TWENTY-TWO YEARS ago, American philosopher Richard Rorty imagined a disastrous future – the very present of the United States today. In Achieving Our Country, he wrote:
Many writers on socioeconomic policy have warned that the old industrialized democracies are heading into a Weimar-like period, one in which populist movements are likely to overturn constitutional governments. Edward Luttwak, for example, has suggested that fascism may be the American future. The point of his book The Endangered American Dream is that members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers – themselves desperately afraid of being downsized – are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.
At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for – someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. A scenario like that of Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here may then be played out. For once such a strongman takes office, nobody can predict what will happen. In 1932, most of the predictions made about what would happen if Hindenburg named Hitler chancellor were wildly overoptimistic.
One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. The words “nigger” and “kike” will once again be heard in the workplace. All the sadism which the academic Left has tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding back. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.
But such a renewal of sadism will not alter the effects of selfishness. For after my imagined strongman takes charge, he will quickly make his peace with the international superrich, just as Hitler made his with the German industrialists. He will invoke the glorious memory of the Gulf War to provoke military adventures which will generate short-term prosperity. He will be a disaster for the country and the world. People will wonder why there was so little resistance to his evitable rise. Where, they will ask, was the American Left? Why was it only rightists like Buchanan who spoke to the workers about the consequences of globalization? Why could not the Left channel the mounting rage of the newly dispossessed?1
In 2016, the established American elites missed what an American thinker had already seen coming in 1998. They heard the dark words and felt the winds of change, yet laughed it off as clowning and posturing that would pass. But it didn’t. Trump and Trumpism overwhelmed the center-left and center-right establishments of both parties. The old elites eclipsed, Republicans are now kowtowing before their strongman and Democrats are prescribing humane decency as antidote to brutal policies and scorching behavior.
There is no shortcut to achieving democracy, nor a discount for its price. The dark feat of Trump’s first election was accomplished with the goal of reelection. And that is within the incumbent’s reach. The forces of Trumpism never rest. Trump tweets when the country sleeps. The duo is incessant. Their unremitting activities have made Rorty’s nightmare come true. Letting them go on, or driving them out, will be costly either way. One has to pay for what kind of America in what kind of world one wants.
THE POWER OF darkness is hostile to democracy. Steve Bannon knows that. “Darkness is good. Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power.” Don’t get it wrong. Populism works with dark words to inflame ethnic animosities, boost antidemocratic instincts, and push authoritarian governance. The American form of populism is Trumpism. And Trump thrives on dark words.
To pledge, “I will totally accept” the election result “if I win,” is to say, Trump will totally reject the voters’ verdict if he loses. This is what dark words do: they don’t mean what they proclaim, often the sheer opposite of it. Trump’s theatrical promise contained his refusal to honor the basic rule of a democratic election, that is, a candidate’s willingness to accept the will of the majority of the electorate. Delivered in a jocular way, the quip, “if I win,” was greeted with laughter and applause. Transmitted like a joke, Trump’s conditional acceptance of the 2016 election was ready-made to spread in the social media swamp of Trump’s base. His supporters already knew from their leader’s frequent Twitterstorms what to think of the electoral process: Rigged, RIGGED, Rigged, rigged, rigged, rigged, rigged, rigged, allowed Crooked Hillary to get away with ‘murder’, rigged, Rigged, Very very unfair!, rigged, totally rigged and corrupt!, totally rigged & corrupt!
Trump’s insulting tweets1 included the threat to jail his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. He said in the second presidential debate: “If I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation.”2 His supporters got the message. “Lock her up!” they shouted with glee in his rallies thereafter.
The idea of imprisoning a candidate for president, let alone the first female nominee of a major US political party, connected the American populist with his peers in Europe, Russia, Asia, and Latin-America. Yet kinship with contemporary and historical forerunners of Trump and Trumpism was of no concern to the camp of Trump supporters. Name-calling other politicians – Crooked Hillary; Little Marco Rubio; Lyin’ Ted Cruz; Low energy Jeb Bush – was not their problem, because Trump spoke to them like a “real man” and unlike a politician. Trump’s foul language was thoroughly enjoyed, but also excused as a refreshing repudiation of political correctness.
Open disregard for the rules of democracy, combined with the vocal criminalization of political rivals as well as transparent contempt for various ethnic and religious minorities, formed a verbal flood of public negativity. The effluence of Trump’s language contaminated the American political discourse, while his irreverent performance intoxicated his base and flummoxed the media. Trump’s avalanche of dark words overwhelmed the linguistic floodgates that had kept the populist-racist fringe at bay and general enmity low.
Rorty’s nightmare – the “renewal of sadism” – was accomplished by Trump and Trumpism. All the efforts at more inclusive public speech countless teachers and educators had propagated for decades from kindergarten to university, were swept aside by wild shouts of “Crocked Hillary” and “Lock Her Up!” Incendiary speech, which was previously deemed unacceptable, was reintroduced with rhetorical volleys against political competitors, immigrants, and NATO allies as well as in favor of nuclear weapons and waterboarding.
Trump’s constant verbal transgressions were intentional and effective. His language carried ideas that raised the “Overton Window” (Figure 1) into “More Freedom” for illiberal and undemocratic actions, such as the ban on Muslims entering the US. Leaving the restrictions of mainstream politics behind, Trump invited Richard Spencer and his white supremacists to Nazi-salute the President-elect and shout next to the White House: “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!”3 Sliding the Overton window up, Trump and Trumpism allowed the racist Alt Right (Spencer’s term for the American Far Right) to come out of the shadows, go beyond “Sensible” and “Acceptable” into “Radical” and “Unthinkable” and flood hitherto empty spaces with rivers of hateful speech and politics.
Dark words alone, however, did not get Trump and Trumpism into the White House. Their fateful ascent was supported by deep and unsettling changes in technology, free speech, capitalism, demography, party politics, geopolitics, political culture, and philosophy. Winds of change4 had long been blowing in these fields. But when they rushed together in 2016, they became a perfect storm and transported an amateur politician – bombastic billionaire, casino, hotel and golf course mogul, beauty pageant owner-operator, World Wrestling Hall of Fame celebrity, and reality TV star – into the Oval Office. In short, dark words and strong winds of change won Trump the White House. That storm, which delivered Trump and empowered the Trumpian force field, is still blowing hard and deadly.
THE DARK POWER of Trump and Trumpism differs from “dark energy” and “dark matter,” yet happens to have similar effects.5 It holds something together that should be difficult to integrate, namely plutocrats and paupers, that is, the uncanny Republican Party coalition of wealthy and poor Americans; and it pulls something asunder that should never be forced to disintegrate: liberal American democracy. Given that the scientific understanding of our physical universe is as tentative as it appears to be, I should be allowed to speak of “dark power” and “dark forces” in relation to Trump and Trumpism.
One wonders why virtually none of the professional talking heads saw Trump and Trumpism coming. Equally astounding was the other political upheaval of 2016, the Brexit vote in the UK. Short of a few exceptions, most pollsters, pundits, diplomats, journalists, and political science professors had loudly proclaimed Brexit would fail and Hillary Clinton would win. How come that the majority of professional political observers, especially the analysts who studied the state-polling for the electoral college of the US, missed 95 percent (metaphorically speaking) of what was going on in the “normal” political universe? Winds of change were gathering strength; dark words attacked the established order of things – how could the American body politic not sense this clear and present danger?
Terrible precedent from the first half of the twentieth century warrants alarm. What came to pass in 2016 – June 23 in the UK and November 8 in the US – has enough momentum to continue. Dark words and deadly winds are ripping into the fabric of democratic societies. A battle is raging that cannot be won with nothing but a younger team, smarter algorithms, better slogans, and more campaign contributions. Nazi Germany is a valuable guide. Its dark history could teach the imagination what is possible in the “Unthinkable” realms of Joseph Overton’s window.
Luckily, we are not there yet. There is evidence that extreme populism can be made small again. Austria did not elect far-right Norbert Hofer in December 2016; the Netherlands rejected Geert Wilders – the “Dutch Trump” – in March 2017; and two months later, in May 2017, France elected Emmanuel Macron president, not Marine Le Pen. Macron is pro-European Union, whereas Le Pen wants to break the EU up. However, it would be rash to conclude that the tide of European populism has ebbed and the storm is over.
Compared with the fast turnarounds of the American presidential system, the political clocks tick a bit slower in Europe’s old and new parliaments. The parties of the Far Right have not gone away; in fact, they have largely normalized neo-nationalistic sentiments and anti-immigration discourses, while steadily gaining votes. Sure, the twin shocks of Brexit and Trump could rejuvenate the European project; they could even stimulate Macron and Angela Merkel to lead the EU and other democracies against the machinations of Vladimir Putin and his friends. But what if Brexit does not turn into the expected disaster for the common people in the UK? What will become of the world if Trump lasts two terms? Or racks up trade deals and foreign policy successes like Hitler did in the 1930s? What if Putin’s digital warriors gain further traction in driving the EU apart and messing up Western minds and elections?6 — European populism is alive and will take advantage. It will switch gears from slow to rapid growth and get closer to the seats of governmental power.
After Hitler, in the wake of the Second World War, Germany learned from America to become a better country. An American, aghast by Trump’s election, asked a German afterwards: We saved you, but who is going to save us now? If America wants to remain “the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14), America may have to relearn democracy from the countries that learned it from America. The nation of Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, and Barack Obama must overcome Trump and Trumpism before they extinguish John Winthrop’s shining “city upon a hill.”
Make Trumpism Small Again! is the legitimate goal of the majority of the American people.7 America can afford a little bit of Trumpism, but not too much. The country is already well on its way toward a golden asset for billionaires, a savage tool for aggrieved zealots of intolerance, and a cruel place for the bulk of its population. Some facets of the “beacon of democracy” are still blazing. Let’s turn their light onto the dark forces attacking American democracy.
POPULISM IS A wish-machine running on the words believe me. Usually, that “me” is a strongman, yet it can also be a strong woman these days.1 European dictators have activated this machine since classical times, from Caesar to Napoleon, Mussolini, Stalin, and Hitler. It is employed globally in our time. Nicolás Maduro, Recep Erdoğan, Rodrigo Duterte, and the Kim dynasty are pitching their versions of it in Venezuela, Turkey, the Philippines, and North Korea.
Historically, populism has defaulted to authoritarian rulership – Caesarism, Bonapartism, Fascism, Stalinism, National Socialism, or some other creed. The historical record also proves that populist regimes tend to pile up horrendous costs for the people and countries that fall for their promises. Why should the US under Trumpism be an exception? Eventually, all Americans will have to pay for the follies of the Trumpian wish-machine.
Trump makes promises without regard for their costs or how to fulfill them. He often says “believe me,” though hardly ever “I believe.”2 He constantly vows to “Make America Great Again” (MAGA, a trademarked slogan), is always right and successful, and never fails to achieve something. The Washington Post listed 76 promises Trump made from the start of his campaign in June 2015 to January 2016. Here is a small sample from this list. Trump vowed to
call for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”
build a wall at the southern border of the US and make Mexico pay for it
never take a vacation while serving as president
bring jobs back from China, Mexico, Japan, and elsewhere
deport almost 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the US
Why “winning again”? America and its people must have been beaten and let down – but by whom? Regular politicians, of course. “Politician” is a curse word in the dictionary of populism. Trump’s base perceives him as far removed from this despised kind. He is the redeemer that has descended from the height of his worldly achievements to elevate the country and its people. The MAGA wish-machine promises “win after win after win,” which is to say, fight after fight after fight. On April 11, 2016, at a rally in Albany, New York, Trump shouted:
We’re going to win so much – win after win after win – that you’re going to be begging me: ‘Please, Mr. President, let us lose once or twice. We can’t stand it anymore.’ And I’m going to say: ‘No way. We’re going to keep winning. We’re never going to lose. We’re never, ever going to lose.4
The fantasy that all fights will be won and no fight lost is matched by the illusion that nobody will have to pay for these fights. American soldiers and taxpayers will lose neither blood nor treasure. Supporters of populist movements do not care about intellectual consistency. If someone convinces them, as Trump did, that he is the one who will “totally” beat everybody and everything that stands between their encumbered lives and wishful dreams, their enthusiastic support will carry that person to the helm. The blues and reckoning come later.
POPULISM IS A promiscuous affair covering the political spectrum all the way from Right to Left. Traditional fidelities like patriotism and religion have no intrinsic value. They are just resources for seducing the masses. Facts and truth are irrelevant. Trump can say that he attends a specific church in Manhattan, even if that church denies that.5
Populists are contradictory, slippery, and elusive. Yet herein lies their deceiving strength. Without any commitment to a particular program, philosophy, or theory of history (as in Marxian communism), the populist leader is boundlessly flexible and able to pitch his rhetoric to what the people want to hear. He will automatically say the right thing because he “gets” the people.
All populisms have also two things in common: Timely methods of direct communication and a spectrum of anti-attitudes. Populist communicators have always sought the most direct mode of addressing their base, from public oratory in the Roman Forum to Hitler’s radio speeches6 and today’s YouTube videos and Twitter messages. Throughout history, populist speakers have reached audiences with plain language and dog-whistles7 in the early stages of their careers.
The anti-attitudes of populism account for the rousing content and fire of populist speechmaking. There is no stable set of resentments, only a wide array of options of “enemies of the people.” The selection is driven by the understanding of who stands in the way of the people and their leader. It can be immigrants, democrats, liberals, Muslims, journalists, newspapers, experts, professors, foreign students, socialism, capitalism, the elite, the media, the European Union, big business, big banks, Wall Street, multinationals, drug dealers, corruption, globalization, whoever and whatever. The anti-attitude may target a singular culprit (“the Jew” in Nazi Germany) or focus on any combination of criminalized offenders.
The preference of populist movements for direct communication between leader and audience creates a structural barrier against intermediaries. Typically, “the establishment,” political and professional elites, independent institutions, and critical media are met with hostility. Nationalism and nativism are habitually allied with right-wing populism, which is mostly inward-looking. Left-wing populism has sometimes favored international instead of national solidarity (“Workers of the World Unite!”), but that was before the global age. Now, cosmopolitanism is suspicious to all populists.
When populist nationalism merges with an anti-attitude such as antisemitism, the stadium chant “USA! USA!” becomes “Jew-S-A! Jew-S-A!” This noxious transformation was displayed in October 2016 by George Lindell, a Trump supporter wearing a “Hillary for Prison” T-shirt at a rally of his candidate.8 Yelling at the corralled press corps, “You’re the enemy, you’re the ones working for the devil,” Lindell’s outburst unleashed the dark energy of an individual. However, the “us” versus “them” worldview is also a collective property of populism with deadly potential for internal and external foes. Collective eruptions of dark energy from populist movements (pogroms) are to be expected and feared.
The explosive dynamic of the “friend-enemy antithesis” has received notorious attention and support by political theorist Carl Schmitt (1888-1985). This foremost Weimar and Nazi jurist emphasized the “objective nature” of the friend/enemy binary in “the political.”9 For Schmitt, the political conceives the enemy as “the other, the stranger.” Explaining the otherness of the other, Schmitt stated: “it is sufficient for his nature that he is, in a specially intense way, existentially something different and alien, so that in the extreme case conflicts with him are possible.” Schmitt underlined that such conflicts can include violent action in “war between organized nations” or “civil war.” Why? Because “to the enemy concept belongs the ever-present possibility of combat.” Finally, Schmitt stated that the terms “friend” and “enemy” have to be understood in their “original existential sense” as words with corporal relevance, “because they refer to the real possibility of physical killing.”
Considering this conclusion and the extensive historical record of populist adventures in conjunction with the novel prospects of America under a populist president, it would appear prudent to look at history with Schmitt’s chilling analysis in mind. But no, half of America’s political elite is too excited about their new career chances, whereas the other half is too stunned about their lost opportunities. Meanwhile, the frightening possibilities down the road begin to take roots.
The United States of America has a dangerous sense of incomparability. It prides itself as being exceptional and forward-looking, so it doesn’t bother to spend time studying the past. Why learn from the experience of other nations when your country is unique? Why clutter your mind with old stuff when the future will bring new things? America skips the history lessons. She dismisses the devastating victories of populism as a European or Latin-American problem. Only in fiction, as in The Plot Against America by Philip Roth (2004), has the US fallen to a president inspired by Nazi Germany, or taken over by a populist strongman, as in Sinclair Lewis’s novel It Can’t Happen Here (1935).10
The centrist elites of America hesitate to acknowledge that the upstart populist leader, who has already acquired the White House, could dismantle American democracy, or that the country’s longstanding political culture, stability, and order could slowly be ripped to shreds. American democracy and its institutions are perceived as healthy and robust.11 They have survived McCarthyism and Governor Huey Long’s authoritarian inclinations; they weathered the antisemitism of Charles Coughlin, the racism of Governor George Wallace, and the LGBTQ hatred of Senator Jesse Helms (Figure 1). Indeed, America has seen demagoguery, violence, hate-crimes, darkly scheming fringe groups, and all sorts of killings, but she has never been possessed by an admirer of strongmen and a militant populist movement.
Trump was carried to the pinnacle of American power by a multitude of evitable ills, including
angry frustration of Whites without a college degree
dispirited and pained Blacks who abstained from voting
widespread distrust of Hillary Clinton
Democratic Party neglect of the working-class
identity politics for the well-educated
successful Russian intelligence efforts
and a toxic sludge of falsehoods widely publicized by the myriad tentacles of social media.
Thus, on November 8, 2016, Trump received the votes that gave him a clear majority in the Electoral College (Table 1). He became President of the United States on January 20, 2017. Since then, Trump and Trumpism are in power. Dark words and dark forces must now be reckoned with. They are inflating the Trumpian universe and will affect everybody everywhere for the rest of this decade and probably beyond.
POPULISM HAS INFECTED the US deeply and conquered its highest office. What appeared to be a distant issue has now entered the mainstream of American politics.
The American international studies establishment took belated notice. Case in point: The Foreign Affairs issue on “The Power of Populism.” Published just before the 2016 election, it was led off by a “fascinating” interview with Marine Le Pen, the female leader of France’s right-wing National Front. The journal’s contributors echoed the editorial line, “politics as usual is unlikely to return anytime soon,”12 but sounded only moderate warnings.
Sheri Berman declared “Populism Is Not Fascism, But It Could Be a Harbinger.”13 Breaking old ground, Michael Kazin distinguished two American populist traditions, one advancing “civic” and the other “racial nationalism.”14 Erroneously assuming that the latter would be “no longer acceptable in national campaigns,” Kazin found, “Trump will struggle to win the White House.” He concluded, “populism can be dangerous, but it may also be necessary” to invigorate American democracy.
Observing that “the populist fever” is rising “almost entirely in the Western world,” Fareed Zakaria diagnosed “too rapid cultural change” caused by transnational migration.15 He prescribed “limits on the rate of immigration and on the kinds of immigrants who are permitted to enter,” but remained confident that the West will manage, since “young people are the least anxious or fearful of foreigners of any group in society.” The emerging prominence of populism in Western societies was also the topic of Cas Mudde’s article “Europe’s Populist Surge.”16 Having researched European populism for two decades and knowing its wide range and deep historical roots,17 Mudde rightly emphasized the “likely staying power”18 of parties built around populist appeals.
In contrast to the presidential system of the US, where the leader of the executive is elected more directly,19 the parliamentary systems of Europe elect their executive leaders (the Prime Minister of the UK or the Chancellor of Germany, for instance) more indirectly, that is, via the legislators of the parties represented in the national parliament. Moreover, gaining more than one-third of the national vote has become almost impossible in the multi-party systems of Europe. Hence, European parties need to forge governing coalitions and can rarely seize power abruptly. A quick winner-takes-all surprise like Trump’s is unlikely in contemporary Europe.
Right- and left-wing populist parties are already in the parliaments of most European countries gathering votes and power over successive election cycles. They articulate the populist zeitgeist and hold quite a few seats.
Collectively, populist parties scored an average of 16.5 percent of the vote in those elections [in the five years before 2016 in 16 European countries], ranging from a staggering 65 percent in Hungary to less than one percent in Luxembourg. Populists now control the largest share of parliamentary seats in six countries: Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Slovakia, and Switzerland.20
So far, European populism is moving largely within established, lawful political frameworks. Nevertheless, democracy and freedom in Europe are not guaranteed. According to Mudde, Europe’s growing populism is “essentially illiberal, especially in its disregard for minority rights, pluralism, and the rule of law.” Viktor Orbán, Prime Minister of Hungary and leader of its populist Fidesz party, confirmed this proudly when he said, “the new state that we are building in Hungary is an illiberal state, not a liberal state.”21 In addition, antidemocratic Far Right alliances and populists managed to get EU funds for their anti-EU agendas. Leading representatives of Eurosceptic parties (such as the UK Independence Party) won seats in the European Parliament, which gave them salaries, benefits, titles, media exposure, and immunity from criminal prosecution in their home countries.22 UKIP’s Nigel Farage – Brexit advocate, friend of Trump, and Fox News commentator – is a prime example of a cynic EU populist responsible for Europe’s creeping advancement of corrosive populism.
Until recently, Germany was the European country with the lowest voting support for populist parties (Figure 2). Its gaggle of small populist movements included the Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland, AfD).23 Founded in February 2013, the AfD did not win enough votes in September 2013 to enter the national parliament, yet by May 2017, it had representatives in thirteen of Germany’s sixteen state parliaments. Looking forward to an announced (but then unrealized) opening of Breitbart bureaus in Cairo, Paris, and Berlin, the Heidelberg AfD branch tweeted in ecstatic anticipation: “Breitbart is coming to Germany. Fantastic! That’ll cause an earthquake in our stale media landscape.”24
The national emergence of the AfD occurred in the federal elections of September 24, 2017, when this new right-wing force gained 12.6 percent of all votes and became the third-largest party with 94 seats in the German parliament (the Bundestag). Although Angela Merkel won a fourth term as chancellor, her party (CDU) shrunk by 55 seats, and her previous coalition partners (SPD and CSU) lost 40 and 10 seats, respectively.25 The AfD has succeeded in spiking German politics with inflammatory, neo-nationalistic and anti-immigration rhetoric and topics, but still has little chance of entering a national governing coalition.
To fathom the populist breakthrough in the US, I will deep-dive into the abyss of Trumpism next.
TRUMPISM WAS LAUNCHED anonymously, and defined unmistakably, by a group of erudite writers who flash-published a blog on “radical Trumpism” in February 2016. The blog’s title was grand – Journal of American Greatness (JAG) – and the blog posts took critical aim at the Republican, not the Democratic Party. The authors hid behind mainly Roman pseudonyms, such as “Plautus” and “Cato the Elder,” but also “Macaulay,” because Trump and Trumpism were still considered preposterous at the time. JAG revealed the dark features of Trumpism.
