who could take his place. With the going of Trump, what he calls his ‘movement’ may also go. What crystallised around him was more an assemblage, a loose-knit, heterogeneous, motley collection of diverse persons and groups ranging from the extreme far right to the more moderate, whose organisational cohesion may be more illusory than real. Not yet a ‘Party Trump’, it is as likely to melt into air and go the way of most populist movements as it is to congeal into a longer-lasting force of opposition headed by Trump. 

This is not to gainsay the shock of the storming of the Capitol on the otherwise ritualistic day of the confirmation of Biden’s victory, perhaps the peak moment that effectively concludes the transitional period conventional in the American democratic cycle. Such a liminal space is a relative retreat and suspension of the state political order as the presidency is renewed or changed. This is often a festive time given to all kinds of political excess, when the people vent their potency in the selection of those who are to rule them. Trump encouraged and intensified the potential chaos of liminality at its peak when, ideally, it should subside and political order be fully restored. He aimed to disrupt this critical moment and to maintain his uncertain presence as the Lord of Misrule, if not necessarily to effect a coup. Trump promoted, even if unwittingly, a moment of extreme chaos that was all the more intense for the time of its occurrence, when the participants themselves blew out of control.

Light of the Capitol/Night of the World

In the nightmare of the event, newscasts presented visions of a future filled with fascist and Nazi images and other associated symbols. There was a strong sense of dialectical collapse along the lines of Hegel’s ‘Night of the World’, in which forces in opposition dissipate against each other and lose their meaning. The representatives of the nation cowered under their desks and fitted gas masks, while those who would challenge them, in festive mood and drunk with brief power, put their feet up on desks, aping their masters, and carried off the mementos and spoils of their invasion. Exuberant chants of ‘this is our house’ echoed down the corridors of power. 

Shades of the past paraded in the present, foremost among them that of the enduring trauma of the rise of Nazi Germany. What Sinclair Lewis had warned in It Can’t Happen Here—a Hitler-esque rise to power at the centre of the democratic world—anticipated by all sides from the early days of Trump’s apotheosis, seemed actually to be materialising. This accounts for the excitement on the steps of the Capitol—‘This is America 2021, y’all!!’ Arlie Hochschild captured the millenarian Nuremberg feel of Trump’s campaign rallies when researching Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, her excellent ethnography of the white far Right and their sympathisers in Louisiana, America’s poorest state and a Trump heartland. Hochschild recounts at a lecture to the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Berlin a scene reminiscent of the opening frames of Leni Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will when Trump’s plane, ‘Trump Force One’, appears through the clouds as if from heaven. It descends ‘down, down, down’ to the waiting crowd, electrified in expectation of the saviour’s endlessly repeated sermon of redemption for the deep resentment they feel at having been pushed aside from the promise of the American Dream.  

But here is the point: the immediate reaction to the storming of the Capitol was further confirmation of the real and present danger of Trump’s fascist threat, fuelled by the rumblings of the class war that Trump has inflamed and exploited. It is a liberal fear, mainly of the Democrats, but including some Republicans, who are the chief targets of Trump’s attacks. His demonisation of elite liberal value (marked by accusations of moral perversities aimed at unmasking liberal claims to virtue) is at one with his condemnation of the liberalism of federal political and social economic policies. These he presents as contributing to the abjection of mainly the white working class and the poor, which is to be seen as a consequence of the rapidly increasing power of global corporations, policies of economic globalisation, and the privileging of minorities, refugees and recent immigrants. It might be remembered at this point that the violence of the Capitol invasion, the marked involvement of military veterans, the carrying of weapons and baseball bats, and the reports of pipe bombs that shocked so many reflect the fact that most modern states are founded in violence. This is particularly the case in the United States, where the US Constitution’s Second Amendment protects the right to bear arms in defence of democratic rights. In an important sense, the violence of those invading the Capitol refracts back at the middle classes the very violence that underpins the structure of their rule. If liberal virtue was shocked by the events of 6 January, it was also confronted with the violent paradox deep in its democratic heart. Thus, this paradox slipped into paroxysm at a critical moment in American political history. 

