Trump: Totalitarian Individualism, by Bruce Kapferer

Bruce Kapferer

23 Jan 2017

Isaac Asimov’s famous Foundation Trilogy presents a scenario apposite to the Donald Trump phenomenon. Trump fits Asimov’s character the Mule (alias Magnifico Giganticus, the clown and entertainer who manipulates mass emotion in the interest of his own potency), whose rise to galactic power defies the probabilistic rationalism of psycho-history, the algorithm-based invention of Hari Seldon (a kind of Nate Silver?), who predicts the trajectory of the future. Seldon is a virtual embodiment of those experts of the liberal establishment that Trump excoriated. The Mule appears as the nemesis of the rational order of the system he subverts. But in Asimov’s story the Mule is ultimately the system’s very principle: the underlying logic of historical expectation that the Mule threatens to upset and that gave him birth.

‘The Donald’ is part of a populist tradition in US politics stretching from Andrew Jackson to the leftish, larger-than-life authoritarian ‘Kingfish’ Huey Long and the far-right George Wallace, reaching up to Ronald Reagan and even Bill Clinton, and on to George Bush (and maybe Obama). But he has achieved greater unity and ominous totalitarian portent than any before him through, indeed, his method of contradiction married to an egotistical grandiosity, which enables very different, frequently sharply opposed, opinions (often repressed) to be aired and even to discover legitimacy. Trump unifies difference in his changing persona without homogenising it into a singular phenomenon.

Trump’s tradition manifests the spirit of American exceptionalism of the individualist egalitarian sort classically discussed by de Tocqueville. If he is feared as fascistic (at present so much the construction of an antagonistic media), his is a uniquely American one and not of the European kind—totalitarian individualist rather than totalitarian collectivist. In the reactionism he espouses he may well excite the return of a European fascism, but his brand is not to be facilely assimilated to it. Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen are not Trump.

Trump’s right-hand man, Steve Bannon, who describes the extremes that Trump coordinates, likens himself to Thomas Cromwell in the court of the Tudors. Cromwell was the midwife to the political order at the birth of English mercantilist-to-become-capitalist imperialism. With Trump, Bannon may be the handmaiden to the flowering and possible demise of the political order of American capital in its most virulent form.

Sheldon Adelson and Steve Wynn have been announced as chief organisers for Trump’s inauguration on 20 January. They are the billionaires at the centre of a corporate gambling empire that stretches from Las Vegas to Macau. They have built in Vegas a corporate world of the American Dream: one of egalitarian desire and fantasy. Largely through their vision Wall Street has effectively been repositioned in Vegas, finding its true place. This is the capitalism behind the 2008 Great Recession and the desolation of the Midwest rust belt. Indeed, Adelson and Wynn’s casino interests have expanded in response to the crisis in capitalism of fluctuating interest rates and the separation of money from production and its further transmutation into a commodity in itself. Vegas is where capital is liberated from control and where capitalism as a dynamic of creative destruction, together with the hope that drives it, is every day in practice and celebrated by members of all social classes.

Trump’s alternative is no alternative at all. In his overturning and redirection, the Mule that is Trump (Magnifico indeed) is nothing other than the apotheosis of much of the fault or impossible paradox at the heart of the order he derides. He gives it a firmer and more positive place, thus threatening to heap more abjection on his already abject and dissident followers.

About the author

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.

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