“Radical Trumpism” was a concerted attack on “conservatism’s self-imposed intellectual stagnation.” It surpassed the earlier Tea Party critique of mainstream Republicanism with politico-theoretical sophistication and steered democratic conservatism sharply to the Right, toward an anti-democratic, nationalistic program. The masked authors declared:
We support Trumpism, defined as secure borders, economic nationalism, interests-based foreign policy, and above all judging every government action through a single lens: does this help or harm Americans? For now, the principal vehicle of Trumpism is Trump.1
When asked – “Who are you?” – the group responded: “We are American patriots aghast at the stupidity and corruption of American politics, particularly in the Republican Party, and above all in what passes for the ‘conservative’ intellectual movement.” When asked again – “Literally, who are you guys?” – the answer was: “None of your damned business.” Of course, all these questions and answers were rhetorical. The JAGsters thumbed their noses at the establishment of the Republican Party by simply responding “Yes” to the question: “Is this journal pro-Trump or anti-conservative?”
In June 2016, after publishing 130 articles,2 the online journal called it a day with a thank-you notice from its anonymous authors to their readers (“we never expected so many of you”) and the promise to return “in a different way” should another market for their ideas open up.3 No further explanation given; exploratory mission accomplished. JAG had drawn a blueprint for the education of Donald Trump, the vehicle of Trumpism; and it had set the goal posts for the American populist movement of the twenty-first century: first, what needs to be done; second, what has to be defended; and third, what must be erased from the national interest (nothing less than the mission to spread democracy).
First on JAG’s agenda was the required doing. The candidate had to be taught the proper job of government: none other than “to protect its citizens’ lives, liberty and property.” No doubt was left about the correct beneficiaries of this objective. With the emphasis on “its” citizens, JAG flagged American citizens as the only legitimate recipients of US government protection. In addition, radical Trumpism demanded an aggressive posture in favor of anti-globalization and America First.
The expansion of globalism (the dominant social feature of this century) must be fought relentlessly. In this great social conflict of the era, we are, with some reservations, on the nationalist side.4
No reservations were specified, but US nationalism was asserted. Three weeks after winning the presidency, Trump toed JAG’s line on the issue of globalism.
There is no global anthem, no global currency, no certificate of global citizenship. We pledge allegiance to one flag, and that flag is the American flag. From now on, it’s going to be America first. OK? America first. We’re going to put ourselves first.5
Second on JAG’s agenda was the item to be defended. The cloaked presidential educators illuminated the world-historical moment and articulated their preference for a conservative Christian, if not retro-Catholic, world order.
The profound crisis of our era is, in essence, the conflict between the Social Engineers, who seek to adjust mankind to conform with scientific utopias, and the disciples of Truth, who defend the organic moral order… On this point we are, with some reservations, on the conservative side.6
Again, the reservations remained unstated. Trump does not have to have the capacity to address the Manichaean battle between the “disciples of Truth” and the evil cohorts of social engineers, but he can tear everything down JAG disdains, including science.7 For example: “Global warming is based on faulty science and manipulated data which is proven by the emails that were leaked.”8 Trump’s strength are his dark tweets to millions of followers. Little does it matter that thousands of scientists in the US and all over the world protested and staged marches for science on Earth Day 2017.9 Science bashing is justified in JAG’s religious worldview, which features “Truth” (with capital “T”) in opposition to “scientific utopias.”
Third on JAG’s syllabus was the ban of irrelevant things. It included first and foremost the stern prohibition to promote democracy.
The century’s most blatant force of Wilsonian utopianism10 is the indiscriminate democracy agenda. We consider “promotion” of “democracy” neither desirable nor possible in all circumstances, nor honorable. We find ourselves irrevocably at war with both parties’ refusal to acknowledge the disasters wrought by the Freedom Agenda and the Right to Protect.11
A prime target of this a double-barreled attack was the legacy of Republican President George W. Bush, who, in 2005, after his reelection had announced the global “Freedom Agenda” that tied US foreign policy “to the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in the world.”12
The other bipartisan “disaster” in the crosshairs of JAG was an understanding that all member states of the UN had reached between 2005 and 2009, namely: “each individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.”13 This UN obligation – incidentally not termed Right to Protect but Responsibility to Protect – drew the ire of JAG, because it curtailed the absolute right of nation states to reject and block foreign interventions.
Allowing the international community to hold states “accountable for the welfare of their people” was an achievement for the UN. It meant “sovereignty no longer exclusively protects States from foreign interference.”14 For oppressed people, this was not a guarantee of protection, but an assertion of their inalienable human rights. Yet for hypernationalists, such as the ideologues of JAG, this was an utterly unacceptable assault on rightful US power. For them, it meant the UN and global society could occasionally overrule the US, i.e. somebody else could come first and the US second – no way!
The curriculum of Trump’s virtual teachers went further. Not only did it include education about “blatant” utopian overreaches – promoting democracy, seeking to end tyranny, and entitling the UN to tell sovereign nations how to handle themselves humanely – but also instruction about the foolishness of accommodating the transnational interests of multinational corporations.
Asserting the duty of the national leader to put the combined economic interests of the nation above the self-interests of individual market players, JAG warned about the “pressure of oligopolies (especially financial oligopolies)” and slammed unidentified “multinational conglomerates [that] have clearly identified themselves with doctrinaire multiculturalist and globalist objectives.” Yielding to a societal reform program like multiculturalism was herewith verboten. JAG ended this course with a history lesson:
No superstition has more effectively bewitched America’s elite than the fashionable concepts of world government, the United Nations, internationalism, interconnected economies, etc. Perhaps the most important and readily demonstrable lesson of history is that remote government is irresponsible government. It would make greater sense to grant independence to each of our 50 states than to surrender U.S. sovereignty to a world organization.15
Defying JAG on an all-negative verdict about “surrendering” sacred national power to “remote” organizations, President-elect Trump tweeted about the “great potential,” yet “sad” performance of the UN on December 26, 2016 (Figure 1). His pick of South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley for American ambassador to the UN was a sensible choice. Even though endorsed for governor by Sarah Palin, Governor Haley had ordered the Confederate flag removed from the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse. She had gained some international experience visiting India and a couple of other countries (Germany and Sweden).16
Born Nimrata Randhawa in the US to an Indian American Sikh family from Amritsar district in Punjab, India, she was featured with banners all over Amritsar after becoming governor of South Carolina. Yet Haley started her first day at the UN by ominously warning critics of the US, “we’re taking names.”17 There is certainly more to come from her and the Trump administration about global affairs and I would be very astonished if it were positive about global organizations.
WHEN THE BLOG on radical Trumpism went offline in June 2016, one of the anonymous writers for JAG kept publishing under his pen name, which was Publius Decius Mus. The historic Decius Mus was a Roman consul who had sacrificed himself in battle. The Trumpian Decius was a public enigma for one year, until February 2, 2017. That day, his identity and workplace were uncovered. I will come to this revelation later. Now, I would like to continue with Decius and discuss his strong Trumpism under the Rawlsian “veil of ignorance,” that is, the pretension to know nothing about the actual person behind the cover.
Decius entered the election-year arena of conservative political debates with the essay “Toward a Sensible, Coherent Trumpism.”18 It was published by The Unz Review, an “alternative” blogging platform for unsavory political perspectives, and quickly re-published by JAG, where an Editors’ Note disclosed a bit of background, namely that the article had been rejected by a conservative think-tank, for which it had been written in the first place. The reported concerns (“some readers would see it as an endorsement of Trump;” the immigration part shows “thymos but not enough logos”19) indicated how unlikely the success of Trump and Trumpism appeared in March 2016.
The denizens of the right-wing blogosphere around Unz Review, JAG, and Breitbart News were ready to accept Decius’s verdicts, “mainstream conservative intellectuals” are “wholly useless” and “Donald Trump is in a commanding position to win the Republican presidential nomination.”20 They saw a path to Trump’s nomination, but they were still unsure about his prospects of becoming President. Only a neutral political scientist went that far in March 2016 and predicted: “Trump is in a commanding position to defeat Clinton in November.”21
A smart move of Decius was the bold proposition that Trump’s “scattershot” approach, “inchoate and incomplete” as it was, could be fashioned into “a coherent body of thought.” In early 2016, when mainstream Republicans were taking cover from the daily Trumpian shower of dark words, Decius’s article announced: This “unformed and instinct-driven” candidate, who is “no man of ideas,” has nevertheless the right ideas, furthermore, those ideas can and must be assembled into a sensible and coherent political philosophy of Trumpism, “something Trump himself cannot provide.”
The world wondered, what gave Trump the electoral edge? According to Decius, two words above all: “America First.” Skipping the history of the America First Committee (“unfairly maligned”), Decius declared, “politics is by nature particular,” and, “our elites have forgotten or smugly deny” this deep understanding of politics, which the ancients, Plato, Aristotle, and Xenophon, still had and used to their advantage.
Decius offered the insight, “here on the ground, the distinctions between citizen and foreigner, compatriot and outsider, friend and enemy [will] never go away.” Trump’s incitement to “Take Our Country Back!” resonated so well with many Americans, Decius argued, because the American people “always felt in their bones their particularity, their uniqueness, their status as a people distinct from other peoples.” For Decius, this gut feeling and the shouts “America First” pointed “to the heart of Trumpism,” which, I would add, is full of darkness.
Trumpism works with the assumption of rightful owners and illegitimate transgressors who steal a possession or take advantage of a property (“our country”) that is not theirs. Otherwise, any “taking back” would be an inexcusable wrongdoing.
Who, then, are the rightful owners of America? And who are the thieves and illegal occupants of the country? Decius tackled both questions in one answer: “The Constitution and the social impact it enshrines are for us – the American people – and not for foreigners, immigrants (except those we choose to welcome), or anyone else.”
Decius’s message was clear. The rightful owners of America are we. America is for us and not for them, that is, immigrants and resident aliens. Yet if America needs to be taken back from the non-us, they must have taken our country from us, the rightful owners. But how did that happen?
Decius had the answer. “Mass Third World immigration” has “overwhelmed, eroded, and de-Americanized formerly American communities.” The “unrelenting onslaught” of “incompatible people” (think Muslims) is taking America away from us and “poses an existential threat … to the nation.” Yet this was not primarily the immigrants’ fault, but rather “the spectacular failure of our elites,” who are helping “globalized elites” instead of the people “they ostensibly lead.”
Decius’s answer called for corrective action against the American establishment without explicitly identifying its members or specifying the measures to be taken. Severe measures seemed appropriate, because the argument that America’s leaders had become her internal enemies, subservient to “the Davos overclass,” was an accusation of treason. Clearly, America had to be repossessed from treacherous politicians, Republican and Democratic.
Let the full enormity of the crisis we face finally be realized. The left supports mass immigration and the Davos economy – top plus bottom against the middle – for obvious [electoral] reasons. Republicans support it in fealty to their true masters (their donor class) and in the vain hope that they will get credit from the left for not being “racist.”
Determined to face the overdramatized national crisis and unafraid of the racism epithet, Decius topped his all-out critique with a principal denial of mass immigration. Liberally riffing on Abraham Lincoln’s point that the authors of the Declaration of Independence “intended to include all men, but did not intend to declare all men equal in all respects,” he turned Lincoln’s reference to differences “in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity” into a “crucial caveat.” This, however, is Decius’s, not Lincoln’s caveat.
Lincoln refuted the Dred Scott decision of the Supreme Court (the ruling that blacks have “no rights which the white man was bound to respect”22) and upheld “that the language of the Declaration is broad enough to include the whole human family.”23 What was crucial for Decius and radical Trumpism is not what Lincoln said, but rather what Trump can say and we should think, namely that all humans are unequal in politically important respects. Decius’s uncompromising view of “the immigration issue” is built on predictable, substantial, and “irreconcilable” differences spelled out with aplomb.
People from different nations with different circumstances, histories, beliefs and traditions will – by definition – hold very different conceptions of good government, some irreconcilably opposed to our own. It has been said that a principal cause of Rome’s fall was that “many men who never knew republican life and did not care for it … became Roman citizens.” Why then do we Americans continue to import millions upon millions who have never known republican life and do not care for it? In doing so, we do not uphold our Founding creed; we hasten and enable its oblivion.24
Decius likes to pepper his texts with quotes from ancient philosophy and Roman history. Yet that does not make him a scholar in the vein of the Ciceronian art of learning from history – historia magistra vitae est (Cicero, De Oratore, II, 36) – but merely a raider of the classical canon for political ends. (Marcus Tullius Cicero would have made a great pen name for Decius, too, hadn’t Cicero ended up an enemy of the authoritarian state with his severed head and hands displayed on the Rostra.) Anyway, who was it that supposedly said the naturalization of too many foreigners was “a principal cause” for the fall of Rome? Well, the unnamed author was Leo Strauss and the original passage reads as follows:
Apart from her excessive virtue, the second reason for Rome’s greatness was her liberal admission of foreigners to citizenship. But such a policy exposes a state to great dangers, as the Athenians and especially the Spartans knew who feared that the admixture of new inhabitants would corrupt the ancient customs. Owing to the Roman policy, many men who never knew republican life and did not care for it, that is, many orientals, became Roman citizens.25
Let’s note an important difference between Decius and Strauss. Strauss argued that the “liberal admission of foreigners to citizenship” was a cause for Rome’s rise. Decius turned Strauss’s qualified argument upside down to say exactly the opposite, and, using the obfuscating weasel words “it has been said,” insinuate that Rome’s liberal immigration policy was “a principal cause” for the fall of Rome. Wow!
Decius employs “counterfeit logic” (the term Lincoln used to criticize Judge Douglas) to fit his sources to his views. This would be unacceptable in any scholarly context. But Decius cares more about the design of radical politics than proper hermeneutics. So, backed by Strauss and Roman history or not, the principal framer of Trumpism condemns the “ceaseless importation of people unaccustomed to liberty,” because radical Trumpism warrants a highly restrictive immigration policy.
To support radical Trumpism with another strong populist leg, Decius sounded a loud warning about both the unhealthiness of exorbitant private wealth and the doctrine of “free market über alles!” (German in the original). Fully aware of the irony that “it took a dissident billionaire to wake us up to the fact that America has decayed into an oligarchy,” he questioned the overall direction of the American economy:
Is it to produce pretty numbers in Labor Department and Heritage Foundation reports? Or is it to serve human welfare? More specifically, what is the American economy for? Is it to raise standards of living for the Third World poor while enriching transnational billionaires at the expense of the American middle and working classes? Or to serve the interests of the American people?26
Decius went further and identified Bill Gates as un-American:
Is it necessary – or healthy – for our richest citizen to hold literally one million times the wealth, not of our poorest citizen, but of the median income? A fortune he is spending, I need hardly add, not on magnificent bequeaths to his own country or civilization, but on social engineering the Third World.
Decius ended blasting the .01 percenters and above:
Conservative politicians and intellectuals alike have helped create, and continue to help maintain, a new class of tax-exempt aristocrats, well beyond ducally rich, who are not loyal to the American people, American interests, or America itself.
According to Decius, Trumpism must complement the prohibition of mass immigration with a muscular implementation of economic nationalism. Doing that in the beginning of Trump’s presidency will allow Trump to deliver on popular campaign promises and set the stage for his reelection and a long-term revival of the nation. Decius made no bones about his long-term view of Trumpism beyond Trump: “Trumpism is too important to be left to Trump.” Radical Trumpism beyond Trump is the panacea for all of America’s illnesses; it must be taken over the long haul.
On September 5, 2016, Decius raised the stakes of his design for America with an article invoking United Airlines Flight 93. Americans remember September 11, 2001, when four Al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked a domestic airplane with the intention to fly it into the White House or the Capitol, yet crew and passengers fought back and the plane crashed into a field in Pennsylvania, killing all on board, but missing the intended target. Using the heroic example of the passengers and flight attendants, the article opened with the sentence: “2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway.”27
Since the 2016 election was only two months away, reactions quickly piled up in the online niche worlds of the Far Right, many of them below the horizon of mainstream media. Surprised by this sizable reception, Decius responded swiftly, “Everything I said … was derivative of things I had already said, with … more vim and vigor, in a now-defunct blog.” However, he was happy to restate his main points.28 And when pro-Trump radio-host Rush Limbaugh appreciated the essay as a “nuclear bomb”29 and New York Times columnist David Brooks honored it with a Sidney Award at the end of 2016,30 Decius had become the acknowledged mastermind of Trumpism.
“The Flight 93 Election” essay was a breakthrough performance. Its message was unequivocal:
Trump and radical Trumpism are the last chance to rescue the American people from suppression “by a transnational managerial class in conjunction with the administrative state.”
The American “governing arrangement” is enforced by a “bipartisan junta.”
Only “the colorful loudmouth with the sensible agenda” has the guts to reject that “experts must rule because various advances (the march of history) have made governing too complicated for public deliberation.”
Only Trump and radical Trumpism have the will and the ability to stop the oligarchs from exploiting America and its people.
Only the empowerment of Trump and radical Trumpism can save the country from becoming “a blue state on a national scale.”
Decius gave the 2016 election an existential either/or urgency: Either Trump and Trumpism will be authorized to reset US conservatism and recover the American “constitutional republic” or the junta will freeze American life “under perma-liberalism.”31
The price America will have to pay for enabling Trump plus radical Trumpism (call it T-Plus) was of course never enumerated. It is incalculable, but occasional asides, such as “billionaire enemy alien”32 for George Soros, historical precedence, cautionary evidence provided by populist leaders currently in power, and smart commentary, liberal as well as conservative, could and should be consulted. For example, a sympathetic observer of radical Trumpism foresaw in January 2017:
In the next four years, expect a continual war on intellectuals and academics (who, not surprisingly, are almost absent from the Trump cabinet), the media, the political establishment, and the progressive class, whose lavish lifestyle and preachy rhetoric are irreconcilable.”33
These groups had already been put on notice by Decius, but American research universities have reason to worry, too. Cato the Elder, one of JAG’s “great teachers,” wrote in March 2016:
If America were still properly a constitutional republic, we would not have to fear the will of the executive; the legislative branch could easily bring it to heel. The problem is that all of the establishment elites are defenders of the administrative state. The question is whether Trump will be able to begin the process of re-establishing the authority of the people. In appealing directly to them, he has bypassed the intellectual authority of the knowledge elite. … The real source of power in the modern state is the research university.34
T-PLUS IS A serious and militant ideology. It harks back to the Machiavellian and Hobbesian line of political thought crystalized in the work of Carl Schmitt, whom I have already mentioned as the Nazi theorist of the friend-enemy distinction. This dark tradition reached the US via Leo Strauss. After the election of Trump, disciples of this tradition gained outsize influence in American politics. Their voices are now heard in the Oval Office. How come?
The journey began in Weimar Germany in 1932. Strauss had reviewed Schmitt’s Concept of the Political in a leading German social science journal,35 and Schmitt wrote a letter of recommendation for Strauss (who was preparing an edition of Moses Mendelssohn’s works for the Academy of the Science of Judaism in Berlin, but had lost his research position due to financial difficulties of the Academy). Schmitt’s letter helped, and Strauss received a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship to work on Thomas Hobbes in Paris. The fellowship was renewed in 1933 and Strauss continued his research on Hobbes in London and Cambridge. In 1937, Columbia University invited Strauss to New York for a visiting lecturer position in history, and the following year, he moved across town to the New School for Social Research. Strauss stayed as a member of the Graduate Faculty of the New School for ten years before joining the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago in 1949 at age 50.36
Teaching at UChicago until 1967, Strauss and many of his students became influential, if not notorious, on the conservative side of American culture and politics. “Accused of being the intellectual godfather of the neo-conservative political movement” as well as other machinations, Strauss cast his intellectual shadow over both coasts of the United States. To quote an inside voice:
Straussians are generally identified with the GOP’s neoconservative intelligentsia. But not all Straussians are created equal. There are, very roughly, two major schools: The East Coast Straussians, most of whom were influenced by Allan Bloom and Harvey Mansfield; The West Coast Straussians, the focal point of which is the Claremont Graduate School where Harry Jaffa used to teach, and the Claremont Institute. Members of this latter school are often known as the Claremonsters, whether they studied at Claremont or not.37
Claremont historian Harry Jaffa was a doctoral student of Strauss at the New School; the master himself taught for one year at Claremont Men’s College after his retirement from Chicago. According to Hedley Wight from the white-supremacist and anti-Semitic VDARE (We Dare) Foundation, West Coast Straussians are largely Catholic oriented and US Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and natural law focused, whereas East Coast Straussians tend to be secular Jews with universal values and a global outlook.
The Schmitt-Straussian connection is a live wire intertwined with reactionary American politics and culture – nationalist, populist, nativist, racist, militarist, protectionist, isolationist, and libertarian. And thanks to the appointment of Stephen Bannon of right-wing Breitbart News as “Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor to the President,” an aggressive spokesman for radical Trumpism entered the West Wing of the White House on January 20, 2017.
FINALLY, WHO IS the man who hid behind “Decius,” where does he live, and what does he do for a living?
A staff writer for the New Yorker, Kelefa Sanneh, was probably the first journalist to interview Decius in the flesh. Sanneh had recognized that “a rogue group of conservative thinkers” was constructing “a governing ideology around a President-elect who disdains ideology” and found, “the most cogent argument for electing Donald Trump was made not by Trump, or by his campaign, but by a writer who, unlike Trump, betrayed no eagerness to attach his name to his creations.” After identifying Decius as the master mind of radical Trumpism, Sanneh made contact and agreed not to unmask Decius, who was afraid of jeopardizing his employment. The two met in midtown Manhattan, in the food court of Grand Central Terminal.
The man known as Decius was tall and fit, a youthful middle-aged professional dressed in a well-tailored gray suit and a pink shirt. He has worked in the finance world, but he talked about political philosophy with the enthusiasm of someone who would do it for fun, which is essentially what he does.38
Sanneh was right about the enthusiasm and wrong about the fun. The Trumpist “known as Decius” certainly enjoyed stirring up transnational Davos people and traditional conservatives, but to think Decius was presenting his political philosophy essentially for fun, was missing the point. Decius is dead serious about his project. Forget the agreeable person in the food court, who “endeavored to fold his long legs beneath a small table,” and consider the radical ideas man. As Decius said, “in the final analysis, there is going to be a line. Some will be on one side, some on the other.”39 This is the line between friends and enemies in the blood-soaked neighborhood of Schmitt.
On February 2, 2017, shortly after Sanneh’s interview and one year after JAG’s appearance in the blogosphere, the Weekly Standard broke the news about the actual person behind the veil of Decius. A prominent outlet for East Coast Straussians, the Standard took pleasure in “doxing” a rival West Coast Straussian who had become “the leading conservative intellectual to argue for the election of Donald Trump.”