The transitional figure of Trump feeds on the prejudices of his intended constituencies and exploits an already ill-formed class awareness, building on ready commitments and vulnerabilities—the well-rehearsed fascist and populist technique—and creating indeed a false consciousness (there is no other way to say it) that is not only destructive but, in the hands of the likes of Trump, integral to intensifying the feelings of impotence and the miseries that give Trump his relative popularity. Slavoj Zizek says as much in what he describes as ‘Trump’s GREATEST TREASON’.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, ‘The Governator’, was quick to counter the white-supremacist, Proud Boy and Oath Keeper elements highly visible in media newscasts with a Conan the Barbarian performance. This was his take on the dominant brand of Make America Great Again. He focused on his own immigrant passage from his native Austria and its Nazi associations to the liberated American world of his success. For Schwarzenegger, the Capitol invasion and its vandalism equated to Kristallnacht. Noam Chomsky likened the storming to Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, observing that it effected a greater penetration to the heart of power than did Hitler’s failed attempt. But Chomsky, with characteristic acuity, added that the fascist danger lies in the anti-democratic class forces (including electoral and political manipulations on all sides) that provide the fertile ground for fascism.

Rupture and the corporate state

The Rise and Fall of Trump (not discounting the possibility that Humpty Dumpty might come together again, which is the fear of the master narrative) may be understood as expressing a transition between two moments of capital during which one formation morphs into another. Trump is the embodiment, instrument and anguish of this transition, a tragic figure in a theatre of the absurd. Grand Guignol almost, but in Gothic American Horror Story style. The accession of Biden is the apotheosis of the new; in the hopes of most, he is a vehicle for healing the divisions in America that Trump brought to a head and are still very much present. But Biden’s rise has ominous oppressive indications of its own.

The events Trump have all the hallmarks of the rupture of transformation or, better, transmutation. The millenarian spirit that Hochschild captures in her account is one born in the capitalist ideology of the American Dream; fortified in the religious fundamentalism of Trump’s many followers, it revitalises their hopes of the Dream in the face of abject failure. The rallies and the impassioned actions of those invading the Capitol were filled with revitalising energy. Such millenarian explosions, distinct in their own historical contexts, have occurred at many points in global history. They were apparent at the dawn of capitalism in Europe, at later moments of crisis and redirection in capital up to the present—indeed at the inception of the Nazi horror—and at points of the disruptive expansion of capital in the Western imperial/colonial thrust, as in the cargo movements of the Pacific. 

The rupture of transmutation in capital, the crisis that the Trumpian progress manifests, is an instance of what Marx and others have understood to be its creative–destructive dynamic. In this way, capital reproduces, renews and revitalises its potency against the contradictions within and limitations to its profit motive that it generates within itself, as well as those thrown up against it in the process of its expansion and transformation.  

The circumstances underpinning the current transmutation in capital relate to the revolutions in science and technology—those associated particularly with the digital age and advances in biotechnology—to a large extent driven by capital and motivated by profit. The rapid development of capital (and especially that of the still dominant, if declining, American form) has been driven by innovations in knowledge and technology (something that Marx and many others admired about America). What became known as the nation state (the dominant political form that nurtured capital) and the class orders that were generated in capital and necessary to it (not to mention the overpopulation and ecological disasters that grew in capital’s wake) also constituted barriers and limitations to capital’s growth.

The new technological revolutions are a response to such system-driven imperatives and crises. They have, in turn, effected revolutions in production and consumption (creating new markets and increasing consumption; reducing the need for human labour and the resistances that brings; overcoming problems in and opening up novel lines of distribution), forcing the distress of unemployment on a larger proportion of the population (especially among the erstwhile working class), creating impoverishment and uncertainties reaching into the once affluent middle classes (as captured in the neologism the ‘precariat’), shifting class alignments and redefining the nature and value of all forms of work and of the working day (the expansion of zero hours and the sense of the return of a bygone era). 