Staff writer Michael Warren identified Decius as Michael Anton, “a fast-talking 47-year-old intellectual who, unlike most of his colleagues, can readily quote [and misquote] Roman histories and Renaissance thinkers.” This revelation was not a complete surprise since William Kristol, the Standard’s founding editor, had called the Flight 93 article “elegantly-written garden-variety sophistry” in early September 2016, “I presume the author is Mike Anton.”40 The totally unexpected information was Anton’s workplace: “The writer is a senior national-security official in the Trump White House.”41
Warren further disclosed that Anton had been a speechwriter and press secretary for former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, worked from 2001 to 2005 in the George W. Bush administration as an aide for the National Security Council (NSC), then as a speechwriter for Rupert Murdoch, communications director at Citigroup, and managing director at BlackRock, the world’s largest investment corporation and shadow bank. Warren expressed understanding for the cloaking of Anton’s identity:
With that résumé, it’s no wonder the man who referred to the “Davos class” as a “junta” and wrote that it would “be better for the nation to divide up more equitably a slightly smaller pie than to add one extra slice” chose to write under a pseudonym.
Betraying the global financial elite, noted the Standard, was one thing, but tearing down Republican conservatism and becoming “a traitor to his class of conservative intellectuals” was unforgivable. According to Warren, Anton got the position of senior director of strategic communications after first choice Monica Crowley had backed out just before Trump was sworn in.42
Bannon, the most offensive fighter in the Trump administration, was expected to carry the ideas of radical Trumpism into the White House. Then the plot against America suddenly thickened. The veil of ignorance was lifted, and the news was stunning (Figure 2): the most sophisticated ideologue of American populism was reporting to work – in the West Wing!
The quip, history repeats itself “first as tragedy, then as farce,” is from Karl Marx (The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, 1852). Kristol took it to belittle Anton, who is shown with notebook and glasses in the doorway of the White House Briefing Room along with K. T. McFarland and retired Army Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, Anton’s boss and Trump’s National Security Advisor at the time.43 Kristol was right about the Schmitt connection, also about Anton as the country’s leading authoritarian and antidemocratic intellectual, but I wonder about the farce – America may be in for a tragedy.
TRUMP WON IN 2016, the battle lines are drawn, and by the time of the next presidential election we shall know what Trump and radical Trumpism have amounted to in four years of Trumpist governmental practice.
On day one, Trump announced, “From this moment on, it’s going to be America First.”1 His inauguration address was radical Trumpism pure. The President’s first week in office indicated that the goals of T-Plus are guiding his governmental agenda.2 Blanket executive orders against immigration from Mexico3 and entry from seven majority Muslim countries (later reduced to six) were issued and reissued in January, quickly stopped by objections from the lower courts and then partly allowed by the Supreme Court in June.4 Trump’s call as President-elect for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on”5 resulted as soon as possible in Trumpian action. Dark words have dark consequences.
The whole world is watching what kind of America T-Plus will create. Most Americans would like to see Trumpism made small again, yet neither they nor the world oversee American history today. To borrow from Decius/Anton’s Flight 93 analogy, Trump’s party, the minority of Americans who voted for Trump, and the right-wing enablers of radical Trumpism have boarded the airplane and Trump occupies the pilot’s seat.
We are now in a contemporary history emergency. What can a historian do in that situation? My answer is this manuscript. It won’t contribute an iota to a safe landing, but even if flight America crashes, I want to know what was happening. Thus, I am recording the dark words of Populism/Trumpism as well as the dark energy, which roils the Trumpian force field and enables the deadly winds that can bring us down.
THE AMERICAN VOTING pattern favors change-candidates after any two-term presidency. Hence, the eight years of Barack Obama helped both the election of Donald Trump as well as the prediction of Trump’s victory.6 Although an important element, the “swing of the electoral pendulum” (Norpoth) was no guarantee; a whole lot of additional factors had to gather substantial strength to produce the 2016 election result. Many things had to accumulate to shatter the old order. A critical mass of simmering discontent, novel opportunities, and disruptive innovations had to join forces to blow the contenders out of the race and sweep Trump and Trumpism up and into the cockpit.
Long in the making, it is highly unlikely that the Trumpian force field will shut down quickly. Instead, its dark energy will remain a source of deadly winds for years to come. This force field is constantly energized by forces that are not going to let up soon. America is facing a perfect storm of overwhelming changes:
disruptive technological trends
strategic allocations of big money
despair about rising inequality
unsettling demographic shifts
corruption of party politics
global geopolitical pressures
politics as entertainment
the postmodern inability to distinguish beliefs, opinions, lies, facts, and truth.
I will discuss these eight dynamic forces in the second part of this manuscript, starting with the spectacular growth and political impact of new social media, one of modern technology’s most recent and beloved, yet also most disruptive and subversive innovations.
TRY TO ANSWER the question: Is technology per se good, evil, or neutral, and you will quickly get into epistemological trouble. To avoid this trap, I enter this discussion at the usage station, the point from whence technologies are part and parcel of modern societies, embedded in social, natural, cultural, and economic activities, open to political interests, and subject to ethical distinctions between good and bad uses.
The Flight 93 airplane lent itself to the pilot and the terrorists; both were flying the aircraft within our planet’s atmosphere and our moral and political universe. Hence, when I speak of dark technology, I mean technology used for bad ends and not technology as such. Social media are no exception: digital messaging technologies, like airplanes, lend themselves to good and bad uses, and everything in-between.
Technology darkens when rogue users of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media concoct fake news, or when Donald Trump and radical Trumpists inject dark words and sinister memes into the echo chambers of social networks.1 It is an unacceptable breach of public trust when shiny new techtools are used to attack and destroy what we hold dear: democracy, civil society, civility, tolerance, fair play, public courage, ecological balance, and truth. But make no mistake, getting dark words and fake news into mass circulation are highly valued achievements on the shady side of technology, and not only for the agents of Putin’s democracy-disrupting media and intelligence operation, but also for America’s bad political actors on behalf of T-Plus.
The brave new world of social media is still in its teenage years. Nothing is settled, change is constant, everything evolves at blinding speed. Young billionaire owners and millionaire managers of social media platforms have mind-bending influence over large swaths of Earth’s people. Sophisticated software engineers are in over their heads in terms of ethics, politics, privacy, and other societal concerns. Digital literacy is scarce among end users. Everybody is involved; nobody is truly in charge; all are vehemently unprepared.
Our seemingly simple messaging tools have quickly become an irresistible force with myriad local and global repercussions and rapidly spreading use and abuse. Technology-driven societies are wedded to these adolescent tools. Let’s proceed with caution and not presume full understanding and knowledge.
Facebook and Twitter are prime examples for the immaturity of the new social media. Each service was tested and explored for about a year before facebook.com and twitter.com became available: Facebook in August 2005 and Twitter in April 2007. Twitter was not even ten years old when Trump was elected. Facebook hit humanity when humanity’s experience with traditional books was 550 years old (counting from the printing of the Gutenberg Bible in 1455 to 2005). We have lived with printed books for over half a millennium, whereas the exposure to our novel information and communication systems has been a dozen years.
In 2010, a Google engineer estimated how many original books had been published with moveable type technology during the “Gutenberg Galaxy.”2 Nearly 130 million was his number.3 This is a small figure in comparison to the amount of participants in social media today. In January 2017, monthly active social media users (who incidentally are also “authors,” “publishers,” and “re-publishers”) were over 1,800 million for Facebook and 317 million for Twitter (Figure 1). 130 million printed books over five-and-a-half centuries versus 1.8 billion social network accounts created in the comparative blink of an eye is a spectacular difference.
In June 2017, Facebook counted 2 billion monthly users.4 The social media platform reached that number in less than twelve years; Twitter climbed to its relatively modest 317 million in less than ten. Of course, this is a bit of an apples-and-oranges comparison since we don’t know the grand total of all readers of printed books stored in public and private libraries. However, active accounts of monthly users garnered by social media in just twelve years have probably already surpassed the number of all the people who read a book since the Italian Renaissance.
The electronic human is not growing up fast enough. It has superseded Marshall McLuhan’s “typographic man,” but the “ehuman” is still evolving. It barely knows itself or how to calibrate its digital power tools for the best of society. Information retrieval and news consumption have gone from printed books and newspapers to Facebook, from seventeenth century pamphlets to microblogs, and from eighteenth century coffeehouses to Twitter – all in a fraction of a single lifetime and with little understanding of the whole. The number of players in human affairs has exploded and the place of action has shifted onto screens.
Humanity’s time to adapt to this momentous change has been ultrashort. Advancements in computing have quickly passed through major hard- and software transitions: from workstations to desktops, laptops, tablets, and ever more capable smartphones as well as from passive consumption of static websites (Web 1.0 at least since 19945) to interactive and user-generated content (Web 2.0 since about 2004). Ehumans must keep up with their constantly developing tools; they must absorb the innovations as they arrive and cannot stop to reflect.
TRUMP’S UNEXPECTED ELECTION spurred the recognition that consequential global and local technology changes have occurred and are afoot. Top publishers of news, such as the New York Times, were forced to admit – as much to themselves as to their readers – that they had not kept pace with these changes, more importantly, that social media had “subsumed and gutted” traditional media:
The election of Donald J. Trump is perhaps the starkest illustration yet that across the planet, social networks are helping to fundamentally rewire human society. They have subsumed and gutted mainstream media. They have undone traditional political advantages like fund-raising and access to advertising. And they are destabilizing and replacing old-line institutions and established ways of doing things, including political parties, transnational organizations and longstanding, unspoken social prohibitions against blatant expressions of racism and xenophobia.6
Only after the 2016 election did the old media recognize their blinders. Then, in the aftermath, they looked back in shock and realized: “The pro-Trump media understood that it was an insurgent force in a conversation conducted on social media on an unprecedented scale.”7
Traditional media failed to discover and discuss the rising pro-Trump insurgency before the election. However, reporting this news now – belatedly – is bringing mainstream journalism up to date. The Gutenberg bias, which favored printed news and dismissed what was happening in the ocean of electronic conversations, is on its way out.
The rapidly increasing numbers of users of social media signal a historical break away from print media and into the unlimited virtual territories of the digital realm with its big waves, deep currents, and huge storms. Social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, benefitted from this sea change. Facebook’s real-world dominance is even more breathtaking if one considers that the next two platforms with over one billion active users each – WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger – also belong to Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook, Inc.
In 2017, two-thirds of all Facebook users followed news on Facebook, and, according to a Pew Research social media update for 2016, 79 percent of US adults logged into Facebook in early 2016.8 Hence, news circulating on Facebook could reach over half of the American adult population (two thirds of 79, i.e. some 52 percent). And social media news exposure is trending upward.
In 2012, 49 percent of US adults got their news from social media. The number went up to 62 percent in early 2016 (Figure 2). Does that foreshadow the rise of fake news? We don’t know yet. Serious research about the electoral impact of fake news has only begun.9
Social media feed their news and information to ever more people. In addition, videos from Google owned YouTube teach crocheting, tell what is happening in Yemen, and demonstrate fidget spinner tricks. Opening the heavy tome of a multi-volume encyclopedia or the large broadsheets of a printed newspaper has become so yesterday. Will that make upsets à la Trump the new normal? Conceivably, but only in the absence of widespread electronic news literacy. Have false news stories swayed the 2016 election? Maybe, maybe not. But the dark possibility alone invites the abuse of social media for nefarious political objectives.
User time spent on social platforms is also growing. In January 2017, Nielsen reported 7 hours per week for Generation X (ages 35 to 49) and 6 hours for Millennials (ages 18-34), up from the third quarter of 2015 by 29 and 21 percent, respectively. Drawn in by the excitement of the election, social media time for US adults over 50 increased by 64 percent in the report’s period. Simultaneous use of multiple devices (TVs, laptops, handhelds) is regular now; smartphones have become ubiquitous (96 percent for adults 18 to 34); and wireless mobile web access is rising fast. Facebook was the top social media application on US smartphones with 178.2 million unique users in September 2016.10 One could say, America runs on Facebook.
IN MAY 2016, Gizmodo, a design, technology, science, and science fiction website, caused a stir reporting, Facebook “routinely suppressed conservative news.”11 The New York Times picked the alarm up and weighed in, “Conservatives Accuse Facebook of Political Bias.”12 The accusation of left-wing prejudice at Facebook was news because it contradicted what was known, namely the instrumentalization of Facebook and Twitter by the Right for both the American election and the European Brexit campaign.13
The political bias accusation led Facebook to fire its flesh and blood news curators in August 2016 and change its “Trending” news feature to “a more algorithmically driven process,” that is, machine automation. Now, the company could announce that its news section “will no longer require people [my emphasis] to write descriptions for trending topics.”14
Facebook was considering bias as a uniquely human feature, thinking it could put the insinuation of being a liberal leaning social media platform to rest by invoking the objectivity of scientific computation. However, the firm’s assumption that bias does not apply to “neutral” code was a mistake. Algorithms are not neutral. They calculate measurable factors correctly but optimize selected parameters for a valued result. The desired output is chosen by Facebook and its programmers who are writing code “to maximize your engagement with the site and keep it ad-friendly.”15
Facebook’s clever switch to un-curated, machine-selected news backfired when the world learned that several Facebook posts that went viral – for example, “Denzel Washington backs Trump in the most epic way” or even better, “the Pope has endorsed Donald Trump” – were planted fakes. The belated recognition of the dark political impact of social networks must be noted again. The social media problem of fake news had manifested itself before the election yet was tackled by the mainstream media only after the election. Then it was reported as a major problem of Google and Facebook and not as a serious traditional news reporting oversight as well.16
However, biased computing remains a problem for Google, Facebook, Twitter and others. Google has promoted fake news through its ads business. As far as corrective measures go, Google tried to finetune its advertising policies and recalibrate its search algorithms. In 2017, the company disclosed the amount of blocked “bad ads”: 1.7 billion misleading ads in 2016 (double the amount of 2015). Google made it also known that a large team (reportedly “thousands”) is monitoring the technology that was designed to automatically spot bad ads and publishers.17
Monitoring the algorithmic automatons of social media is the industry’s quandary. Consequently, Facebook is still tinkering with the “trending topics” section. In January 2017, it changed its newsfeed algorithm once more, which now has descriptive headlines again and aggregates publishers of the same story (instead of how many people are talking about a story) to “help ensure that trending topics reflect real world events being covered by multiple news outlets.”18 Facebook also hired a former TV anchor to “foster transparent dialogue with news organizations globally.”19
Technology firms like Google and Facebook have a genuine problem with journalism when it comes to the selection of news. A motto like “All the News That’s Fit to Print” (on the front page of the New York Times since 1896) raises their suspicion. They wonder, who decides about the criteria for fitness to print or post? An editorial voice is the last thing they want to have or get. Even though their business model promotes eyeballs, clicks, likes, shares, and comments for increased profits, which is not a neutral goal, they want to stay close to their technological roots and apply “neutral” methods to pick the news. A business insider, Antonio Garcia-Martinez, who had worked at Facebook and Twitter, called this the mindset of an “engineering-first culture”:
Facebook and Google and everyone else have been hiding behind mathematics. They’re allergic to becoming a media company. They don’t want to deal with it. An engineering-first culture is completely antithetical to a media company.20
To resolve the “neutral” algorithm issue, social media companies need to transcend their proud STEM attitude, which puts science, technology, engineering, and mathematics above society. Perfect algorithmic computing is not averse to bias. As Zeynep Tufekci noted regarding Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm, “it’s perfectly plausible for Facebook’s work force to be liberal, and yet for the site to be a powerful conduit for conservative ideas as well as conspiracy theories and hoaxes.”21 Facebook’s “real bias” is built into its algorithms. Social media algorithms function in, and are written for, a corporate environment with powerful, technology-defining interests.
TRUMP WAS SET to become a world leader on Twitter.22 He created his Twitter account early, in March 2009. From the start of his campaign, Trump was savvy about the online networking tool, understood its populist power and wide-open reach.
On November 7, the day before the election, Trump had some 13 million “followers” (the Twitter equivalent of “friends” on Facebook). His Twitter ranking at that point was 127 out of 317 million global Twitter accounts. Two days after the election, his ranking had jumped 20 points to number 107 with over 14 million followers worldwide. Trump broke into the top 100 ranks on November 12, 2016, and occupied rank 31 on July 9, 2017, with over 33.5 million (real and fake) followers.23 On his way up in the “Twitterverse,” Trump surpassed Google, BBC World News, the Economist, the National Football League, and NASA. To his chagrin, he still trailed CNN, the New York Times, and Barack Obama by mid-2017.24
Trump has employed social networking tools, primarily Twitter, for dark ends with unmatched demagogic skill. Although his tweets may seem to have caught up to him at times, they always kept his brand name in the news.25 More importantly, his nonstop anti-immigration, anti-Muslim, anti-refugee, anti-Clinton, anti-establishment, and anti-mainstream-media messages kept his supporters glued to his tweets and delivered voters.
From May 2009 to January 2017, Trump posted over 30,000 tweets. His daily average increased from less than 1 in 2009/10 to over 20 in 2013. During his candidacy in 2015/16, the daily average was slightly over 15.
Politico Magazine compiled a graphical analysis of Trump’s tweeting history from May 2009 to April 2016, which highlights his favorite words (“I”), terms (“Winner”), and adjectives (“Sad!”); the top countries in “Donald’s World”: China, Iran, Iraq, and ISIS (in that order); and the top issues for users of Twitter who mentioned Trump: immigration (46%), foreign affairs (29%), taxes (12%), and health care (7%).26 Since Trump was paying consummate attention to the concerns of his followers, he quickly learned that immigration, more precisely, anti-immigration, was by far the most resonant issue to exploit as candidate and president.
Trump became the number one subject of US Twitter discussions in 2015 with 43 million mentions, followed by Hillary Clinton with 31.5 million. In December 2015, Trump created the third biggest conversational Twitter spike ever with five million conversations about Muslim immigration (the Islamic State terrorist attacks in Paris a month earlier had caused global spike number one). Trump’s heavy and unconstrained tweeting triggered also fake tweets pretending to originate from @realDonaldTrump.27
BuzzFeed wanted to know where Trump got his news from, including the stories he broadcasted in tweets and retweets. For this, they sampled the messages that had emanated from Trump’s personal account during his presidential campaign. By extracting 2,687 hyperlinks from the data set and mapping the interesting media landscape they contained, BuzzFeed was able to obtain “a rudimentary portrait of the news and opinion he [Trump] publicizes and, presumably, consumes” (Figure 3).28
Like most Americans, Trump got his news predominantly from social media, mainly Twitter, followed by Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. Right-wing Breitbart was the news organization he shared the most. Trump’s information ecosystem included mainstream media as well, such as the Washington Post, provided they published positive news about him or polls in his favor. Nevertheless, he preferred content from “right-leaning, hyper-partisan sites and opinion blogs” with an “affinity for factually murky stories bolstered by opinion, circumstantial evidence, and hearsay that appear[ed] generally supportive of his most controversial statements.”
BuzzFeed’s conclusion: candidate Trump favored “sensationalism over facts,” echo chamber tactics (“quotes from … himself or his closest advisers”), critical assessments of his enemies, and uncritical accounts of his own opinions.
Trump was the politician who profited most from dark social media activities in 2016. First, they enabled Trump to communicate directly with his supporters. Second, they allowed him to grow his base below the radar of traditional media, which dismissed him and his base as a vulgar circus until it was too late. Third, they unleashed the pent-up energy of his followers whom he encouraged to employ deceits, such as fake news about celebrity endorsements of their candidate. Fourth, they afforded him and the obscure ideologues of radical Trumpism to develop a game-changing discourse underground. Fifth, they liberated JAG intellectuals and Breitbart provocateurs to go far beyond political correctness and re-introduce banned issues like identity politics for white Americans.
Three takeaways from this chapter: Social media have delivered the perfect tools for a populist in our time. Trump and Trumpism have weaponized a technology that should be liberating. The Trumpian force field has unleashed the dark force of social media.
THE CONSTITUTION OF the United States of America has guided the country and its citizens since 1789. Only twenty-seven amendments have been added, the first ten, known as the Bill of Rights, straightaway. Compared to the Magna Carta from 1215, which has guided the UK for eight hundred years, the US Constitution seems young, however, its endurance for over two and a quarter century is impressive. The constitutions of most other countries are much younger. Italy, Germany, and France, for example, received their current constitutions in 1947, 1949, and 1958, respectively.
Now, Trump and Trumpism have put the resilience of American democracy under severe political stress. Dark geopolitics radiating out from Moscow and Beijing are calling Western democracies into question. Nationalistic populism is pushing them into illiberality on both sides of the Atlantic. Walls are built against people and goods; discrimination and bullying of immigrants, refugees, and various others are increasing; authoritarian rule is propagated. Deadly winds of political turmoil are rising.
Why did Europe have to forge so many post-war constitutions? Because populism is a democracy-destroying force. Its previous big wave, raised by Fascism and Nazism, ended with World War II. Strongman-type leaders like Mussolini, Franco, and Piłsudski are now in charge again, Trump in the US, Putin in Russia, and others elsewhere. T-Plus and Putinism are antidemocratic “frenemies” on the move – how could America become a complicit actor in creating this problem instead of a leading power toward its solution? Dark free speech of big money is one reason.
FREEDOM OF SPEECH is the first amendment to the US Constitution. It includes the freedom of the press and stipulates that Congress “shall make no law … abridging” these freedoms. So far, Congress has heeded that rule. The Legislative has not passed any laws inhibiting or curtailing the basic American rights to free speech and a free press, yet President Trump has begun to attack the Fourth Estate as an “enemy of the people.”1
The American judiciary opened that amendment up to the dark side by extending the exercise of free speech to political spending. In 2010, the Supreme Court of the US ruled in the case of Citizens United versus Federal Election Commission (FEC):
Political spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment, and the government may not keep corporations or unions from spending money to support or denounce individual candidates in elections. While corporations or unions may not give money directly to campaigns, they may seek to persuade the voting public through other means.2
Thus, the Court made the fateful decision of declaring it a free speech act to put corporate and union money into American elections. Big money vehicles, called Political Action Committees (PACs), were the outcome of this ruling. PACs are made for the persuasion of the voting public by all legal means money can buy, such as TV ads, provided the PAC operates independently from a political campaign. In 2014, this crack was blown wide open by another ruling, which permitted the creation of Super PACs.3
In McCutcheon versus FEC, the Court decided that “aggregate limits” to political contributions were “invalid under the First Amendment.”4 With this ruling, wealthy donors gained the right to “support or denounce” political campaigns with unlimited amounts of money. The requirement of super PAC independence from official campaigns, an easily circumventable condition, remained.
What does political spending without limits mean for an American billionaire and a citizen earning less than $250,000 a year? Well, spending one percent of the wealth of a middle-class family, which has $100,000 in savings, would give one thousand dollars to the candidate of their choice. Yet spending one percent from a net worth of $1 billion unleashes $10 million in political campaign support. The difference between a thousand-dollar contribution and a multimillion-dollar influence-buying investment could hardly be clearer. Money talks and the Supreme Court has amplified the money talk of billionaires millions of times over the dollar murmurs of 98 percent of all Americans.
Since Citizens United, the “voice” of big money grew stronger with every election.5 Dark words are now spoken by money too. The firewalls between political campaigns and super PACS are crumbling and their independence has become a legal fiction.6
The number of regular super PACs was 2,393 in the 2016 presidential election; they raised nearly $1.8 billion and spent over $1 billion. In addition, 241 single-candidate super PACs, many with close ties to the campaigns of their recipients, supported individual candidates and attacked their opponents. Dark money groups – organizations, such as nonprofits, which are allowed to hide donors and sources of money – also proliferated in the 2016 election and their spending rose significantly as well.7
A small group of extraordinarily wealthy Americans (Table 1) is on record for its big political spending. Contributing nearly $90 million to the Democratic candidate (Thomas Steyer) or $78 million to its Republican opponent (Sheldon Adelson) is not done without gaining priority access to, and some personal influence over, the US President and key advisors. Of course, part of that money is filling both party coffers equally and cancels itself out; but some of that multimillion-dollar kind of speech can make a decisive difference, as this chapter will show.
Table 1 is compiled from the election spending data of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which has been tracking “money-in-politics” since the 1980s. Its OpenSecrets website lists federal election spending over the years, including the contributions of the biggest 100 donors to the 2016 election. The New York Times determined the size of this activist group as 158 families.8 Alexandra Pelosi (daughter of Nancy Pelosi) has portrayed a cross-section of this group in her documentary, “Meet the Donors.”9 Two observations are in order before I turn to one donor whose wealth has helped making Trump President of the United States.
First, the unmitigated partisan orientation of the top ten donors is not a fluke but a signature of this elite class of superrich people seeking high-level access and influence. Their political tilt is either solidly Democratic and liberal, or Republican and conservative. Top donors are by no means equal opportunity spenders. Only two of the 100 top donors gave a bit more than 10 percent of their big free speech money to the opposite party.
Second, the top 100 donors in 2016 delivered about equal amounts of electioneering money to each party (pro-liberal 49.1% and pro-conservative 50.8%). Super PAC spending was less balanced (pro-liberal 59.4% and pro-conservative 38.1%). Yet both donor groups combined spent almost equally on both parties (pro-liberal 49.0% and pro-conservative 49.9%).10 So, big money is a factor, but does not determine the winning party.
The high sums in play encourage the suspicion that candidates running for public office can be bought. And surely, some get corrupted that way. However, the conspiratorial idea that big money can buy the President’s Office is misguided. If it would be that easy, a donor like Mr. Adelson would probably spend more than a mere 0.26 percent of his net worth of nearly 30 billion dollars on that acquisition. In fact, the relatively low million-dollar amounts spent by his class suggest that billionaire donors know they are not making a sure bet.
BIG MONEY CAN make history though, if used intelligently, allocated strategically, and reinforced by strong tailwinds of change. Robert Mercer, the ninth donor of Table 1, met and benefitted from all three factors.
Mercer bet on Trump. He approached the game of American politics with a long perspective, invested systematically, paid capable players, rode the winds of change, and won. His middle daughter, Rebekah Mercer, became a formidable power broker in her own right. She served on the executive committee of Trump’s transition team and installed her family’s most ruthless players – Stephen Bannon and Kellyanne Conway – in the White House.
The money of the Mercers is newly minted, pouring in from Renaissance Technologies, a Long Island hedge fund at the forefront of quantitative high-frequency trading.11 Renaissance was founded in 1982 by James Simons, a mathematician at nearby Stony Brook University.12 The firm’s exclusive Medallion Fund averaged extraordinary annual returns of 71.8 percent before fees between 1994 and 2014.13 Simons is listed in Table 1 with 99.9 percent of his spending benefiting the liberal side.
Mercer joined Renaissance in 1993 together with Peter Brown. Both had worked at IBM as computational linguists (with educational backgrounds in computer science, not linguistics) pioneering probabilistic approaches to speech recognition and machine translation. In 2009, when Simons retired from active management, Mercer and Brown became co-CEOs of Renaissance and quickly superwealthy.
Reclusive and secretive as well as taciturn in public, Mercer’s dark politics is articulated by his political investments. Super PACs do the talking for him. An hour-long address accepting the 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for Computational Linguistics was exceptional, not for what Mercer was saying, but rather for the mere speaking effort.14
Mercer’s helping hand in orchestrating the victory of Donald Trump began to show in early summer of 2016, relatively late in the electoral game, about one month before the Republican National Convention. His preparations for playing a major role in national politics, however, had started at least eight years earlier.
The four-day Convention from July 18 to 21 reflected a low point in Trump’s campaign. It was marred by the pointed absence of two former Republican presidents, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush, as well as Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland and Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake. Melania Trump’s plagiarism of Michelle Obama’s 2008 Democratic Convention speech was bad news, and so was Ted Cruz’s refusal to endorse Trump. Instead of asking to vote for Trump, Cruz echoed the Never Trump movement and urged the delegates, “Vote Your Conscience.”15 Cruz’s rebuke of Trump was less dramatic on the convention floor than in the VIP suites ringing it. Sheldon and Miriam Adelson refused to let Cruz into their donor suite after his speech.
Incensed by Cruz’s broken promise to support the nominee of the Republican party, Robert and Rebekah Mercer told the New York Times, “We are profoundly disappointed that on Wednesday night he [Cruz] chose to disregard this pledge.”16 Their disappointment was to some extent personal. Cruz was the family’s first presidential wager.
In April 2015, the Mercers had joined a small constellation of pro-Cruz super PACs. They had put at least 11 million dollars on Cruz, hired pollster Kellyanne Conway to run their Cruz PAC “Keep the Promise I,”17 and retained the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica (CA) for the Cruz campaign.18 Cruz had also been their guest at Owl’s Nest, the family’s mansion on Long Island’s North Shore.19
CA’s shady background as a global influencer of elections and its purported voter mining capacity was intriguing for Mercer. Decades of unconventional, systematic, groundbreaking use of data and computer algorithms, honed in developing automatic natural language recognition and translation as well as in spotting, reaping, and securing financial gains in rapid electronic trading environments20 had taught Mercer to look for a big-data approach to tackle the question of how to improve the chances of winning in politics. CA’s tool set was the answer and Mercer secured it. The fact that nobody paid much attention to this acquisition was all right with poker player Mercer (Figure 1) – the less people know, the better.
Mercer commissioned an election assessment to determine the presidential chances of Cruz. The result was shared by “a pair of researchers” with some wealthy Cruz backers on the deck of a Palm Beach donor’s home in February 2014.21 Their information pointed to a “Trump-like” outsider winning in 2016, supposedly Cruz, the universally despised outsider in the Senate. Yet in early May 2016, having lost the Indiana primary to Trump, Cruz’s bid for the Republican nomination was over, though outwardly just “suspended.” Trump was the only outsider left in the race. However, the demise of Cruz was not the real surprise, that was the unexpected surge of Cruz as a serious presidential contender in the first place – a rise that was (rightly or wrongly) attributed to CA’s “psychographic” voter profiling.22
After Cruz had been knocked out, the Mercer family changed horses without delay or sentimentality. In June 2016, it reoriented its super PAC from Cruz to Trump, rebranded it “Make America Number I,” and directed Conway and CA to work on behalf of Trump, the final outsider. Conway immediately recruited her friend David Bossie, the president of Citizens United, to take a leave of absence and run Mercer’s refurbished super PAC.23 Soon afterwards, on July 1, Conway was working for Trump as senior adviser to his new campaign chairman Paul Manafort.24
Rebekah Mercer observed the Republican Convention from the vantage point of donor suite 245. Her guest list dubbed “245 Presidential-Trust I” included Conway and four Breitbart operators: Stephan Bannon, Executive Chairman of Breitbart News, Laurence Solov, Breitbart President and CEO, Alexander Marlow, Breitbart Editor-in-Chief, and Matthew Boyle, Breitbart’s Washington Political Editor.25
Quoted in the New York Times, Conway conveyed the hurt feelings of the Mercers having “to watch Ted’s convention stunt.” Displaying her unmatched nerve, she added, “they supported Ted because they thought he was a man of his word who, like them, would place love of country over personal feelings and political ambition.”26 Paid to promote her paymasters eleventh-hour choice (Trump), Conway diminished Cruz, the former beneficiary of her mercenary professionalism.27 This is how Trump learned that Conway could be trusted; she would never admit the political ambition and financial interests of the Mercer family.28
On August 17, Trump shook his campaign leadership up again. He promoted Conway from senior advisor to campaign manager and appointed Bannon chief executive of the campaign.29 Now Trump had two capable political operatives on board aligned with the Mercers. CNN reported: “Trump decided on the changes this weekend after speaking with campaign donors at a fundraiser in The Hamptons, including Rebekah Mercer, a high-profile GOP donor with longstanding ties to Conway, who shared her concerns with Trump about the direction of the campaign.”30
Manafort resigned two days after Trump’s August shake-up. Manafort had to go; his lobbying for, and $12.7 million dealings with, the former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych and his pro-Russian party were uncomfortably close to Trump’s problematic admiration for Putin.31 Bossie was pulled in as deputy campaign manager, and, suddenly, a group of mutual friends and Mercer allies were “atop the Trump campaign.”32
An inside source appreciated the accomplishment noting that Bannon is “tied at the hip” to Rebekah Mercer: “The Mercers basically own this campaign. … They have installed their people. … And now they’ve got their data firm in there.”33 Someone close to Trump cautioned not to overrate the influence of the megadonors: “The GOP nominee is his own man and has strong personal relationships with both Bannon and Conway.” This was true. Trump had known Bossie, Bannon, and Conway independently for several years. In 2011, when Trump was first toying with the idea of running for president, Bossie introduced Bannon to Trump as an “expert on new media” and “very action-oriented.”34
Trump was reluctant to spend money on campaign technology until May 2016. He criticized data crunching as “overrated” and argued his rallies were his best investment.35 Yet by the end of June, Trump was considering the services of Cambridge Analytica,36 and in early August, CA was working for Trump “behind the scenes,” heaved on board by the Mercers and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner over Manafort’s opposition.37 Mercer and his stakeholders in the Trump campaign rooted for CA’s granular approach to voter exploration and manipulation.
Mercer largely owns CA as its “principal investor.” Bannon was vice president of CA’s Board until he joined Trump’s campaign leadership in August 2016. And Rebekah Mercer prodded Trump’s family to use CA.38
How well CA’s touted “behavioral microtargeting” really worked for the Cruz and Trump campaigns is still unclear. Nevertheless, Mercer was uniquely prepared to correctly spot the dark electoral potential of behavioral science, big data analysis, and individual local voter targeting. Michal Kosinski – the scholar who originally developed the psychometrical tools allegedly utilized in CA’s political marketing approach – was terrified when he realized how his work could be used.39
THE MERCERS SPOKE at a crucial moment in Trump’s presidential campaign, not through dark money but with their own dark words. On October 8, the day after the “Access Hollywood” tape publication40 and one day before the second presidential debate, Robert and Rebekah Mercer proclaimed their unwavering support for Trump and complete indifference to his “locker room braggadocio.”41
Over 100,000 people had viewed the video of Trump’s sexual bragging immediately. An instant sensation, it lit up social media and cable news. Leading Republicans like John McCain and Paul Ryan quickly distanced themselves from Trump, and Hillary Clinton tweeted, “We cannot allow this man to become president.”42
In contradistinction to the outpouring of disgust and posturing, the Mercers declared what and who they considered unacceptable. They would rethink their support, they said, if Trump had revealed that he was in favor of open borders, open trade, and gun control. They would certainly rethink supporting Trump, they continued, had he allowed and profited from “the sale to Russia of 20% of US uranium deposits,”43 or built his fortune “by selling favors to foreigners on the American taxpayers’ dime,” or “argued that he needed both a public and a private position on issues facing the American public.” And they would “most definitely” rethink supporting him, they concluded, if he had “serially terrorized and silenced the victims of violent sexual assault.”
All items on this list referenced the Clintons or the Clinton Foundation. Robert and Rebekah Mercer’s support for Trump (as for Cruz earlier) was driven by strong opposition to, and visceral antipathy of, the politics and personalities of Bill and Hillary Clinton. They were mainly interested in defeating the Clintons but agreed with the policy perspectives of radical Trumpism, which Decius-Anton had articulated. Their determination to “stand steadfastly behind” Trump was surefooted because they also thought that the 2016 election was a watershed between doom or Trump.
The Mercers believed that the elites of both parties had succumbed to the mainstream media demand of political correctness, that America was facing an “apocalyptic choice” in the upcoming election, and that only a Washington outsider could save the country:
America is finally fed up and disgusted with its political elite. Trump is channeling this disgust and those among the political elite who quake before the boombox of media blather do not appreciate the apocalyptic choice that America faces on November 8th. We have a country to save and there is only one person who can save it. We, and Americans across the country and around the world, stand steadfastly behind Donald J. Trump.44
BANNON, THE CEO of Trump’s campaign, had become convinced that his candidate could win with dark words, dark social media technology, lots of dark money, and the anti-establishment stance of T-Plus. He fully subscribed to the Flight 93 analogy and viewed the election in apocalyptic terms as well.
Bannon, a “voracious reader” interested in deep questions,45 was driven into political action by the al-Qaeda terror attack in 2001. Screenwriter Julia Jones, a collaborator of Bannon since the early 1990s, observed, 9/11 “changed him.”46
Bannon’s was a Catholic from Virginia with an Irish working-class background. As a former Naval officer, Goldman Sachs investment banker, and Hollywood film producer,47 he had a meandering career. After the events of 9/11, he focused on American politics and developed a propagandist’s aggressive voice, touted American nationalism and the Judeo-Christian West, emulated right- and left-wing filmmakers Leni Riefenstahl and Michael Moore, absorbed dark lessons of questionable history from alarmist books,48 and began to contemplate “outright war” against radical Islam. The 2008 financial crisis affected his father badly and completed Bannon’s transformation into an intense economic nationalist49 and “America First” crusader.
In March 2012, Bannon was named executive chairman of Breitbart News Network.50 A strong behind-the-scenes push for Bannon from the Mercer family can be assumed. In any case, Bannon was then able to disrupt all status-quo arrangements with right-wing propaganda attacks on the traditional order.
Breitbart News Network is a privately held limited liability corporation (LLC). Its financial and ownership structures are closely guarded; however, it appears to be an asset in Robert and Rebekah Mercer’s dark political portfolio. A 10-million-dollar family investment has been reported. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Mercers spent that amount in 2011 to buy nearly 50 percent of Breitbart.51 Petitioning the US Senate Press Committee for press passes, Breitbart’s CEO Larry Solov disclosed in 2017 that Breitbart is owned by him, the Mercer family, and Andrew Breitbart’s widow.52 Several attempts to secure press passes for Breitbart were denied citing the lack of demonstrated editorial independence from Rebekah Mercer.53
Under Bannon, Breitbart News moved further to the right and expanded internationally. Bannon invited incendiary social media influencers, sharpened the site’s nationalistic profile, increased its anti-establishment rhetoric, and started networking with Eurosceptic movements, such as Nigel Farage’s populist UKIP and Marine le Pen’s anti-immigrant National Front as well as Europe’s religious right. In April 2014, two years into Bannon’s successful Breitbart leadership by disruption standards, Bannon visited Rome, befriended traditionalist Cardinal Raymond Burke, and hired ex-priest Thomas Williams as Breitbart’s Rome bureau chief.54
Later that year, Bannon participated via Skype from Los Angeles in a conference convened by a conservative Christian think-tank at the Vatican. Bannon introduced Breitbart as the “third-largest conservative news site” after Fox News and Drudge Report; expressed his strong belief in “a global tea party movement;” and declared, “we’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict” with radical Islam, a “new barbarity” the “church militant” has to fight, or “everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years” will be wiped out. Emphasizing repeatedly, “we are in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism,” Bannon told his audience:
We have to face a very unpleasant fact. And that unpleasant fact is that there is a major war brewing, a war that’s already global. It’s going global in scale, and today’s technology, today’s media, today’s access to weapons of mass destruction, it’s going to lead to a global conflict that I believe has to be confronted today.55
Making sure his message got across, Bannon doubled down:
I believe you should take a very, very, very aggressive stance against radical Islam. And I realize there are other aspects that are not as militant and not as aggressive and that’s fine. If you look back at the long history of the Judeo-Christian West struggle against Islam, I believe that our forefathers kept their stance, and I think they did the right thing. I think they kept it out of the world, whether it was at Vienna, or Tours, or other places.
Since the conference topic was Poverty and the Common Good, Bannon spoke about capitalism too. Arguing, “we are in a crisis of the underpinnings of capitalism,” he distinguished “two strands” of capitalism, both flawed: “crony” or “state-sponsored” capitalism, as in China and Russia, and “Ayn Rand” or “libertarian capitalism.” The first creates wealth and value “for a very small subset of people,” but the latter is “almost as disturbing” because it “looks to make people commodities, and to objectify people.”
Realizing that he was veering into the lane of his primary patrons, the ultrawealthy libertarian-leaning Mercers, Bannon stopped short from going further into his preference, the alternative of an “enlightened capitalism of the Judeo-Christian West.” Detailing the ethical and socio-political superiority of Christian capitalism over both libertarian and crony capitalism could have been dangerous. Instead, he quickly assured his audience that he and Breitbart were backing the “entrepreneurial capitalist spirit of the United States” as “free-enterprise capitalists.”
Bannon himself is a multimillionaire with assets valued between $11.8 and $53.8 million.56 Maybe the idea of an enlightened Christian capitalism was just a sound bite for the Rome group or his restraint was tactical, in any event, it paid off to be simultaneously radical and circumspect.57 After his victory, the President-elect announced, “Trump for President CEO Stephen K. Bannon will serve as Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor to the President.”58
Looking forward to his influential new position, Bannon floated the idea of unleashing capitalism for the working-class people. Having carried “all the burdens” and gotten “none of the upside,” they deserved to be employed in “exciting” work, something akin to the German Reich Labor Service (Reichsarbeitsdienst) of the 1930s:
I’m the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. With negative interest rates throughout the world, it’s the greatest opportunity to rebuild everything. Ship yards, iron works, get them all jacked up. … It will be as exciting as the 1930s, greater than the Reagan revolution – conservatives, plus populists, in an economic nationalist movement.59
Trump’s inaugural “American carnage” address was co-written by Bannon and anti-immigration hardliner Stephen Miller.60 They showed their hands in lines like these:
“The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.”
“For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost.”
We “spent trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay.”
“Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families.”
“We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones – and unite the civilized world against Radical Islamic Terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth.”61
A few days after Trump’s inauguration, Bannon was entrusted with even more influence. This time, he received the privilege of a permanent seat on the “Principals Committee” of the National Security Council (NSC). This was unprecedented and clearly a position of undue influence for a political operator with a radical agenda.62 Propelled by his ambition for right-wing change, aided by the steely Mercers and lifted up by Trump’s flamboyant management style, Bannon rose in record time from the fringe of a rabble-rousing new media director onto the highest stage of the US government.
WHAT IS GOING to happen? Trump won and the Republican party is riding on his coattails, both rule in Washington, the locus of their absolute desire and utter contempt. On a stage, the spectacle would be ironic, but this tragedy is for real, at least for the next four years.
Bannon thinks that a transformative president can govern by destruction. At the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), he told a cheering crowd to expect the birth of “a new political order” through the “deconstruction” of America’s old order. He announced a heavy downpour of presidential action as “three verticals of three buckets.” The content of these buckets were national security and sovereignty, economic nationalism, and deconstruction of the administrative state.63 Bannon’s and Trump’s aggressive capabilities are proven. What is dubious, however, is their belief that a new political order could emerge from rage and de(con)struction.
Dark money “shareholders” of the US government have gained enormous influence over the nuts and bolts of America’s representative democracy, especially the billionaire Koch brothers, who paved the way for the Mercers.64 Governmental disorder is a welcome opportunity for them. They can say with confidence, Let committed and commissioned right-wing intellectuals fight the “bipartisan junta” and the “administrative state” with its pesky regulations; let them destroy civil society, free press, and independent institutions – it will benefit us, the class of unelected megadonors. Low taxes, low wages, and unobstructed pollution are well worth it.
Fiery minds like Decius-Anton and Bannon are strange birds in the anti-intellectual Trumpian context. Trump and the plutocrats around him are used to hire and fire ideologues, but not to suffer them. How long will the songbirds of radical Trumpism last in this administration? The National Security Advisor after Flynn, General McMaster, assumed control over the NSC. He had Bannon quickly removed from the Principals Committee and himself given the power to convene and chair the PC.65
The loss of Bannon’s “permanent” PC seat was the first setback for the Mercers and T-Plus. The New York Times applauded McMaster’s move as “a welcome course correction, removing a contentious and extremist political voice from a vitally important policy-making body and thus making it more likely that people with actual expertise will help an inexperienced president make tough choices.”66 — Considering Trump’s essential hunger for total admiration and absolute loyalty, I wonder how “people with actual expertise” will fare in his administration.
Further “course corrections” were made in the summer of 2017. The purging started on July 28 with the removal of White House Chief of Staff, Reince Priebus, and General John Kelly’s appointment in his stead. Bannon was fired on August 19. Sebastian Gorka, a Bannon protégé, was dismissed on August 25.67
Perhaps the ouster of Bannon as Trump’s chief strategist was a win for the so-called “globalists” around Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, and chief economic adviser Gary Cohn; but it was certainly a major loss for T-Plus as well as Robert and Rebekah Mercer. However, Michael Anton and Stephen Miller are still ensconced in the White House. The nationalist-populist faction of radical Trumpism is not defeated. In fact, it is prepared for big setbacks by the understanding that Trump is but “the principal vehicle of Trumpism.” Fittingly, Bannon declared:
The Trump presidency that we fought for, and won, is over. We still have a huge movement, and we will make something of this Trump presidency. But that presidency is over. It’ll be something else. And there’ll be all kinds of fights, and there’ll be good days and bad days, but that presidency is over.68
How “over” the Trump presidency will be without Bannon remains to be seen. His ejection from Trump’s government has not defeated the proponents of T-Plus but shown the limits of their power. Dark free speech and the big money it commands are not to be underestimated. Yet Making Trumpism Small Again remains feasible too.
KARL MARX THOUGHT capitalism was destined to die. 150 years ago, he predicted in Das Kapital (1867), “capitalist production begets, with the inexorability of a law of Nature, its own negation” and “the expropriators are expropriated.”1
Concentrating outsize wealth in the hands of “a few usurpers” did not look like a sustainable system to Marx, given the historical backdrop of the political and social revolutions from 1789 to 1848. So, in history’s last act, the proletariat rebels, expropriates the one percent, inaugurates a communist society, and lifts the darkness of capitalism for good. Yet dark capitalism is by no means doomed capitalism.