The current technological revolution is a key factor in the extraordinary growth in the monopolising strength of corporations such as Google, Amazon or even Tencent. The dot.com organisations (the flagships and spearheads of capitalist transformation, with huge social transmutational effect) have wealth that dwarfs that of many states, and they are functioning in areas once controlled by the state (the current race to colonise space is one). Indeed the corporate world has effectively invaded and taken over the operation of nation states. This is most noteworthy in those state forms influenced by histories of liberal social democracy in Europe and Australia, which have tended to draw a sharp demarcation between public interest and private enterprise. The nation state and its apparatuses of government and institutions for public benefit have been corporatised to the extent that many government bureaucracies have not only had their activities outsourced to private companies but also adopted the managerial styles and ruthlessness of some corporate business models. This corporatisation of the state has aligned it much more closely with dominant economic interests in the private (now also public) sectors than before, and enables a bypassing of state regulation, even the regulatory apparatus that once sustained capitalist interests, but which had become an impediment to capitalist expansion. 

These changes have wrought socio-economic and political disruption and distress globally, and most especially in the Western hemisphere. This is not merely collateral damage. The revolution in science and technology has been a key instrument in effecting social and political changes via destruction, for the regenerative expansion of capital. It is central to the re-imagination of capital at the opening of the twenty-first century. 

This is particularly so in the United States, whose socio-political order is historically one of corporate state formation, which accounts for its long-term global political-economic domination. Some renewal in leftist thought (with Bernie Sanders, for example) is an index of the depth of distress that is being experienced, although the ideological and counteractive potency of the American Dream fuelled especially in fundamentalist Christianity suppresses such potential, contributing to the intensity and passion of the Trump phenomenon. The ideological distinction of that phenomenon aside, the dynamic of populism is reflected everywhere across the globe.

One common feature of this is the rejection of political systems associated with nation-state orders and, to a marked extent, the largely bipartite party systems vital in the discourses of control and policy of modern nation states. Trumpism and other populist movements (in Europe notably) complain of the alienation of the state and its proponents from the interests of the mass. The expansion of corporatisation and the further hollowing out of the state, the corruption of its public responsibilities by corporate interests, is effectively what Trump was promoting in his presidency. It is a potent dimension of the Trump paradox and a major irony of the Capitol invasion that, for all the apparent fascist tendencies, it was the spirit of reclaiming democracy (admittedly of the freebooting kind) in an already highly corporatised establishment (subject to great corporate capitalist interest) that Trump’s actions were directed to expanding. An important figure in this respect is the Silicon Valley venture capitalist Peter Thiel. The tech billionaire, early investor in Facebook and founder of Paypal was an early Trump supporter and named part of Trump’s transition team in 2016. His book, Zero to One, based on his lecture courses at Stanford University, argues for a corporate-technocratic governance beyond older forms of government. 

From panopticon to coronopticon

COVID-19 has highlighted the social devastation of the destructive/creative dynamic of capitalism’s transformation. Class and associated ethnic inequities have everywhere been shown up and probably intensified by a pandemic that is starting to equal, if not surpass, the devastating effect of two world wars. Like them it is a clearing ground for capitalist exploitative expansion—something like Naomi Klein’s disaster capitalism. Under the shadow of the virus, labour demands are being rationalised and the cutting back of employment and its benefits legitimated, and governments are pumping capital into economies in a way that protects consumption in an environment where there is declining occupational opportunity and income. The idea of a universal basic income is being seriously discussed, which would offset some of the contradictions in a transformation of capitalism that is reducing our dependence on labour and endangering consumption through automation and digitalisation. While the poor are getting poorer the rich are getting richer, most notably those heading the revolutionary technologies of the digital age and biotechnology, the competitive race to secure viable vaccines against the virus being one example. 

There is a strange synchronicity linking the pandemic with the dynamic of capitalism’s transmutational corporatisation of the state. The virus reproduces and spreads in a not dissimilar dynamic. Indeed, COVID-19 in some ecological understandings is the product of the acceleration of globalisation, effected in those processes of capitalism’s transmutation associated with corporate expansion and corporatisation of the nation state. As a crossover from animal to human bodies, the virus is one manifestation of increased human-population pressure on wild animal territory, the closer intermeshing of animal and human terrains. The scale of the pandemic is, of course, a direct consequence of the time-space contraction and intensity of the networked interconnections of globalisation. 