The doom of capitalism was a hope for Marx and a fear for others. Political economist Joseph Schumpeter worried in 1942, “can capitalism survive?” The retiring writer of The Economist’s “Schumpeter column” contemplated the endurance of capitalism recently too. Noting low productivity growth since the 1970s and mounting dysfunctionality of democracy in rich Western countries, he faulted the “toxic brew” of populism for “rapidly destroying the foundations of the post-war international order and producing a far more unstable world.”2
I am concerned about the downsides of capitalism, not its demise. My worry is rising inequality, such as the spiraling problem of wealthy people and their offspring marrying the children of other winners and hoarding the best educational opportunities. This chapter will thus consider dark capitalism defined as a political economy in which the twin harms of inequality and alienation rise unchecked. Both ills can and should be controlled. A capitalist society worth its salt must fulfill the American constitutional goal and create happiness for ever more people.
CAPITALISM IS A global economic reality in one way or another. Various forms of capitalism are competing around the world. There is no globally uniform capitalism. Hence, we should adjust our language to capitalism in the plural. Speaking about capitalism in the singular is a misnomer and an obstacle to reform.
Regional capitalisms would be an appropriate term. It casts a net neither too wide nor too narrow and catches distinct national and transnational formations of capitalism, i.e. privately owned means of production for profit.
Various forms of capitalism have developed historically, henceforth alternative capitalisms could be designed strategically. Take, for example, the Chinese and American models; their differences are substantial and demonstrate the protean nature of the family of capitalisms. A given species of the genus capitalism could therefore serve as a springboard from the empirical to the normative, from a particular capitalism to what a humane capitalism could and should be.
Rising inequality lowers the resistance of democratic societies against populism, but rising inequality is a controllable feature of capitalism. There are no iron “laws of nature” that prevent a society from designing a capitalism with low inequality. Cushioning the divergence between haves and have-nots with social welfare elements would be a good start.
Figure 1 shows Chinese, Nordic, German, and American capitalisms mapped from left to right. The extreme left indicates a market economy under full-fledged state leadership and the extreme right a market economy free of any external control or direction. All four regional capitalisms are Weberian abstractions from existing economies and both ends are purely theoretical. Their positions are not determined by any metrics, only by their proximity to one or the other theoretical extreme, and, in the case of the two center-left and center-right welfare state models, on their relative equidistance to both polar ends.
The Chinese model of capitalism features state-sponsored capitalism in a single-party state. Focused on attaining the overall goal of socialism, the Chinese economy is officially termed a “socialist market economy” in which market forces play a “decisive role”3 – up to a point. China has not handed state power over to the markets, except for some small and insignificant rural ones. Markets may challenge the state, but the renminbi (“people’s currency”) stops at the executive desks of the Communist Party of China (CPC).
The economic toolbox of the CPC includes both active and passive state interventions. It was passive intervention during the Deng Xiaoping era when market forces were “allowed” to play an important role in China. Active intervention was on display in the summer of 2015, when Beijing supported its crashing stock market with a slew of countermeasures and a news blackout. The economic power of the state is both a Chinese and a distinctive regional feature.
American capitalism strives to be pure. Governmental regulation of the economy is frowned upon. Attuned to the wants and whims of heartless markets, US capitalism shirks compassion and favors management autonomy, foremost the ability to hire and fire. Competition between everybody, including company staff, is also paramount.4
Radical change and innovation are the hallmarks of American corporations such as Amazon, Airbnb, Facebook, and Uber. The US model vilifies non-market coordination, perceives social commitments as socialist and tries to avoid or eliminate them. Popular support for this model is robust and reaches deep. The wealth of a selfish billionaire is largely viewed without envy, while mechanisms that would help the poor are perceived as harmful “rigidities.” Handing benefits to “unproductive economic agents” appears to be unreasonable and un-American.
The opposed Chinese and American economic models are met near the middle of Figure 1 by the Nordic and German welfare state capitalisms, which are closely related.
The Nordic ensemble includes the economies of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden. Nordic capitalism combines a free market economy with state supervised collective bargaining between capital and labor and the benefits of a comprehensive welfare state. The Economist once called the Nordic countries the “next supermodel” and noted, Nordic capitalism has managed to avoid “southern Europe’s economic sclerosis and America’s extreme inequality.”5
The German model of capitalism has a strong vocational tradition (apprenticeship system), which combines practical work with classroom education, and, most importantly, gives workers the right to “co-determine” the decision-making of the companies they work for. Co-determination (Mitbestimmung) ranges from the board of directors to the shop floor. It aims to balance the profit motive with the interests of labor by putting trade union representatives on company boards and works councils (Betriebsräte).
In the tug of war between economic efficiency and social justice, Germany nurtures a capitalism that prefers to err on the side of social justice. Ranked third largest export economy after China and the US, German capitalism radiates outward through global exports from European Union members to America and Asia as well as the other parts of the world.
Collective social support for poor and distressed citizens is not only possible but also prudent. The Nordic and German welfare state capitalisms show that nations can do well and be competitive in economic terms while still caring for fellow-citizens who are not well-to-do or have other needs they cannot handle on their own. Benefits and drawbacks of caring and uncaring capitalisms are evidenced by vastly different world happiness scores.
THE WORLD HAPPINESS Reports of the UN underscore the leadership in wellbeing of the Nordic countries (Table 1). Nordic group members have been trading places, but are consistently in the top 10, Denmark on the high and Sweden the lower end. Iceland came up from below in 2013 but has kept a top 10 score since then.6
The group of five countries following the Nordic team is recurrent in the top 10 as well. Led by Switzerland, this group does not have a clear commonality. Other than these ten happy countries, only Ireland, Austria, and Luxembourg broke into the top ten: Ireland in 2012 (no. 10); Austria in 2013, 2019, and 2020 (nos. 8, 10, 9, respectively); Luxembourg in 2020 (no. 10).
Table 1 calls for a couple of comments. First, the top 10 countries are big in wealth and small in population. Altogether, the five Nordic countries comprise not more than 27 million people. The next five countries are again similar in both respects. They are rich and their population total amounts to ca. 90 million people – a bit more than Germany (81 mill.), far less than the US (325 mill.), and a lot less than China (1,374 mill.). To hazard an explanation for the top 10 habitués, I would say the pursuit of country happiness requires prosperity, is helped by a small population and hampered by a big one. It seems probable that population size eases or aggravates good governance, too.
Second, the US and Germany are both in the top 20. The US has always been there, Germany since 2016. Germany has made some big strides towards achieving a happy country, though not to the degree of the Nordics. The difference between the US and Germany in overall happiness has shrunk and is now close. Yet the US has fallen from rank 13 in 2016 to 14 in 2017 and is showing a structural weakening that is not economic but social. Economist Jeffrey Sachs, leading author of the World Happiness Reports, has called America’s declining happiness “a roiling social crisis that is getting worse.”7 China has moved in the right direction but must still go much further to make its people as happy as those of China’s advanced counterparts.8
Six variables determine a country’s score by measuring people’s subjective wellbeing or happiness:
income per capita (1) and life expectancy at birth (2) provide information about material conditions
social support (3) and perceived corruption in government and business (4) describe social capital
donations (5) gauge individual values
freedom (6) grasps individual and social factors, such as personal wealth and skills, democracy and civil rights.
Regarding America, Sachs found the first two variables, which measure economic conditions, have moved the US towards greater economic happiness, but the last four, which measure social conditions, have deteriorated. Noting the “US showed less social support, less sense of personal freedom, lower donations, and more perceived corruption of government and business,” he concluded, “America’s crisis is, in short, a social crisis, not an economic crisis.”
Currently, all the wrong solutions to prevent this crisis from deepening in the US are vigorously pursued. Trump and Trumpism are boosting American “greatness” in all the wrong places. Tax cuts for the superrich exacerbate inequality. US social safety nets are cut. Public education is underfunded. Infrastructure is pitched rhetorically but let go to rot. The environment is stripped of protections; big money is allowed to distort elections; fear of immigrants and refugees is stoked; distrust is encouraged; and the country’s already unmatched hard military capabilities are bulked up at the expense of its soft power strength.
Although material conditions in the US are still heading in the happy direction, I do not count on that trend continuing under the auspices of isolationism and protectionism of “America First.” The inegalitarian spiral started in the US in the late 1970s (Figure 2) and has taken root with supersalaries for top managers and growing inheritance flows. Rising inequality has been hitting lower-income white-collar and blue-collar workers ever since. Republicans scorn spending tax dollars on the country’s social and natural capital. Private wealth has spun out of control.
Thomas Piketty, the French economist who has investigated the historical dynamics of capital and capitalism as thoroughly and deeply as only Marx before him, has flagged the “considerable transfer of US national income … from the poorest 90 percent to the richest 10 percent” as a huge socio-economic problem and warned, “it is hard to imagine an economy and society that can continue functioning indefinitely with such extreme divergence between social groups.”9
Figure 2 shows only data from tax returns. Dark money in tax havens is unaccounted for. The sharp rise of US incomes since the 1980s would probably be much steeper if these hidden riches could be included. Nevertheless, the trend is clear. Accumulation of American wealth has shifted to the top 10 percent, especially 1 percenters and higher.10 The 90 percent “bottom” of the US population is excluded from the nation’s economic growth.
If we consider the total growth of the US economy in the thirty years prior to the [financial] crisis [of 2008], that is, from 1977 to 2007, we find that the richest 10 percent appropriated three-quarters of the growth. The richest 1 percent alone absorbed nearly 60 percent of the total increase of US national income in this period. Hence for the bottom 90 percent, the rate of income growth was less than 0.5 percent per year. These figures are incontestable, and they are striking.11
The economic “good old days” are long gone. The thirty-five years from 1942 to 1977, when the rift between rich and poor was not that stark because the upper 10 percent of the United States appropriated maximally only 35 percent of US national income, are history. The more egalitarian American society of the postwar is unlikely to return.
Great wealth in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries was mostly inherited and passed on. Derived from returns on capital (dividends, interest, rents), it fostered an upper class of rentiers in, as Piketty called it, “a hyperpatrimonial society.”12 Yet when a novel engine of wealth concentration – supersalaries for top managers – was added to the mix in the last decades of the twentieth century, a new driver of inequality was activated.
Vast wealth from labor was pioneered in the US and is spreading to other countries now. Extremely high salaries and multi-million-dollar bonuses for top executives have quickly become the norm, even for CEOs who underperform. Piketty has termed the compensation of supermanagers “hypermeritocratic” and said dryly, what “merits” a supersalary and to what height is only evident to the lucky beholders but otherwise hard to tell.13
The future of rising inequality looks bright from a winner’s perspective. Supersalaries rivaling incomes from inherited wealth are building new fortunes. These, in turn, yield additional profits, namely the earnings from recently amassed capital, usually invested in real estate, industrial or financial assets. Thus, high income from labor seeks additional revenue from capital. And since “there is no reason why a person can’t be both a supermanager and a rentier” (Piketty), combined industrial power and financial wealth explode brilliantly.
Welcome to the future of dark capitalism! It promises a superinegalitarian society. To make things worse, this dystopian society has a strong tendency to endure if income from capital (r) trumps the growth of the economy (g), or r is greater than g. In a mature economy like the American with low population growth (under 0.8 percent presently), an annual increase of GDP hovering around 2 percent, and a general rate of return on capital in the neighborhood of 5 percent, new investments and savings add up significantly and progressively.
Robert Mercer (discussed in the previous chapter) is a perfect example for the inegalitarian force of r > g. A highly paid supermanager who is also drawing a considerable rent from accumulating capital, he is bound to get richer and richer. He occupies a supersalaried position at Renaissance Technologies and profits handsomely from investing and re-investing part of his income and wealth into the firm’s secretive Medallion Fund, which is open to Renaissance employees only (around 300 people). Forbes listed Mercer’s 2016 earnings with 125 million dollars. The income of the firm’s founder was twelve times as much: Jim Simons “earned” 1.5 billion dollars in 2016.
These two outsize numbers, the big and the bigger one, exhibit the logic and tell the story of neo-patrimonial capitalism. Sooner or later, Mercer, too, will break into an annual income of one billion. His children and grandchildren, denizens of our nouveau superinegalitarian society, have already no need to work for a salary anymore, they may, but not because they must.
Bannon found unlimited wealth for very few people so “disturbing” that he dreamed of an enlightened Christian capitalism – but for whom is he working? The families of his origin, the forgotten working class? Or the families of his superwealthy patrons? As Trump said, Bannon is simply “a guy who works for me.”
If Bannon would have been serious about a capitalism reflective of Christian values – Matthew 19:24 perhaps, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” – he could have tried to interact with and learn from the spiritual leader of Catholicism, Pope Francis. Instead, when Bannon went to Rome in 2014, he was already “suspicious” of Francis.14 Seeking out Cardinal Burke, the Pope’s vocal opponent, Bannon aligned himself with an archconservative Catholic reactionary. Whatever Bannon was wary of, it was probably confirmed the following year by the encyclical letter Laudato Si’.15
ACLARION CALL for global social and environmental justice, the Pope’s Encyclical Letter amplified “both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”16
Pope Francis underlined, “the human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together.” He charged all regional capitalisms to combat “human and social degradation” with investments in their nations’ social and natural capital. He also requested to pay attention to “the needs of the poor, the weak and the vulnerable” and to really understand “that we are one single human family. There are no frontiers or barriers, political or social, behind which we can hide, still less is there room for the globalization of indifference.”17
Ban Ki-moon, former Secretary-General of the UN, the other transnational representative of the whole human family, appreciated the papal encyclical. He was looking forward to Francis’s scheduled address of the UN General Assembly in New York in September 2015.18 The conservative Washington Examiner, however, introduced the Pope as a “Latin American anti-U.S. populist” who had made “numerous vitriolic attacks on our economic system” and supported “many of the positions being taken by the Democrats’ left wing.”19
Inequality has been normalized in the Trumpian force field. Scientific findings are incessantly undercut by false conspiracies, untruths, and outright lies. For decades, Republicans have nurtured the misleading opinion that great wealth contributes greatly to economic growth. Yet sound economic research of wealth inequality from 1987 to 2002 revealed that billionaire wealth stunts economic growth.20 The study covered 1,652 individuals, each owning more than one billion dollars and actively involved in managing their fortunes. Furthermore, the study also found that politically connected billionaire wealth stunts economic growth significantly.21
Ban Ki-moon observed on World Day of Social Justice in 2014, “There is nothing inevitable about inequality.”22 He was right. Inequality is a social construction that can be deconstructed and reduced. Of course, any attempt to attack inequality requires a functioning administrative state with a democratically legitimized authority. Bannon’s project (the deconstruction of the administrative state) aims at disabling the very tool that is needed to increase economic equality.
The hurdles to fight inequality are formidable. Obstacles include humanity’s fragmentation into over 190 sovereign nation states, the geopolitical structure undergirding economic nationalism, and offshore tax heavens. Multinational corporations and superwealthy individuals are taking advantage of global loopholes via the flight of capital and by not paying their fair share of taxes.
A world authority which could effectively outlaw tax havens does not exist. Transnational regional integration, such as the European Union, could advance in this direction, but populism, Trumpism, and Putinism work against local and global integration. They seek to disintegrate the EU not to strengthen it. So, the question arises, how to domesticate nationalistic, egocentric, regional capitalisms for the benefit of small, individual taxpayers, poor families, and the planetary whole.
America is the nation that could and should put this question on the world’s agenda. Instead, Decius-Anton and Bannon whip up turbulent discontent on behalf of a populist scam. Sheltered from the deadly winds of inequality, they do mercenary work for the Trumps and Mercers of the world who already own half of the planet’s wealth.23
America was meant to be a republic of equals held together by collective solidarity.24 Yet a macabre coalition of top 1 percenters tries to teach 99 percent of society that solidarity is weakness. Why would you join a mutual health insurance pact, they ask, when you are young, strong, and healthy? Why make the weak strong, they say, and yourself weak by supporting the unsuccessful with your money?
Jane Mayer reported a conversation with a Renaissance insider who told her:
Bob [Mercer] believes that human beings have no inherent value other than how much money they make. A cat has value, he’s said, because it provides pleasure to humans. But if someone is on welfare they have negative value. If he earns a thousand times more than a schoolteacher, then he’s a thousand times more valuable.25
DARK DEMOGRAPHY WARNS “good” people about hordes of “bad” people. A recurring syndrome, it was a hallmark of Trump’s campaign from the beginning, deeply rooted in Trump and his loyal “voters and supporters” as well as large parts of the Republican Party.
The fearful theory about masses of bad people overwhelming good people was loudly articulated when Trump announced his presidential campaign on June 16, 2015. After stately descending the golden escalator deus-ex-machina style in his Manhattan Tower, Trump accused China, Japan, and Mexico as competitor countries “killing us economically.” But instead of stopping there, he identified (with characteristic innuendo) the bad people Americans should be afraid of:
When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us [sic]. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.1
Soon afterwards, Trump doubled down on these dark words and told CNN, “I’m not just saying Mexicans, I’m talking about people that are from all over that are killers and rapists and they’re coming into this country.”2 Moving seamlessly from metaphorical economic “killings” to foreign rapists and killers overrunning the US “from all over,” Trump advertised himself to the nation (and the global audience that pays careful attention to American elections) as a president who would make a stark, albeit racist, difference to all his predecessors, especially Barack Obama.
THE FIRST PIPER leading frightened followers into the netherworld of dark demography was the clergyman Thomas Robert Malthus. When he made his entry in 1798, poor English people were the target3 – in Trump’s context, “bad hombres” are the problem.4
Dark demography does not have to be racist, but it is increasingly. From Hungary to England and the US, Malthusian pipers have changed their tunes from the national poor to new arrivals from poorer countries and regions, especially migrants and refugees. The menacing groups keep changing though the core argumentation remains the same: civilized society risks extinction if it feeds lots of marginal people who allegedly engage in dangerous, antisocial, criminal activities and, above all, violent or careless sex that boosts their numbers. This is the terror of the Malthusian syndrome that keeps reappearing. Dark demography is the undead of the industrial age, a zombie that Trump has sent into battle without having to know anything about its history.
Malthus’ An Essay on the Principle of Population as It Affects the Future Improvement of Society had “a melancholy hue” and “dark tints” in contrast to the prevalent enlightenment view of his time about the perfectibility of humanity.
The essay’s argument rested on two laws: “First, that food is necessary to the existence of man. Secondly, that the passion between the sexes is necessary, and will remain nearly in its present state.”5 Its Newtonian “principle of population” stated, “the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.” The fear that triggered the Malthusian alarm was the mathematical difference between exponential and linear growth applied to population and food:
Taking the population of the world at any number, a thousand millions, for instance, the human species would increase in the ratio of – 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, etc. and subsistence as – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, etc.6
A global population of 1 billion people, the number Malthus had picked, was reached around 1804. The slow population increase over ten millennia from one million at the start of the Agricultural Revolution to one billion at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution indicates two things, on the one hand Earth’s “carrying capacity” of 1 billion people for pre-industrial farming societies, and on the other the ruthless efficiency of Malthusian checks and balances on population.
Humanity’s long agricultural epoch was on Malthus’s side: rising populations were always kept in line with existing food resources. All technical gains in food production were “eaten up” by population growth; and when populations grew further, positive checks on population (famines, diseases, wars) kicked in and adjusted the increased population to the available sustenance level. Yet after Malthus, world population doubled in ever shorter intervals7 and industrial food production rose in parallel.8
There is a problem with Malthusian population science. It is not the notion of a divergence between infinite human wants and limited resources, but the derivation of socio-political prescriptions from its so-called laws – “moral restraint” (sexual abstinence) at Malthus’ time and one-child policies today.
This became clear when Malthus ventured into the minefield of market interventions in the context of the English Poor Laws. He thought relief of poverty created the problem it was trying to alleviate. Hence, Malthus wanted the English poor to “earn” the entitlement to their subsistence in workhouses. He even argued that doing nothing about poverty was justified by nature:
A man who is born into a world already possessed, if he cannot get subsistence from his parents on whom he has a just demand, and if the society do not want his labour, has no claim of right to the smallest portion of food, and, in fact, has no business to be where he is. At nature’s mighty feast there is no vacant cover for him. She tells him to be gone, and will quickly execute her own orders, if he does not work upon the compassion of some of her guests.9
The paragraph ended as mercilessly as it had begun: “the great mistress of the feast” – mother nature – “humanely refused to admit fresh comers when her table was already full.” Many of Malthus’s contemporaries condemned him for using the word humanely in this perverse way. However, the morality of applied Malthusianism reflects exactly that credo: being born into the world does not oblige a society to nurture needy groups of people or an unwanted labor force.
NON-COLLEGE WHITES voted decisively for Trump across the US in 2016. They recoiled from America’s first black president about whom Trump had rumored that he was a foreign-born intruder and perhaps a Muslim.10
Deeply resenting the coalition of racial minorities and young urban adults that had elected Obama twice, white Americans gave Trump more votes than he lost to racial minorities in the decisive states of Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.11
Low-middle and lower-class American (and British) whites are angry about their diminishing station in the world. They fear becoming a minority in their “own” country knowing most of the world population is not white. Addressing this growing angst, Trump assured his supporters, “Don’t worry, we’ll take our country back.”12
White Americans understood. They believed, Trump will lead the US back to the golden age when nearly nine out of ten Americans were white (in the 1950s). But black Americans understood too. For them, Trump’s message “Make America Great Again” was a racist threat. In the early morning hours of November 9, when it dawned on America that Trump had just been elected President of the United States, CNN commentator Van Jones called Trump’s victory “a whitelash” – a backlash of the white American electorate:
We’ve talked about everything but race tonight. We’ve talked about income, we’ve talked about class, we’ve talked about region. We haven’t talked about race. This was a whitelash against a changing country, it was a whitelash against a black president, in part, and that’s the part where the pain comes.13
The white share of the American electorate has fallen continuously in the twenty-first century, and it will keep falling. Declining numbers of white voters have been projected up to 2060 for the whole nation as well as individual states.14 Whites fell from 78 percent in 2000 to 75 percent in 2004, 73 percent in 2008, 71 percent in 2012, and 69 percent in 2016. During President Obama’s second term (2012-2016), the US electorate grew by 10.7 million eligible voters. Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and other minorities gained 7.5 million of this total, whites only 3.2 million. According to the Pew Research Center, “More than two-thirds of net growth in the U.S. electorate during this time has come from racial and ethnic minorities.”15
Considering these demographic projections, the Trumpian reversal of Obama’s gains should be short-lived, but that is not guaranteed. Trump and Trumpism will fortify the demagoguery of dark demography with walls, real and legal, travel bans, and deportations. Although a steadily declining white population will render the re-whitening of America futile in the long run, the toxic racism of this effort can only be stopped by making Trumpism small again.
In Spring 2015, the US Census Bureau determined white children will be a minority in 2020 and whites will be outnumbered by nonwhites in 2044.16 Then, on the heels of Trump’s grand announcement of his candidacy, it reported that Millennials (youth born between 1982 and 2000) comprising over one quarter of the US population were 44.2 percent nonwhite and thus more diverse than all preceding generations. It also reported that the youngest Americans, children younger than five years old, were even more diverse than Millennials and had already become a “majority-minority” in 2014 by being 50.2 percent nonwhite.17
Trump’s formidable appeal to white voters must be seen against this backdrop of foreseeable electoral doom. He had discovered an anxious and angry constituency that was understanding itself as an “endangered species” in the most literal sense, so much so that the conspiracy theory of “white genocide” has become a fact for American supremacists.
THE DIRE SITUATION of US whites was first recognized in December 2015 when Anne Case and Angus Deaton documented “a marked increase in the all-cause mortality of middle-aged white non-Hispanic men and women in the United States between 1999 and 2013.”18
That was an unexpected finding. All racial and ethnic groups in America and comparable countries exhibited falling mortality rates for this age group. Yet, less educated American whites showed growing mortality rates. Case and Deaton linked this “midlife mortality reversal” of white American men and women to drug and alcohol poisoning, chronic liver diseases, suicide, mental health problems, and the inability to work.
Their subsequent research found that the unique distress of US whites began in the American Southwest in 2000, spread to Appalachia, Florida, and the West Coast in the mid-2000s, and was country-wide by 2015 affecting both rural and urban areas “with additional increases in drug overdoses, suicides, and alcohol-related liver mortality, particularly among those with a high-school degree or less.”19
Examining possible social, cultural, and economic reasons for these “deaths of despair” (defined as death by drugs, alcohol, and suicide; Figure 1), Case and Deaton pointed to globalization and technical change (automation) to explain “the collapse of the white, high school educated, working class after its heyday in the early 1970s, and the pathologies that accompany that decline.”20
Figure 1 reveals the delayed onset of this collapse. In 1990, the mortality rate of US whites was still lower than the rates of France (FRA), Germany (GER), Sweden (SWE), and Canada (CAN). Yet in 2000, the picture changed dramatically: the rates of the comparison countries headed for convergence around 40 deaths per 100,000 people, whereas the US rate started to rise steeply toward 80 deaths, double the amount of its peers. The situation in other English-speaking countries – the UK, Canada, and Australia – is much better than that of the US, but their trendlines are also moving in the wrong upward direction.
American inequality is a driver of the deadly storm that is killing middle-aged US working-class whites without a college degree. The Americans in its path are devastated by undereducation, bad health, difficulties in their marriages, problems with child rearing, and social isolation. However, their predicament is not uniquely American, and it should not be lethal. Neither the rising educational demands of a technology-driven economy nor the hardships from world labor competition are US problems only. What is truly American, is the persistent opposition to a robust national safety net with public health care, social welfare, and adult education. In the US, hard shocks of change are directly absorbed by poor people’s bodies.
Blaming the victim is a favorite of dark demography. Joblessness and poverty combined with low levels of education trigger that blunder, which Hillary Clinton committed by calling half of Trump’s constituency a “basket of deplorables.”21 Trump, who habitually degrades people including a disabled reporter22 and an American war hero,23 does not like “losers” but “loves” the folks drawn to his rallies, even though many of them are in the truly “deplorable” condition described by Case and Deaton. Dark Trumpian demography can blame poor Mexicans but not poor Americans – provided they are white.
BLACK AND BROWN people are fair game for Trump and Trumpism. Steve King, an Iowa Republican, confirmed this memorably when he tweeted on behalf of “Dutch Trump” Geert Wilders: “Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”24
King did not specify whose babies cannot sustain us, but he confirmed to have “meant exactly” what he had said.25 What that was became clearer in a radio interview the next day. Speaking about the calamity of a falling fertility rate and how that is threatening Western civilization, whose builders had been white Europeans, King declared that he is neither racist nor against immigrants per se, although diversity is a problem, because not only “decent” people enter the US. To illustrate the “indecent” kind, King recommended Jean Raspail’s novel, The Camp of the Saints, a key text for understanding the Trumpian mindset.26
Raspail pre-articulated the Western populist fears prevalent today back in 1973. He imagined global waves of poverty-stricken, third-world refugees as “crusades in reverse.”27 Raspail envisioned millions upon millions of dark- and brown-skinned people entering the open “camps” of white, wealthy Western societies drowning them with their sheer numbers.
The Camp of the Saints depicts the first of these nonviolent crusades. A fleet of one million Indians unleashed by Malthusian pressure from “famine-racked Calcutta” has sailed off on a hundred run-down ships for the “paradise of milk and honey,” the French Riviera. “This vanguard of an antiworld bent on coming in the flesh to knock, at long last, at the gates of abundance” is on its way to overrun the European paradise with myriads of their youthful poor. Raspail has the Indian Minister of Information tell the Belgian Consul in Calcutta:
There’s no Third World. No, not anymore. That’s only a phrase you coined to keep us in our place. There’s one world, only one, and it’s going to be flooded with life, submerged. This country of mine is a roaring river. A river of sperm. Now, all of a sudden, it’s shifting course, my friend, and heading west…
In Raspail’s fervid imagination, the reverse crusaders do not speak, “they simply growl” and “their growls run the show. After all, five billion growling human beings, rising over the length and breadth of the earth, can make a lot of noise!” Copulating on the decks of their ships “in a welter of dung and debauch – and hope as well – the Last Chance Armada pushed on toward the West.”
The cunning message of Raspail’s novel was less about them and mainly about us and the dangerous softness of “present moral principles” in the progressive West: “For them, white skin means weak convictions.” I am quoting extensively from this work because its narrative has penetrated the core of radical Trumpism. T-Plus devotees like Iowa Representative King have drawn their lesson from the novel’s biting critique of the self-abnegating Western reaction to the Indian fleet and are convinced they are but brave soldiers making a last stand for “our civilization” against the flood of refugees “from all over.”
An “anonymous, omnipresent monster” – the “apocalyptic beast” – has “vowed to destroy the Western World” and, instead of fighting back, Western elites succumb. From the Pope and his clergy to the officials of the French republic and the pundits of the free press, all agree that “an appropriate welcome in a framework of international cooperation” is warranted for the armada of the poor. The entire press corps is shown to serve the beast. Only one journalist from a fledgling libertarian newspaper stands apart. In a press conference at the Elysée Palace, he confronts the spokesman of the French government with the dark Malthusian scenario:
Let’s suppose that the Western nations go along with the government’s proposal and provide for the refugee fleet as long as it’s off in mid-ocean. Can’t you see that you’ll simply feeding your enemy, fattening up a million invaders? And if this fleet … should reach the coast of France, and throw those million invaders out onto the beach, would the government have the courage to stand up against the very same hordes that its kindness had rescued?
In 1982, Raspail reflected on the ending of his novel: “I denied to the white Occident … its last chance for salvation.”28 Thus, the French president changes his mind in the last moment. He does not order his troops to open fire on the disembarking economic migrants but asks them to “weigh this monstrous mission for themselves, and to feel free either to accept or reject it.” Left to their own troubled conscience, French officers and soldiers abandon their positions along the Mediterranean coast and allow a peaceful invasion.
King’s skepticism about “somebody else’s babies” drives the anti-immigration stance of the current US administration.29 Trump, Bannon, Decius-Anton, Sebastian Gorka, Jeff Sessions,30 and Stephen Miller31 – they are all in agreement about the necessity of sharply curbing immigration. As Decius-Anton said, “My view is that we long ago passed the point of diminishing returns and high immigration is no longer a net benefit to the existing American citizenry.”32 The fiction-based history lesson of The Camp of the Saints has deeply resonated in the Trumpian White House.
In Fall 2015, when Chancellor Merkel welcomed hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees into Germany declaring, “I’m happy that Germany has become a country that many people abroad associate with hope,”33 Bannon commented on Breitbart, “It’s not a migration. It’s really an invasion. I call it the Camp of the Saints.”34
Do-or-die defenders of Western civilization are transfixed by the imagined terror of the Malthusian syndrome. Dark demography has triggered a resounding white recoil in the Trumpian force field that will reverberate for some time.
AMERICA HAS REACHED the point of dark party politics. Party politics is “politics that relate to political parties rather than to the good of the general public.”1Dark party politics, however, is politics that neglect the public good, sabotage the nation’s collective interests, and harm the planet’s fitness for humanity’s long-term survival.
In a democracy, political parties must win elections to achieve good things for the country. But there is a dividing line between responsible and irresponsible partisanship. Political parties cross that line when they lose respect for the outcome of elections and try to win at all costs. Casting large swaths of the population and/or the competing party as by definition unworthy, un-American, or undemocratic crosses over into destructive irresponsibility as well.2
The competition of party-driven politics should increase political participation and the public good, but if general intransigence takes hold, the country divides into hardened blocks and party politics veers off onto the dark side.
Normally, party politics is constrained by mutual acceptance of democratic procedures, principles, and norms. However, if partisan actors put their self-interests (in personal gains and power for the sake of power) above the common good, the exploration of alternative futures for the benefit of the whole country grinds to a halt and the body politic ossifies.
Dark US party politics is bad for both America and the stewardship of our warming planet. How can politicians unable to cooperate in their country’s best interest navigate the uncharted straits between national goals and humanity’s global future? We must invest in the global good to have a future on a temperate planet, but how can that happen if party politics cannot even find common local ground?
THREE DAYS BEFORE the 2016 election, the New York Times abandoned its measured ways criticizing both the Republican party and its candidate in remarkably stark terms. The venerable paper had waited for months before its Editorial Board called the hitherto unthinkable – a President Trump – a national peril.
No longer mincing its words, it associated the Republican party with “the alt-right, the Ku Klux Klan, the racists and misogynists and nut jobs, the guy who shouts ‘Jew-S.A.,’ the crowds that scream, ‘Lock her up’.” Furthermore, it described Trump as a candidate who
stands for torture, reckless war, unchecked greed, hatred of women, immigrants, refugees, people of color, people with disabilities. A sexual predator, a business fraud, a liar who runs on a promise to destroy millions of immigrant families and to jail his political opponent.3
Earlier, on the eve of the first presidential debate, the Editorial Board had merely taken issue with Trump’s egotism calling the Republican candidate “a man far more consumed with himself than with the nation’s well-being.”4 The Times’s final bluntness emerged only when its editors all of a sudden realized that Trump could actually be close to winning and becoming President of the United States, but then it was already too late.
But even then, “the rejection of Trump” was presented as “the simple part.” The hard part would come for Hillary Clinton in her new and clearly expected role as 45th president since she would have to deal with the empty promises, deep divisions, and hardened party politics the menacing Trump had spawned.
The day of reckoning arrived in the early hours of Trump’s upset win, after the fog of mainstream media ignorance had been blown away by the deadly winds that had gathered long before. Now the Times recognized its blindness and called Trump’s victory what it really was:
a decisive demonstration of power by a largely overlooked coalition of mostly blue-collar white and working-class voters who felt that the promise of the United States had slipped their grasp amid decades of globalization and multiculturalism.5
WHAT HAD HAPPENED? Why did the combined savvy and ample means of top journalists, pollsters, and TV anchors not “get” it? What was the matter with the brilliant “limousine liberals”6 of the Democratic Party? How could they not see the white working class was desperate for a savior? Why did Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton lose to Trump?
Bush and Clinton were beholden to the elites of their parties, respectively patriarchal and cosmopolitan. Both left the lesser people to Trump who did not hesitate to embrace the “little man” and his grievances with reckless abandon.
Catering to wealthy families, highly educated professionals, and other well-traveled constituencies, Bush and Clinton drew all the hatred of an arrogant “Establishment” (comprised of people from both parties, the mainstream media, the urban and coastal elites, and the “swamp” of Washington, D.C.) upon themselves. Their behavior and the company they kept broadcast the message that poor, low-educated, provincial citizens were an embarrassment for them and their sophisticated friends.
Clinton committed the additional mistake not to “feel the Bern.”7 She missed the opportunity to invite the Senator from Vermont, Bernard Sanders, as her running mate. Grassroots enthusiasm for “Bernie” was palpable and the outsider appeal of his campaign profound. However, Clinton’s vice-presidential pick was Tim Kaine, the “safe” and proudly “boring” senator from Virginia.8 That choice put Bernie’s “political revolution” on hold and squandered the energy of millions of young, new Democrats. Many who had been rooting and organizing for the fiery, self-described “democratic socialist” from Vermont were thus incentivized not to vote.9
The Sanders campaign did not accept big money donations from corporations, super PACs, Wall Street, and the financial industry, nevertheless, it raised more money through small, individual contributions than any campaign in US history before. Sensing Sanders’s populist potential for gathering a competitive Left, Trump happily criticized the political arrangement Sanders had grudgingly made in the end with the Clinton Democrats as a bad deal.10
The hubris before the fall of the Democratic Party candidate surfaced two months before Election Day. On September 9, 2016, Clinton gave a speech at a private fundraiser in New York dubbed the “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender for Hillary Gala Dinner.” Expressing her “special commitment” to the LGBT community, Clinton mirrored the worldview of her woke audience by saying:
You could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic – you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he [Trump] has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people – now 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive hateful mean-spirited rhetoric. Now, some of those folks – they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America.11
Following Cinderella’s advice the good into the pot, the bad into the crop, Clinton put the other half of Trump’s mixed bag of “deplorable” supporters into the pot of redeemable folks, that is, people “we have to understand and empathize with.” Yet there was no reaching out, no effort to win anyone over, no discernible empathy, just a vaguely Marxian accounting of the “false consciousness” of those
who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change. It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from. They don’t buy everything he [Trump] says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different.
After this analysis of the hopeless followers of Trump, Clinton turned to the performer of the evening, “Please welcome – Barbra!” Barbra Streisand did a 40-minute gig for Clinton’s well-heeled LGBT friends at the grand venue of Cipriani Wall Street.12 Ticket prices ranged from $1,200 to $250,000.
Trump supporters proudly declared right away on t-shirts, buttons, hats, mugs, car decals, and tote bags: “I’m Deplorable.” Three days after the gala, a white man responded to Clinton’s speech and the Black Lives Matter movement by holding up a handmade placard at the entrance to a Trump rally reading “Deplorable Lives Matter” (Figure 1). An image tweet of his counterpunch went viral on Twitter and “Trumpreneurs” sold the new political combat line again on t-shirts etc.
CLINTON’S ANALYSIS OF the Alt Right was correct. But giving up on quite a few of “some of those folks” as “irredeemable” was wrong, not because the notion of an offensive Right was flawed, but because the division into worthy and unworthy Americans was equally offensive, counterproductive, and, above all, dark party politics.
People do not like to be thrown into containers and they hate to be labelled. Nobody wants to be classified as an “irredeemable deplorable” or a “frustrated redeemable.” Sure enough, the pigeonholed Americans flocked to the other side. Even Clinton’s “redeemable” folks jumped from their basket into Trump’s arms.
Sadly, the “deplorables” faux pas had been utterly unnecessary. Clinton had tackled Trump’s unacceptable encouragement of the Alt Right just two weeks earlier in a strong speech in Reno, Nevada.13 There, she frontally attacked Trump’s mainstreaming of hate groups as well as the “prejudice and paranoia” of his campaign, but did not disparage the supporters of her opponent.
In Reno, Clinton noted, “A man with a long history of racial discrimination, who traffics in dark conspiracy theories drawn from the pages of supermarket tabloids and the far, dark reaches of the internet, should never run our government or command our military.” There, her rebuff of dark words on race, women, Muslims, and immigration was to the point, including her critique of Trump’s embrace of Farage and Putin (“the grand godfather of this global brand of extreme nationalism”).
Furthermore, Clinton had pointedly asked, “if he [Trump] doesn’t respect all Americans, how can he serve all Americans?” And yet, two weeks later, she contradicted her pledge to “be a president for all Americans” by excluding millions of Americans who are “not America.” Two weeks earlier she had said, “I don’t think we have a person to waste. We want to build an America where every person has a place.” Right – Clinton could and should have cast “deplorability” as a temporary and not an essential condition.
A presidential candidate for all Americans should oppose, indeed must fight, hard-core Alt Right figures like David Duke. Plutocratic interference, religious scapegoating, and white supremacy must be fought. The Mercers, the Trumps, and their enablers, such as Bannon, will destroy American democracy if not fought back and their base kept small. However, the American President must stand up for all Americans. Clinton’s fatal dinner talk failed this test, whereas the properly targeted, hard-hitting Reno speech passed it.
Paying attention to historical precedent would also have avoided Clinton’s basket blunder. She could have remembered that Mitt Romney tripped up under similar conditions four years earlier. In May 2012, running against Barack Obama, Romney spoke to fellow Republicans in Florida at another exclusive dinner. Organized as an intimate fundraiser for wealthy donors who had contributed $50,000 apiece to attend the event, Romney characterized some 76 million Americans as follows:
There are 47 percent of the people who … are with him [Obama], who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name-it. … And they will vote for this president no matter what. …These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect.14
Four months later, in September 2012, just before the presidential debates in October, those words rose up against Romney. A bartender had surreptitiously videotaped his talk and given it to Mother Jones.15 The magazine’s scoop created a firestorm of negative commentary, helped Obama’s re-election, and put Romney on the defensive as a rich guy who cares about nobody but his own kind. Romney got stuck with the narrative of the 47 percent, i.e. the dark party politics of abandoning “half of America.”16 How could Clinton not be mindful of Romney’s debacle? When Americans have no answer, they call it a good question, and this is one of those questions without a good answer.
In 2016, Republicans and Democrats converged in practically neglecting the US working class, aging and feeble as it had become. Mutual bipartisan neglect of working-class voters seemed to be a negligible problem – until Trump rallied his “voters and supporters.”
Republicans catered to prosperous top-ten percenters and Democrats to comfortable urban professionals. Neither of them expected Trump to mobilize the forlorn masses against all established norms and traditions. Clinton, as Romney before her, had no real interest in, or deeply felt words for, the impoverished parts of the American electorate – an expansive constituency. Relaxing in their preferred socio-political contexts, both revealed their hand and lost.
TWO CRUCIAL DIFFERENCES in American party politics remain. Democrats have a fairly healthy respect for facts, whereas Republicans do not. True to form, Clinton’s points about right-wing racism and nationalism were sound, while Romney’s claims about freeloaders in the range of 47 percent was a combination of semi-true statements and false assumptions.
Wrongful dependence upon government is an old Republican theme. The revelation of such a large group of moochers was shocking but sounded right to Republican ears. Romney’s narrative did not trigger the image of a poor white grandmother living modestly on low Social Security benefits – a sizable number of the 47 percenters are retirees and seniors – but of myriads of Mexican immigrants, blacks, and other minorities living on social welfare and demanding government handouts.
Romney’s allegation was misleading in many respects. Paying no income tax, does not eliminate other taxes, such as payroll taxes, excise taxes, state, and local taxes as well as property taxes if applicable. But the insinuation that all those who are not paying income tax vote Democratic “no matter what” was plain wrong. First, Romney was supported by some 40 percent of the people who did not earn enough to pay federal income tax; second, the states with the highest rate of non-income-tax filers were also those with the highest Republican votes; and third, the states with the lowest number of non-filers were the ones chiefly voting Democratic.17
Republicans seldom outmaneuver Democrats in orderly contests over facts, but often in freestyle wrestling matches over fictions where anything goes. And irony of ironies: Trump beat Clinton with the votes of Romney’s imagined solid bloc of government-dependent people.
The other key difference between the two parties is gender-based and embodied in the image of the white American workingman. The Democratic Party had owned this iconic category of man two generations ago, before the discovery of gender. Now, Republicans represent and conserve this imagined tradition of masculinity.
David Paul Kuhn has told the story of the alienation, progressive neglect, and eventual realignment of white lower and middle-class males – the Democrats’ most loyal constituency from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson.18
Kuhn found that the voters who left the Democratic Party for good between the failed candidacies of George McGovern (1968/72) and John Kerry (2004) “were not merely white; they were also overwhelmingly men.” He noted the “White Male Gap,” that is, “the margin between the strong majority of white men who support Republicans in presidential elections, in comparison to the minority who vote Democratic.”
Concerned about the diminishing prospects for Democratic presidents, Kuhn worried that when Obama and Clinton campaigned for the Democratic nomination in 2007, they were “significantly closer to the Democrats who led the party [away from white men] since 1972 than to those of the days of JFK or FDR.”19
Since Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in 1980, the Republican Party has consolidated its stronghold on aggrieved white males. Trump has put this fact in sharp relief. His voter base resents to be blamed for all racist and sexist ills in American history and society.
The progressive liberal Left has won major post-war fights such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, yet in pioneering multiculturalism and political correctness it has also fought many splintered identity battles at the cost of losing the political war with American conservatism. Bravely reaching out to women, blacks, gays, immigrants, everybody but white men, it has driven the latter into Republican exile. Rebuilding the Democratic Party for the future will require tolerance for all American minorities including white men and women. Kuhn saw this clearly:
The Democratic revival cannot occur without reaching out to those they lost. But white men will only respect the outreach when they believe the reasons they left the party are respected. Until that day, American conservatives will continue to win the majority of workingmen.20
Politicians and parties are intertwined. Both are agents of change. They can provide or withhold solutions to the problems of irresponsible, self-serving partisanship. But dark party politics are difficult to loosen up once they have hardened.
The democratic antidote is not the power of a strongman who is likely to aggravate the problems, but rather a statesman or stateswoman who can lead competing factions toward the general good, the best of the country, and a common future for humankind. This is a very difficult task under normal political conditions. It seems to have become almost impossible for the contemporary US – unless America makes Trumpism small again.
ILLIBERAL STATES RULE in the global East and populism provides them with leverage in the global West. Their governing regimes oppose the freedoms of Western democracies, suppress the rule of law, subvert civil society, support anti-democratic movements worldwide, persecute and target critics at home and abroad. The outcome is a foreign and domestic policy in bullish pursuit of authoritarian governance, that is, dark geopolitics.
The lure of dark geopolitics entered the Trumpian force field without difficulty. The gains of democracy after the Cold War were short-lived, rolled back in Russia, Central Europe, and parts of Asia. Trump’s critique of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and his refusal to confront Putin directly have given the Russian president a freer hand from the Baltics to Western Europe. States like Hungary, Poland, and Turkey are showing the world how to progressively dismantle liberal and secular democracies, while keeping their memberships in the EU (Poland and Hungary) and NATO (Turkey).
Trump’s Russia problem would not have arisen and become persistent if Putin’s unfettered personal control over Russia would not embody the paradigm of executive power Trump craves. Putin’s authoritarian liberty is Trump’s leadership model. Make no mistake: Trump and Trumpism would love to bring Putin’s freedoms to the US.
A mural on the outside wall of a barbecue eatery in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, depicted Trump’s codependent attraction to Putin rather vividly (Figure 1). As one of the restaurant’s owners noted, Lithuania is “situated on the NATO border with Russia” – an important geopolitical divide between the existence and nonexistence of civil liberties, democratic governance, and peaceful politics.
The Lithuanian mural1 appeared after Trump and Putin began to exchange warm words of admiration in December 2015.2 Their bromance stirred historical memories and collective anxieties in the Baltic region. What were Putin and Trump whispering to each other?