State surveillance has intensified as a by-product of combatting COVID, which is also its legitimation, with digitalization the major surveillance instrument.  The digital penetration of every nook and cranny of social life (see Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism or Netflix’s The Social Dilemma) is interwoven with the commodification of the social and personal for profit—economising individuals calculating the costs and benefits of their social ‘interactions’ (the YouTube or Kuaishou ‘influencer’, the hyped TED talker as Foucault’s entrepreneurial self, cut, pasted, uploaded and remixed). The management of COVID, demanding social isolation and the disruption of ordinary social life, has exponentially increased the role of the digital as the primary mediator of the social and a commanding force in its constitution. COVID has been revealed as a kind of social particle accelerator. More intensively than ever, the realm of the social is being re-imagined, re-engineered and re-mastered as a digital-social, a ‘Digisoc’ or ‘Minisoc’, constrained and produced within algorithmically preset parameters. Here is Peter Weir’s film The Truman Show radically updated. And, as with Truman, the space of freedom is also and at the same time experienced as a space of unfreedom. This manifests in the deep ambivalence many feel about the new technologies they daily live with and through. The digitised social is often presented as a new agora, a liberating ‘space’ in which new, progressive ideas and directions are enabled, operationalised and indeed optimised. The internet has become a site of multiple struggles in which class forces and new potentials for social difference and proliferating identity-claims are continually emerging. The freedom of the internet has provided exciting opportunities for many. But such freedom also and at the same time contributes to conspiracy on all sides. As has been made clear in the two elections featuring Trump, the superpower of corporations such as Google and Facebook threatens to install a domain of hyper-control. Digital walls and electronic fences are appearing everywhere in the age of the global ‘splinternet’.

The hegemonic and totalising potential for the ruling bodies of the corporatising state who control the digital is as never before. This is so not just in the global scale of network reach but in the heightened degree to which controlling bodies can form the ground of the social, radically remodel, engineer and design reality in accordance with dominant interests, and, where motivated, shut out anything that threatens their order. Awareness of this has driven a fury of censorship and self-censorship on all sides—Trump’s threatened TikTok ban becomes Twitter’s actual Trump ban. 

From 1984 to Brave New World 

Trump and Trumpism are moments in the transitional, transmutational process of capitalism outlined above and of the formation of new social and political orders. Echoing the past, they express its transmutation (and its agonies) rather than repeat it. Trump and Trumpism manifest the contradictions of such processes, being agents and agencies of the transmutations in the social and political circumstances of life that are in train, themselves forces in the bringing forth of a future that, in some respects, is already being lived.

Trump himself can be described as an In-Betweener, a bridge into the new realities, both a force in their realisation and a victim.

His manner and style, the brutal no-holds-barred amorality, is familiar from the captains of industry and robber barons of an earlier age, who built capitalist America and crushed working-class resistance by all means, more foul than fair. Trump maintains the style but in reverse redemptive mode. In his shape-shift he presents as supporter of the working classes, not their nemesis, as did his forerunners. However, his authoritarian business manner, of The Apprentice’s ‘You’re fired’ fame, matches well the managerialism of the present. He is an exemplar of contemporary venture capitalism, and most especially  of profit from non-industrial production (often anti-production) gained from real estate, property transfer, asset stripping and the expanding gaming and gambling industries (symptoms of the crises of the transformation in capital) from which some of Trump’s key supporters come.

Trump’s reactive anti-immigrant nationalism and Make America Great Again rhetoric not only appeal to the white Right of his constituency but is an engagement of past rhetoric to support new political and economic realities. Trump’s economic war with China stressed re-industrialisation, but it was also concerned with counteracting China’s technological ascendancy (see Clinton Fernandes’ ‘The China Divide’ in Arena no. 4), especially in the realm of the digital, a major contradiction born of the current globalising transmutation in capitalism involving transfers of innovatory knowledge. 

Trump anticipated the risk to his presidential re-election and it manifested the dilemmas of his in-betweenness. His inaction with regard to the pandemic was consistent with the anti–Big Government policies of many Republicans and the American Right who are so much a part of QAnon conspiracies, but also centred on the concern to reduce government interference and modify regulation in capitalist processes, a strong theme in current transitions and transformations of the state and capital. Trump’s cry that the election was stolen was excited by the circumstances of the pandemic. His attack on postal votes related to the fact that the pandemic gave the postal vote an unprecedented role in the election’s outcome, by by-passing and neutralising the millenarian potency of his mass rallies, already reduced in numbers by fear. Trump sensed that the COVID-inspired move to ‘working from home’ and ‘voting from home’ would fence in his base of support. 