The 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was not forgotten; its secret protocol had paved the way for Stalin’s occupation of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Dominykas Čečkauskas, co-owner of the “small libertarian barbeque joint,” expressed this regional fear: “if Russia and the USA would ever make out, it would happen in the Baltic states … with tongues or with tanks.”3
The possibility of Putin and Trump “making out” is well founded.4 Dark geopolitics is on the rise. Democratic values deemed “Western” are pushed back in more and more countries. Russia and China – the global trendsetters of repressive authoritarian standards – have moved far ahead in restricting political rights, civil liberties, and civil society as well as freedom of expression, press freedom, and freedom of online activities. Yet America, once the cheerleader of the global Freedom Agenda (see chapter 3), is withdrawing from the world under President Trump, pulling back from democracy, political freedom, human rights, and free trade.
Trump’s international withdrawal is weakening the global posture of the US. His pullouts from the Trans-Pacific-Partnership (TPP)5 and the Paris Climate Accord6 are telling Russia and China that the universal principles which Trump’s predecessors championed are history. The America First strategy is isolationist and respects the Sino-Russian spheres of influence. In fact, Trump seems to welcome the advancement of dark geopolitics in the Russian and Chinese world regions.
But an unintended consequence of Trump’s NATO critique could arise: if NATO’s European members would start paying “what they should be paying”7 and became more assertive, the Western military alliance could become stronger and more of an obstacle to the European intrusions of Putin’s Russia.
PROGRESS TOWARD DEMOCRACY came to a global halt in 2006 and began to decline in 2007. This epochal change was observed by Freedom House, a nongovernmental American watchdog organization that has chronicled the worldwide ups and downs of liberal democracy, political freedom, and human rights since 1941.
Freedom House is “dedicated to the expansion of freedom and democracy around the world” and “acts as a catalyst for greater political rights and civil liberties through a combination of analysis, advocacy, and action.”8 This progressive mission of the largely government-funded democracy watchdog and the political values of the current US administration are no longer aligned. And that means shrinking federal support for US democracy assistance is likely.9
Since 1972, the NGO has published its annual flagship report Freedom in the World. In addition, it has released Freedom of the Press since 1980; postcommunist Nations in Transit since 2002; and Freedom on the Net since 2011. Special reports, analytical briefs, and policy briefs on topics related to the NGO’s mission complement its signature reports.
The onset of “freedom stagnation” was diagnosed in Freedom in the World 2007.10 The following year, Freedom in the World 2008 noted, “the year 2007 was marked by a notable setback for global freedom.”11 Since then, each annual Freedom in the World edition has observed a continuing retreat of best democratic practices around the world.
Freedom in the World 2017 has confirmed this unfortunate trend; it counted “a total of 67 countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties in 2016, compared with 36 that registered gains.”12 Besides, it noticed the onset of antidemocratic changes in places that previous reports had rated as “Free.”13
“Partly Free” or “Not Free” countries had gotten worse in the past, but now that formerly stable democracies have come under the influence of populism, their freedoms are in jeopardy as well. Former Soviet Bloc countries, which transitioned from communist regimes to democracies in the 1980s and 1990s, developed xenophobic, counter-democratic, populist agendas in Poland and Hungary. Politicians in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Serbia are encouraged by their neighbors’ trajectory and prepared to turn authoritarian. Trump’s victory has brought the US in line with this trend.
The 2016 global freedom numbers are worrisome. Only 39 percent of the world’s over 7 billion people are considered Free, 25 percent Partly Free, and 36 percent Not Free. For the 195 countries measured, the figures are: 45 percent Free (down from 47% in 2006), 30 percent Partly Free (unchanged), and 25 percent Not Free (up from 23% a decade ago). Table 1 lists the results for all global regions.
Two of the six regions captured in Table 1 stand out from the rest. First, the positive status of Europe because none of its 42 countries is deemed Not Free. And second, the negative status of Eurasia, which includes Russia, because none of its twelve countries is ranked Free. However, the authoritarian trend does not bode well for Europe either. Freedom in the World 2017 underlined, “nearly a quarter of all net declines in 2016” occurred in Europe. And it concluded, “the continent can no longer be taken for granted as a bastion of democratic stability.”
A FREE PRESS is the exception and not the global norm. Only 13 percent of the world population enjoys a Free press. The rest is badly served by a Partly Free press (42%) or worse by a Not Free press (45%). These were the dismal numbers of Freedom of the Press 2017.14 Over two thirds of the 199 countries and territories evaluated did not have a free press.15 More and more journalists around the world are working under political, judicial, and often physical pressure.
For Freedom House, freedom of the media is “a cornerstone of global democracy” and rising authoritarianism is undermining this foundation. Freedom of the Press 2017 pointed out:
Never in the 38 years that Freedom House has been monitoring global press freedom has the United States figured as much in the public debate about the topic as in 2016 and the first months of 2017. Press freedom globally has declined to its lowest levels in 13 years, thanks both to new threats to journalists and media outlets in major democracies, and to further crackdowns on independent media in authoritarian countries like Russia and China.
Freedom House hastened to add, the US “remains one of the most press-friendly countries in the world.” Yet it also warned that Trump’s contempt for “mainstream media” – his utter disregard for facts and hatred of critical reporting, which he calls “fake news” – carries the danger that the US could lose its position as a “model and aspirational standard.”
The cover of Freedom of the Press 2017 shows a pack of wolves named Turkey, Venezuela, Russia, Serbia, Bolivia, Poland, and the Philippines, each ridden by the appropriate strongman (Figure 2). The wolf pack is encircling a bunch of journalists bravely flying a “Free Press” banner. Trump is contemplating the scary scene from the outside.
What is Trump thinking? The report quotes his view of critical journalists as “enemy of the American people” – one of his darkest words. It also highlights his perception of being at war with the press: “I have a running war with the media. They are among the most dishonest human beings on earth.”16 Trump mirrors the mindset of the authoritarian jockeys of the bloodthirsty wolf pack in Figure 2.
AN OPEN INTERNET is not in the interest of illiberal states. This fact was recognized by Freedom on the Net 2016.17 The report measured three kinds of assaults: obstacles to Internet access, limits on content, and violations of user rights; and it documented the decline of Internet freedom “for the sixth consecutive year.”18
The freedom of digital media from government control may become even more important in the future than freedom of the press since an ever-increasing amount of people get their news electronically. In addition, the Internet is still “significantly more free than the news media in general.”19 No wonder, illiberal regimes aggressively pursue and implement restrictions of digital media freedom.
Authoritarian governments employ Internet censorship, user intimidation, and interruptions of Internet services; they block search engines, social media platforms, and communication apps. Their repressive digital control mechanisms undermine and inhibit the activities of liberal democracy and civil society or prevent them from emerging and challenging the tyrannical status quo.
The list of apps that suffered state-sponsored restrictions, disruptions, and periodic or total blocks included Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, YouTube, Telegram, and Instagram. Free usage of these apps was also hampered by user arrests.
The “Great Firewall of China,” which regulates and polices the Internet domestically, is a prominent example. Built with oppressive laws and advanced surveillance technologies, it encircles the whole country more seamless than with stones. Around 3,000 major websites are blocked on the Chinese mainland, including all Google services from Gmail to Google Search. A vast army of agents monitors the electronic traffic.
“Deeply concerned” about these “violations and abuses,” the Human Rights Council of the UN affirmed the principle, “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online.”20 The UN resolution denounced “all human rights violations and abuses committed against persons for exercising their human rights and fundamental freedoms on the Internet” and condemned all “measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online.” Russia and China tried to “delete calls for states to adopt a ‘human rights based approach’ for providing and expanding access to the Internet.”21
The battle against a free and open Internet is fought overwhelmingly by authoritarian governments, but also democratic states are tempted to control user empowering features. The former have used anti-terrorism laws to punish online activities unrelated to terrorism, such as discussions of democracy and human rights; the latter have demanded “backdoor access” to encrypted communication in the name of the “good fight” against criminals.
Massive despotic repercussions ensued when new social media turned users into authors, publishers, and broadcasters. State authorities took to targeting people who authored, published, or distributed posts, tweets, images, and other content proclaimed illegal or offensive.22 The bevy of forbidden topics covered political opposition, criticism of authorities, corruption, conflict, satire, social commentary, blasphemy, mobilization for public causes, LGBTQ issues, and support of ethnic and religious minorities.
An unfortunate counterpart to the geopolitical repression of Internet freedoms is the flip side of social media user power: the global explosion of trolls and trolling, unfounded, hateful, and untrue postings, unreal news, and bizarre conspiracy theories (see chapter 5).
Yet luckily so far, the Internet still allows many healthy freedoms to bloom. Digital activists keep finding new and creative ways to advocate for democratic change, campaign for women’s rights, combat corruption and waste, publicize official abuses, disseminate suppressed information, save lives in peace and war, organize disaster relief, promote social justice, and foster citizen journalism.
THE GLOBALIZATION OF authoritarian governance is a geopolitical peril the West has not begun to tackle with resolve. Overshadowed by the financial crisis of 2007-2008, then obscured by the smog of populism, and now blocked out by the never-ending eruption of Trumpian conundrums, the US and Western Europe have yet to counterchallenge the deliberate, sophisticated, and increasingly effective repudiation of their democratic identity emanating foremost from Russia and China.
Concerned that “only one side seems to be competing seriously,” fourteen American scholars analyzed the state of “soft-power” competition between autocracies (China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela) and liberal democracy in 2016.23 The editors summarized the volume’s wake-up call in The American Interest and underscored the encroaching threat:
The leading authoritarian regimes have invested heavily in building vast and sophisticated soft-power arsenals that now operate in every corner of the world. … At the same time, the most influential authoritarians – China, Russia, and Iran – have become more internationalist. Authoritarianism has gone global.24
Lumping China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela together as the “big five” is perhaps a bit too generous. Iran and Saudi Arabia are regional but not global powers and constrained by being mortal enemies. Venezuela under the auspices of the “Bolivarian Revolution” led by the late left-wing populist Hugo Chávez and continued by Nicolás Maduro is also neither democratic nor a great power. I would thus discount all three from the five authoritarian countries called “big.”
China and Russia, however, are indeed in the class of great powers, although the former is rising and the latter declining. Both are formidable adversaries, anti-American as well as anti-Western, and eager to seed their specific brands of authoritarianism globally. China prepares for the long run and is presently less menacing than Russia. Moscow pursues its antidemocratic goals more aggressively, as the US found out in its 2016 presidential election.25
THE ILLIBERAL GOVERNMENT of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) invites existing and aspiring authoritarian states to follow its lead and apply the soft and hard power techniques of repressive governance it has developed. China’s lessons include how to create and coopt a large middle class, proactively manage ethnic minorities, suppress political opposition, roll back democratic incursions, and domesticate the Internet.
Knowing that the strategic situation of China is still relatively weak in comparison to the American position and confident that the PRC will eventually surpass the US at least in economic terms, Beijing asserts itself directly only in East and Southeast Asia, the South China Sea for instance, and positions itself otherwise “as a peacefully rising developing country rather than as an assertive great power.”26 But once China’s strategic situation markedly improves, its pragmatic restraint is likely to change.
The accomplishments of the authoritarian Chinese development model are considerable and involve
holding down political opposition
concentrating power in one disciplined party
keeping foreign influences in check
matching Western technoscientific advancements
and growing the national economy.
The Chinese model cannot afford the freedoms of liberal democracy and the country’s political elite knows that very well. It has studied the rise and fall of dictatorial regimes far and wide – from the rule of Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (71 years) to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (74 years) – and has learned to be always careful and yet decisive.
President Xi Jinping and the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are pursuing their collective dream of national greatness fully aware of what is at stake.27 They are vigilant adversaries of liberal democratization at home and smart if often heavy-handed exporters of their authoritarian governance program abroad.
China’s growing international outreach portfolio holds many soft-power enterprises: “512 Confucius Institutes and 1073 Confucius Classrooms in 140 countries and regions”28 as well as numerous media outlets including China Daily, China Radio International, Xinhua News Service, and China Global Television Network (CGTN).
The resemblance of these propaganda channels to German Goethe Institutes, Deutsche Welle, BBC World News, and CNN is no accident – they are designed as competitive lookalikes. However, it would be naïve to think that the employees and contractors of the Chinese entities could show, write, or say anything not sanctioned by the strict guidelines and “thought directives” of the CCP.
Confucius Institutes and Chinese media are not expected to indulge in critical programming and editorial independence. They are obliged to put China in a good light and amplify the party line for their main target audiences, overseas Chinese and sympathetic non-Chinese foreigners. They are expected to heed President Xi’s politburo advice from January 2014 on “Constructing a Socialist Cultural Great Power and Improving Cultural Soft Power”:
China should be portrayed as a civilized country featuring a rich history, ethnic unity, and cultural diversity, and as an Eastern power with good government, a developed economy, cultural prosperity, national unity, and beautiful scenery.29
State television is China’s premier propaganda tool. Its brand has evolved from a local orientation (Beijing Television 1958) through a national focus (China Central Television 1978) to its current global emphasis (CGTN 2016).
Channels with an official “Beijing Angle” geared to an increasingly global audience, variously named CCTV International, CCTV-9, and CCTV News (English), started to broadcast and expand since the 1990s when Western inclined outlets, such as Voice of America and BBC World Service, began to retreat with drastic cutbacks of staff and reporting.
CGTN is headquartered in a dazzling skyscraper by international star architects Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren.30 Two years after the cantilevered building’s completion, President Xi asserted his China First approach in a speech against “weird [foreign] architecture.”31CGTN has regional command centers in Washington, Nairobi, and London; it operates in over 70 countries and broadcasts in Mandarin, Spanish, French, Arabic, Russian, and English.32
China’s global news service is characterized by high production values, slick professionalism, and ubiquitous availability on the Internet (cgtn.com). Its free app can be downloaded from iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon; you are invited to follow it on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other social media. Censorship is seldom manifest in what is reported – it hides in what is not reported.
An example of China’s modus operandi was given in 2013, when the CCP informed the country’s professors about “Seven Don’t Mentions”: “press freedom, universal values, civil society, civil rights, judicial independence, historical mistakes of the Chinese Communist Party, and the authoritarian-capitalistic class.”33
The latter referred to the wealth accumulated by top Chinese government officials and their families. Of course, what applies to Chinese classrooms, applies to Chinese media as well. Banned and no-go-areas are simply not showing up in CGTN’s news coverage. Hence, they are difficult to spot and the reporting seems to be fine.
POSTCOMMUNIST RUSSIA UNDER Putin is an autocratic state that propagates authoritarianism not with his own model but by fostering turmoil in other societies. Mainly interested in weakening the Western paradigm of liberal democracy and its associated values, Putin offers nothing much in constructive terms, yet gladly assists and supports whatever and whoever promises to sow diversion and upheaval outside the borders of Russia.
Putin’s Russia is not bound by truth, facts, or ideology, it takes sides strategically, left, right, or whatever – anything goes if it diminishes the West. Russia’s international news network, which was founded in December 2005 as Russia Today and rebranded RT in 2009, is an important instrument in this regard. It employs over 1,000 media professionals worldwide and is broadcast by paid partner networks in more than 100 countries.
The network is focused on the US, the Middle East, and Europe, the area of its largest audience, with bureaus in Washington, New York, Baghdad, Cairo, Gaza, London, and Berlin. In 2015, on RT’s tenth anniversary, its channels were reportedly accessed by tens of millions of people daily.34
RT supports digital platforms in English, Arabic, German, French, Spanish, and Russian; it runs a 24-hour English news channel, seven days a week; it is piped into over 2.7 million hotel rooms and provides a free mobile app in the Microsoft, iTunes, and Google Play stores; it also claims to outrank everybody else in terms of news consumption on YouTube.35
RT distributes the critique of “mainstream media” voiced by populist politicians in Europe and the US. Building upon the disruptive groundwork of Tea Party Republicans like Sarah Palin (“lamestream” media) and presidential lies36 about “fake news,” it smartly advertises itself in the Android app store not as an exacerbator (what it is) but a problem solver: “RT news – find out what the mainstream media is keeping silent about.”
The self-description of RT in the Apple app store – “We are set to show you how any story can be another story altogether”37 – leads straight into the twilight zone of Putin’s postmodern world full of “absurd arguments, lies, and half-truths”38 in which “alternative facts” (Conway) “correct” true facts and imaginary news “balance” real news. Instances of this “vast scripted reality show”39 include
“interviews” with Russian actors playing “victims” of Ukrainian “fascists”
“exposing” the CIA behind each prodemocracy movement in the world
and “wondering” if the Ebola outbreak was engineered by the US.
Brandishing the open-minded slogan “Question More”40 and featuring Pamela Anderson and Julian Assange as romantic freedom fighters does not endanger Western democracy. What does do that is Russia’s “‘information-psychological’ warfare” (Pomerantsev) that interweaves such stories with an anti-American and anti-Western narrative, libertarian as well as left- and right-wing positions, revelations of imaginary establishment conspiracies, and countless other distortions served up by RT.
RT works for Putin and his goals. Its objective is not the improvement of global news-reporting and -analysis but propaganda designed as “news,”41 especially the obstruction of European unity and the inflaming of intra-American conflicts.
No question, it is a good thing to challenge the Western information dominance, which Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty together with broadcasters like CNN Worldwide and news agencies like Reuters established in the second half of the twentieth century. Counter-interpretations, different viewpoints, and unreported news are welcome journalistic additions. However, RT’s editorial practice of “fair is foul, and foul is fair” turns competitive journalism into propaganda warfare, and that is unwelcome.
Sure, American mainstream media and their reporters make mistakes and commit fraud, but they also report their errors and repel journalistic misconduct just as the scientific community deals with fraudulent science: openly and correctively.42
Putin, on the other hand, operates beyond any such code of conduct. And Trump likewise. He pokes fun at CNN as the “Clinton News Network,”43 habitually denunciates critical media, and spreads the lie that the elite US media are “dishonest” and manufacture their news from made-up sources. Trump is thus a most valuable player for Putin, a purveyor of the darkest confusion and corruption that Russia could ever wish upon America.
The Washington Post recently added “Democracy Dies in Darkness” to its masthead.44 Although the paper’s search for a slogan began even before Trump became the Republican nominee, the Post’s new tagline is eerily apt for what has already happened since Trump and Trumpism acquired the White House. Democracy dies and authoritarianism grows in darkness, in dark geopolitics as well as in the dark environs of the Trumpian force field.
PUBLIC DISCUSSION OF American politics follows the lead of American mass culture and has become a ratings-driven commodification of politics as mass entertainment. In the light of this definition, Trumpian politics is bound to ascend the highest stage of dark political culture. What critical theorists of the Frankfurt School said about the “culture industry” (Kulturindustrie) – being guilty of “mass deception” because it “endlessly cheats its consumers out of what it endlessly promises”1 – applies to the dark political culture perfected by Trump and Trumpism.
The culture industry is transfixed by Trump, a bona fide TV star. The combination of amusing and infuriating elements that Trump craftily injects into his tweets and speeches keeps supporters and opponents as well as reporters and commentators glued to what comes out of his mouth. Trump’s Believe-Me (and nobody else) oratory is the manna that keeps his believers excited and going wherever he wants them to go.
Willing himself to entertain at all cost and never be boring, Trump improves his act “like a biased machine learning algorithm,” as “mathbabe” Cathy O’Neill observed:
What that translates to is a constant iterative process whereby he experiments with pushing the conversation this way or that, and he sees how the crowd responds. If they like it, he goes there. If they don’t respond, he never goes there again, because he doesn’t want to be boring. If they respond by getting agitated, that’s a lot better than being bored. That’s how he learns.2
In the wilds of Trump world, there is no penalty for lacking a moral compass and being deceptive, clueless, or plain wrong, only dullness is verboten. Success is achieved when the audience laughs, shouts, and claps; goes merrily after his enemies; pins its hopes exclusively on Trump; and does not believe the “fake media” that says their leader is a conman.
US politics has become a late-night laughing matter on TV and not primarily because of Trump. American TV inherited the “showbiz” business model of the culture industry, which had been created for radio and film in the first half of the twentieth century. Since then, the political culture of America has been warped by the industry’s commercial objective, that is, to entertain as many listeners and viewers as possible, mainly in big cities.
The refining effect of urban wit was noticed early on by critical theory as “compulsory intellectualization of amusement.”3 Contemporary experience confirms this analysis. Political shows, such as The Colbert Report (1,447 episodes), were as popular and lucrative as they were hilarious and sophisticated. However, when one considers that the best American discussions of politics are conducted late at night in TV studios with canned laughter and applause, then this setup itself looks like a bad joke on the political culture of the US.
The traditional understanding of liberals and conservatives alike that politics is a most serious business has evaporated. Populist politicians like Trump are now reaping the electoral benefits of showbiz politics. It is a mind-boggling trajectory from the “nausea” about a post-serious world to that very world. What a Leo Strauss could not imagine in the 1930s (in his comments on Carl Schmitt’s affirmation of “the political”) has been normalized in the US over the last sixty years. That new normal is the hitherto impossible:
It is impossible to mention politics and the state in the same breath as “entertainment”; politics and the state are the only guarantee against the world’s becoming a world of entertainment; therefore, what the opponents of the political want is ultimately tantamount to the establishment of a world of entertainment, a world of amusement, a world without seriousness.4
Trump and his coterie are the beneficiaries of an America unshackled from norms, rules, and etiquette. His freewheeling political performance mocks the sober gravitas of the statesman as a theatrical act to appear “presidential.” So, if politics as entertainment is the curse of our political culture, it is also simultaneously a blessing for the corporate purveyors and supersalaried hosts of talk shows such as:
The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, and Jimmy Fallon on NBC since 1962. NBC is owned by NBCUniversal, a subsidiary of Comcast Corporation.
Saturday Night Live on NBC since 1975.
Late Night with David Letterman on NBC from 1982 to 1993, then on CBS from 1993 to 2015. CBS is a flagship property of the CBS Corporation, which in turn is owned by National Amusements.
Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher on Comedy Central from 1993 to 1996, on ABC from 1997 to 2002, and on HBO since 2003. Comedy Central is an asset of the Viacom conglomerate, which belongs to National Amusements. ABC is owned by Disney-ABC Television Group. HBO belongs to the Time Warner conglomerate.
Jimmy Kimmel Live! on ABC since 2003.
The Jon Stewart Show on MTV from 1993 to 1995 and as The Daily Show on Comedy Central from 1999 to 2015, hosted by Trevor Noah since 2015. MTV is also owned by the Viacom conglomerate.
The Colbert Report on Comedy Central from 2005 to 2014 and as The Late Show with Stephen Colbert on CBS since 2015.
CONSPIRACY THEORIES VACCINATE the innocents at home and abroad against unwelcome truths of science and social theory. The presumed plot of “cultural Marxism” is an instructive case. The fact that this conspiracy theory resembles the Nazi prototype of “cultural Bolshevism” (Kulturbolschewismus) should be a warning – the contemporary US has entered the path that led Weimar Germany into a fascist future.