Trump took full advantage of the digital age, his use of Twitter and Facebook a marked feature of his style of rule. His practices here especially looked forward to the politics of the future, a politics increasingly bounded and conditioned in societies of the image. Following the events at the Capitol, Trump’s own Custer’s Last Stand to allay his fate, his cyberspace and internet accounts were switched off. He has been cancelled by the new digitally authoritarian corporate powers (who arguably benefited the most from the Trump era and profited greatly under pandemic conditions), which are behind the new society of the image, in which he was a past-master and within which he had largely established his identity (see Roland Kapferer’s ‘Trump as Singularity’ in Arena Magazine no. 143). 

The overriding image of the Capitol invasion and carried across most networks has been that of the occupation of the heart of American democracy by those who would threaten its ideals. The media have concentrated on what was the dominating presence of the extremist, macho, white American far Right parading symbols of a racist past combined with clear references to not-so-distant memories of fascism and Nazism. There were others there more moderate in opinion and representative of other class fractions, if still mostly white, whose presence, however, does not reduce the fear of fascism, possibly as in Nazi Germany, when what seemed to be small groups of extremists hijacked power to unleash the horrors that followed. Something similar could be said to have happened in Russia, leading to Stalinism. These were the worlds of George Orwell’s 1984, in which some of the major ideals of the time flipped into their tragic negation. Such events were very much emergent realities of the nation state: imperialist wars, and the class forces of the particular moment in the history of capitalism and its social and political formations. There is no statement here that this could not happen again.

What we are saying is this: a different authoritarian and oppressive possibility may be taking shape—not of the fascist past but of the future. This is a future that Trump was mediating, and that may yet be realised, despite the great hope to the contrary in the accession of President Biden. Perhaps this prospect can be seen as more akin to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, born in the current transmutations of capital (and its class agonies) and in the circumstances of the radical technological revolutions of the digital era, involving the apotheosis of the corporatisation of the state, the corporate state emerging out of the ruins of the nation state. 

Huxley depicted a world centred on production and efficiency, a bio-technologically conditioned global system of perfect rational, optimised order. The class conflicts of the past are overcome here; everyone accepts their predetermined place. It is a post-human reality in which the foundation of human beings in their biology and passions is transcended. It is a somatised, artificially intelligent world of the image and promiscuity. Those who do not fit or who resist are fenced out. 

Biden’s inauguration, for all its upbeat ceremonial spirit, had some intimation of such a future, taking into full account the security constraints of its moment: to protect against the murderous unchecked rampage of the virus and the threat of the attack of right-wing militias. The stress on this, it may be noted, has an ideological function to distance what is about to come into being from the vastly more visceral world of Trump and so evident in the invasion of the Capitol—what Biden in his inauguration speech called an ‘uncivil war’.

The scene of the perfectly scripted inauguration was virtually devoid of people. Apart from the dignitaries and all-important celebrities, there was the highly selected order of the society of the corporate state. Where the general populace would normally crowd was an emptiness filled with flags and protected by troops—more troops than are currently stationed in Afghanistan. Those who might disrupt the proceedings—Hillary Clinton’s ‘deplorables’, Huxley’s ‘resistant savages’—were fenced out. It was a totalising and constructed digital media image presenting a reality of control, harmony and absolute surveillance. 

To Be Continued.

About the authors

Bruce Kapferer

Bruce Kapferer is Professor Emeritus, University of Bergen, and Professorial Fellow at University College London. He is a fellow of the Cairns Institute, and Director of the EU Advanced Project on Egalitarianism. He is a roving anthropologist and ethnographer with an extensive research background in Africa, India, Sri Lanka and Australia.

More articles by Bruce Kapferer

Roland Kapferer

Roland Kapferer is a musician and film-maker who currently teaches anthropology at Deakin University. His research focuses on the new human condition in context of the momentous revolution in the circumstances of human being effected by bio-science and other innovations in technology. His particular interest is the creation of the society of the image.

More articles by Roland Kapferer

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