Exposés of “cultural Marxism” allege, the critical social theorists of the Frankfurt School used rock and roll, the Beatles, and sexual liberation to undermine the cultural foundations of America. They agglomerate slanted accounts of biographies and intellectual history in a weird bricolage to assert that political correctness endangers American identity, security, and survival. A first “revelation” about the sinister aim of “cultural Marxism” was published in 1992 in FIDELIO Magazine, a journal of the right-wing Lyndon LaRouche movement.5
Michael Minnicino’s essay on “The New Dark Age: The Frankfurt School and ‘Political Correctness’” told the vexing tale that the “Bolshevik intelligentsia” of this school came out on top of “the philosophical combat of the last two millennia” and imposed their “monstrous theories” upon the unwitting folks of America. To him, the heirs of the Frankfurt School “completely dominate” our universities, “teaching their own students to replace reason with ‘Politically Correct’ ritual exercises.”6
Minnicino’s dramatic account of the plot of “cultural Marxism” laid the demise of “Western Judeo-Christian civilization” at the feet of the Frankfurt School and portended darkly, “in our era of incurable pandemic disease and nuclear weapons, the collapse of Western civilization will very likely take the rest of the world with it to Hell.” But he also envisioned an “underground resistance movement” battling the “counter-Renaissance” of the Frankfurt School to create a “new Renaissance.” According to Minnicino, that populist movement will depend on “seemingly ordinary people”:
Given the successes of the Frankfurt School and its New Dark Age sponsors, these ordinary individuals, with their belief in reason and the difference between right and wrong, will be ‘unpopular.’ But, no really good idea was ever popular, in the beginning.
Trump and Trumpism got the “ordinary people” who are now ready to believe everything about “cultural Marxism” but nothing about demonstrable reason and its capacity to distinguish “really good” from truly bad ideas, or why the moral difference between right and wrong has put their movement and its populist leader on the downside of American democracy.
In 2002, three-times presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan incorporated the “cultural Marxism” plot in a Raspailan diatribe about immigration.7 For Buchanan, Jean Raspail was “prophetic.”8 Buchanan also shamefully contended that the “leading lights” of the Frankfurt School “redirected their talents and energies to undermining the culture of the country that had given them refuge.”9
Buchanan’s backing of the imaginary conspiracy of “cultural Marxism” poisoning the West was consequential. His endorsement injected an outer fringe theory into the bigger right-wing conservative context of America, where it took hold. The anti-Semitic belief that the Jewish luminaries of the Frankfurt School went “from destroying traditional Western culture in Germany to destroying it in the United States”10 has there been circulating ever since.
Recognizing conspiracy theories and their crafty assemblers can be difficult. Martin Jay, the leading American historian of the Frankfurt School, experienced this firsthand. In 1999, he let some “very professional and courteous” people interview him for a video documentary about the development of Critical Theory.
The unwitting professor, pictured in his university surroundings, did his best, but the documentary got the better of him. It “revealed” the sinister Marxist history of political correctness by reassembling Jay’s answers and explanations in the narrative context of “cultural Marxism.” William Lind, the author of the sting operation, provided the misleading commentary oozing professorial gentility with a pipe in his right hand.11 Lind gleefully recalled:
The video is especially valuable because we interviewed the principal American expert on the Frankfurt School, Martin Jay, who was then the chairman of the History Department at Berkeley (and obviously no conservative). He spills the beans.12
Nothing of what Jay had to say was a secret or previously unknown, yet his distinguished academic position bolstered Lind’s tale about the Marxist and Jewish origins of political correctness.13 And look (Figure 1) who posed with Lind (and vice versa) in 2016.
THE FAR-LEFT WELCOMES conspiracy theories as much as the Far-Right. For example, none other than Fidel Castro fell for the presumed peril of “cultural Marxism” invoked by Daniel Estulin in a three-volume “investigative report” on the Bilderberg plot.14
Estulin met Castro in Havana in 2010 (Figure 2). They had an animated conversation about a host of topics ranging from Al Qaeda to the colonization of outer space.15 The Comandante was intrigued by Estulin’s work about the “annual meetings of the world’s most powerful people – the Bilderberg Group.”
The “revelation” about Bilderbergers such as Henry Kissinger conspiring to establish a “globalist hegemony” fit Castro’s own suspicions. A survivor of many American assassination and ousting attempts, he was primed to expect the worst from “the [US] empire.”
Castro was so impressed by Estulin’s “true story” that he used his regular column in Granma, the official newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party, to quote numerous passages from the “fabulous” second Bilderberg volume verbatim and at great length. For instance:
Sex, drugs and rock and roll, huge demonstrations across the nation, hippies, dropouts, the Nixon presidency and the Vietnam War were tearing at the very fiber of American society. Old and new collided head-on without anyone being aware that this conflict was part of a secret social plan, designed by some of the most brilliant and evil people in the world …16
Castro’s compilation repeated the true and the false of Estulin’s fable. Thus, he affirmed the true but trivial generality that Adorno was “one of the main philosophers of the Frankfurt School of Social Research.” But he also spread the non-trivial falsehood that Adorno “was sent to the United States in 1939 to direct the Princeton Radio Research Project … with the aim of controlling the masses.”
The truth is: Adorno had not been “sent” by anybody; he fled the Nazi persecution of German Jews. He did not “direct” the Radio Project, that was the job of Paul Lazarsfeld; but he worked under Lazarsfeld. And finally, Adorno did not aim at “controlling the masses” via popular culture; he in fact decried modern popular culture as mass deception (Massenbetrug).
However, the Princeton project was financed by the Rockefeller Foundation, and Rockefeller money tends to feed the fears of a New World Order conspiracy. Castro’s ratification of the Bilderberg-enhanced conspiracy theory of “cultural Marxism” was immediately and widely reported, for instance by RT17 and the Huffington Post:
Castro suggested that the esoteric Frankfurt School of socialist academics worked with members of the Rockefeller family in the 1950s to pave the way for rock music to “control the masses” by diverting attention from civil rights and social injustice.18
Estulin’s enhancement of the dark idea that the Frankfurt School was behind a “titanic and secret project to turn the values of the United States around” with the thrilling Bilderberg plot was fodder for the growing number of surfers for conspiracy theories in books, articles, and on the Internet.
Taking care of this trend and making sure that no “secret” of the Bilderberg cabal remained hidden, Estulin hawked his “exposures” to an increasing YouTube audience and receptive RT cameras. He spoke about the EU “falling apart at the seams” and that North American and European elites were trying to create a “one-world company.”19 Soon, he unearthed “the darkest secrets of the elites” in a regular weekly RT program Desde la Sombra: From the Shadows.
However, Estulin’s weekly RT program was cancelled when Argentine president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, cut a deal with Putin to include RT en Español in the nationwide broadcasting of Argentina’s publicly owned television network.20 The reason was an Estulin exposure that accused the Argentinian governments of Carlos Menem and Sra. Kirchner and her late husband Néstor of selling the vast region of Patagonia out to the Zionist “masters of the world.”21 The informant for “From the Shadows” was Adrián Salbuchi, an Argentinian anti-Semitic ultranationalist.22
THE DARK FUN of conspiracy theories has moved from the outer fringes to the inner core of the American political discourse. Along the way, the nature of their production and consumption changed radically. Conspiracy theories went from low impact articles and books in the 1990s to high impact websites, digital publications, and social media in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Their clientele grew from a few hundred to a few thousand readers in twenty years but exploded in the last ten years thanks to technological easing. Now, their toxic content reaches millions of eyeballs and involves untold numbers of contributing participants.
This quantitative surge left the content of received conspiracy theories unaffected but made their delivery ever more strident and vulgar. A person who played a leading role in America’s shift to digital coarseness was Andrew Breitbart. His retelling of the story of “cultural Marxism” in Righteous Indignation was utterly repetitive in substance,23 yet extremely nasty in tone.24
Breitbart’s language was meant to be offensive for the sake of getting noticed; it was witty, but not funny, and completely unconcerned about being reminiscent of the hate speech of Hitler and Goebbels (which had driven Critical Theory into exile in the first place). For example: “They [the German Jewish émigrés of the Frankfurt School] had weaponized the cloudy bacteria of their philosophy into full-bore ideological anthrax.”
The contradiction of being raised Jewish and consciously attracting anti-Semitic bigots did not hold Breitbart back from building a stage for the Far Right.25 Breitbart’s friend Larry Solov, co-founder, co-owner, and CEO of Breitbart News Network, recalled how their “new media” company was conceived “one night in Jerusalem” in the summer of 2007: “Andrew turned to me and asked if I would de-partner from the 800-person law firm … and become business partners with him.”26 Solov said “yes” and the two started Breitbart as “a site that would be unapologetically pro-freedom and pro-Israel.”
Breitbart was well-prepared for the startup of a no-holds-barred digital news outlet.27 He had assisted Matt Drudge since the mid-1990s in publishing the online Drudge Report, a right-leaning news aggregator. The Drudge Report rose to instant prominence breaking the scandal of President Clinton’s affair with Monika Lewinsky and Newsweek’s reluctance to publish the scoop.28 In 2005, Breitbart helped Arianna Huffington to launch the Huffington Post, a left-leaning opinion blog. Both Huffington and Breitbart were conservatives at the time, yet by the late 1990s, Huffington had turned liberal.
Breitbart News followed the successful new media enterprises of the Drudge Report and the Huffington Post. It was run out of the basement of Breitbart’s Los Angeles home until board member Steve Bannon provided free office space in Santa Monica.
Breitbart’s untimely death at age 43 in March 2012 was pivotal: Bannon became executive chairman of Breitbart. He and the big money behind him (the Mercers; see chapter 6 on Dark Free Speech) intensified the “media war,”29 which Breitbart had started, and refocused it from the advancement of the Tea Party to the campaign of Ted Cruz and then the election of Trump.30 Winning this war for Trump and T-Plus was greatly helped by the assistance dark political culture and its upstanding comedians provided.
AMERICAN POLITICAL CULTURE is almost evenly divided, and US politics is hotly debated, albeit in the opposing trenches of two solidly fortified camps. Think of the partisan audience of Fox News on the one hand and MSNBC on the other. Few viewers watch and consider both sides. Trespassing is discouraged.
Mainstream media, cosmopolitan elites, Republican and Democratic establishments – they all lost against a foe who may have been joking when he praised the power of Satan.31 He took advantage of the cultural darkness, so the blind did not see what was coming. American comedians pilloried Bannon and Trump night after night, and week after week – but they only managed to domesticate Trump and Trumpism.
Alec Baldwin and Mikey Day did their best playing Trump and “Grim Reaper” Bannon on Saturday Night Live. On February 4, 2017, they called the leaders of Australia, Mexico, and Germany from the studio’s Oval Office and terminated each insulting conversation with slamming the phone down shouting, “Prepare to Go to War.” The studio audience enjoyed the hilariousness of it all.32 A clumsy writer for Cosmopolitan, the women’s magazine for fashion, beauty, and sex tips, lauded the great entertainment value of the satire:
There’s not much to say other than you have to watch the cold open from yesterday’s Saturday Night Live and then laugh and laugh until you cry real tears. Alec Baldwin is dead-on as Trump, and the Grim Reaper is dead-on as Trump’s #1 advisor/puppet master, Steve Bannon. Prepare to giggle a lot and then that giggle followed by a cold shiver that moves up and down your spine and then infiltrate your soul. But other than that: Everything’s fine!!!33
Really? – The skit reached its climax to roaring laughter when Bannon’s impersonator in the grim reaper costume asked, “Can I have my desk back?” Baldwin-Trump answered, “Yes, of course, Mr. President, I sit at my desk,” moved over to a small replica of the Resolute desk and obediently played with a children’s toy (Figure 3).34
The real Trump of course never condoned attention not focused on him. He was angered for months by a Time cover featuring Bannon as “The Great Manipulator” and hated the moniker “President Bannon” for his chief strategist.35 Anyway, the unwelcome nickname bloomed on Twitter (under the hashtag #PresidentBannon) and inspired cartoonists everywhere.36 Yet these political jokes did not derail Trump; they made Trump jealous but did not bring him down. The culture industry’s comedic interventions had only one predictable result: Trump was “giving Bannon the cold shoulder.”37
TRUMP AROSE FROM the culture industry a seasoned entertainment professional. Nearly thirty years of involvement in various radio and TV shows as guest, host, and owner made Trump an expert in the big business of American mass entertainment. His expertise included:
Numerous appearances on the Howard Stern Show from the late 1990s to 2004.
Hosting the NBC game show The Apprentice from 2004 to 2015.
Buying Miss Universe, Inc., from ITT Corporation in 1996 and running it as the Miss Universe beauty pageant from 1996 to 2014, first with CBS from 1996 to 2002 and then with NBC from 2003 to 2014.
Hosting the pay-per-view show of the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) WrestleMania IV and V at Trump Plaza in Atlantic City in 1988 and 1999.
According to Rolling Stone magazine, Trump’s journey to the White House began with his support of make-believe or “professional” wrestling, which afforded Trump a boisterous new audience. In 2013, Trump was called a “WrestleMania institution” and inducted into the “celebrity wing” of the WWE Hall of Fame with the words “Donald might very well be a great president of the United States.”38
A memorable event in this world of bombastic strong men was WrestleMania XXIII. It was staged in 2007 and billed as the “battle of the billionaires” with Trump on one side and owner, chairman, and CEO of WWE, Vince McMahon, on the other. Advertised as “Hair vs. Hair,” the winner of the fight would get to humiliate his opponent by shaving the loser’s head.
The two men taunted each other for weeks but choose substitute fighters for the match: African American wrestler Bobby Lashley as stand-in for Trump and American Samoan wrestler Edward Smith Fatu (ring name Umaga) for McMahon. “Stone Cold” Steve Austin of “attitude era” fame was the referee. Trump-Lashley won and both shaved McMahon’s head bald. Another highlight of this staged contest was the moment when Trump suddenly attacked McMahon from behind, threw him down and pounded his head.39
A doctored version of this episode surfaced in July 2017 in a video tweet posted by Trump. It replayed the violent scene of Trump pummeling McMahon but now with the CNN logo plastered over McMahon’s head.40 The message was clear: this president is a fighter. He battles the “fake news” punching an “enemy of the American people” – what could be wrong with that?
Otherwise, Trump and McMahon were business partners and friends. Vince and Linda McMahon gave $5 million to the Trump Foundation between 2004 and 2014.41 In 2016, McMahon’s wife supported the Trump campaign with $7 million. Her reward was a Trump cabinet position in early 2017 as administrator of the Small Business Administration.42
Even more important for Trump’s personal development and public recognition was The Apprentice, a long-running reality show that grew from 20 to 28 million viewers at the end of its first season (January to April 2004). The popular TV show made the already famous Trump a household name in the US and abroad, where it was franchised to several dozen countries. It also turned “The Donald”43 into the straight-talking “host-boss” character who does not sacrifice manly talk for wimpy (politically correct) TV speak.
The Apprentice taught Trump to value high ratings and seek “the love and respect of Middle America.” The game show creator recalled that Trump drew “a direct line from the show’s success to the possibility that he’d shoot for the nation’s top job” saying, “Maybe I’ll run for president one day.”44 For Jim Dowd, public relations chief of NBC, the show was “the bridge” to the 2016 election campaign. TV critic Emily Nussbaum concluded, “if ‘The Apprentice’ didn’t get Trump elected, it is surely what made him electable.”45
Trump’s entertainment education for president would have been incomplete without the early language lessons of The Howard Stern Show. Shock jock Howard Stern – trademarked “King of all Media”46 – was consistently winning the all-decisive, lucrative ratings game talking raunchily about sex. The fact that Stern’s radio show was making tons of money not despite but because of its language was an eye- and dirty mouth-opener for Trump, a frequent guest.47 If nothing else, Stern’s show freed Trump from the shackles of politically correct speech.
The “mock camaraderie”48 of Trump and Stern was forged in the 1990s when Trump was buffeted by financial and personal instability.49 It was a “mutually manipulative relationship” in which Stern had the upper hand. However, Stern sensed his guest’s popular potential. In August 2015, almost one year in advance, he predicted Trump would win the Republican nomination in July 2016, “no matter what he says, people dig him.”50
“Digging” Trump and his potential voters did not translate into an endorsement. Stern supported Clinton for president. “I don’t dislike Trump as a candidate,” said Stern after Clinton’s nomination, “but I am absolutely enamored by Hillary.”51
In February 2017, Stern mischievously suggested that Trump only ran to get “a couple more bucks out of NBC” for The Apprentice and was now secretly wishing Clinton had won. The story showed Trump and Stern at a Knicks basketball game in 2005 with the new women in their lives (Melania Knauss and Beth Ostrosky) between them.52
These shots pitched both men – leaning into each other, talking animatedly, all-smiles – as close friends, a false positive. The cheerful images belied that Stern voted twice for Clinton, in the primary of 2008 and the general election of 2016. The political jokes of late-night comedians are like these photos. They are embedded in our dark political culture which distorts reality, promotes the unacceptable, and normalizes the anomalous.
RADICAL TRUMPISM IS no joke. Trump may not be the person to bring the projects of T-Plus to their natural conclusion (the abolition of American democracy), but he has already shifted the Overton window (see figure 1 in chapter 1) into previously unacceptable areas and modes of public speech and behavior.
American comedians are valiantly pushing back against Trump and Trumpism, but their jokes inadvertently accelerate the public’s adjustment with what was anomalous before, say ridicule of, and violence against, journalists. The development of establishing a “new normal” via comedy and satire is the peculiar meaning of normalization under conditions of politics as entertainment:
This process happens in the places where you least expect political events to transpire. It’s on the late-night talk show, when the comedian giggles as he tousles Donald Trump’s hair, signaling that this madman can take a joke; it’s in the life-style magazine that works to humanize him [Trump] and those around him, suggesting that people with furniture dipped in gold are just like us; it’s in the conversations where one person dampens another’s alarmism by wondering, Have you ever actually seen a Klansman?53
Trump’s hair was ruffled by Jimmy Fallon of The Tonight Show in September 2016. Criticized by his fellow comedians for “humanizing” the then-candidate Trump, Fallon later defended himself by saying, “I almost did it to minimize him.”54 Fallon’s harder hitting colleagues like SNL’s Tina Fey were right, yet they are steering the American public in the same direction. Consider, for example, calling Trump a racist on SNL.
Well, it happened exactly one year before the election. Candidate Trump had been invited to deliver SNL’s opening monologue. Flanked by two Trump impersonators, the candidate was interrupted by the shout “Trump’s a racist!” “Who is that?” Trump asked. It was the comedian Larry David. Standing up in the audience, David yelled again, “Trump’s a racist!” Surprised, Trump said to no one in particular, “Why would he do that?” David shrugged, “I heard if I did that, they’d give me $5,000.” Trump’s response – “As a businessman, I can fully respect that”55 – got what mattered most to everybody: Applause.
Was Trump’s performance “an inside joke between Trump and David at the expense of those who had genuinely protested NBC’s decision to host a leading Republican candidate known for his racism and vitriol”?56 Did the “friendly relationship” between Trump and SNL go “awry” after the November 2015 monologue?57 Are these the most important questions to ask?
American talk shows cracked more jokes about Trump in the first 100 days of his presidency than his three predecessors attracted in their first year.58 Yet politics is no joke and more political jokes than ever are not the solution but part of the problem.59
Jokes cannot heal the damage Trump and T-Plus inflict upon the American democracy. Laughter does not hurt in a political culture that rewards entertainment and craves money. And the jokes that sting in the era of Trump can ricochet and turn against their makers:
When Republicans see these harsh jokes – which echo down through the morning news shows and the chattering day’s worth of viral clips, along with those of Jimmy Kimmel, Stephen Colbert, and Seth Meyers – they don’t just see a handful of comics mocking them. They see HBO, Comedy Central, TBS, ABC, CBS, and NBC. In other words, they see exactly what Donald Trump has taught them: that the entire media landscape loathes them, their values, their family, and their religion.60
The eight winds depicted in the early modern image on the PART II page above are coming full circle in the postmodern condition of Trump world – the final chapter of my manuscript.
TRUTHS TO ONE side of the political spectrum, lies to the other – how is that parallax possible? Well, good stories don’t lie; the hero always wins; and Trump is the hero in a galaxy of narrative truths.1 If you live in a world with factual truth, your sun shines in another universe.
Consider the following: On July 24, 2017, the National Jamboree of the Boy Scouts of America featured a “hyper- political speech” by President Trump that was meant to be apolitical.2 On July 25, Trump claimed, “I got a call from the head of the Boy Scouts saying it was the greatest speech that was ever made to them, and they were very thankful.”3 On July 27, the Chief Scout Executive apologized to the scouting family about the “political rhetoric that was inserted into the jamboree.”4 And on August 1, the scouting organization told Time they were “unaware of any call from national leadership placed to the White House.”5
On August 2, a reporter, who was following up on the emerging story, asked White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, “Why did the president say that he received a phone call from the leader of the Boy Scouts and the president of Mexico when he did not? Did he lie?”6 When Sanders acknowledged that no phone calls had been received, the reporter concluded, “So he lied.” But when Sanders heard that, she said no, “It wasn’t a lie. That’s a pretty bold accusation.” Hence, the question arises: What has happened to the distinctions between beliefs, opinions, lies, facts, and truth?
We understand Trump is a businessman who has learned that selling an apartment, a building, or himself works better with hyperbole than unvarnished truth in advertising. Trumpian reality is built on opinions, wishful thinking, and make-belief. What remains unclear is: Why do so many people buy the Trumpian hocus pocus with facts and truth?
Reality in Trump world is a matter of perspective. Take the “Trump Tower” on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. The tower has 68 floors in Trump’s marketing information. Creative floor accounting has logged the soaring atrium as 10 floors, added the 19 commercial floors above it, and brought the subsequent first residential floor to number 30.7 Counting the concrete floors would have arrived at number 20 (and 58 for the whole building).
When “Trump World Tower,” a residential condominium opposite the UN in New York, had to indicate floors on the elevator panels, Trump “counted” 90 stories, although the building had only 72 constructed floors to walk on. How did he do it? Trump divided the 900-foot-tall building by an average floor height of 10 feet. An average height of 9 feet would have given him 100 floors. “I could have gone higher than 90 stories,” Trump was quoted in the New York Times, but “I chose 90 because I thought it was a good number.”8
Trump has been credited, and proudly credits himself, with the invention of vanity marketing floors that replace the tedium of actual floors. Trumpian math is popular in the luxury real estate business and appeals especially to men of new wealth for whom an apartment’s size and altitude are tokens of accomplishment. The higher up, the better, and if the number on the elevator button shows the owner’s lofty status, why not?
Trump has grasped the social psychology and motivating power of aspirational illusions early on. The Art of the Deal made no bones about it:
The final key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole.9
Still, “selling fantasy” for a healthy profit with gimmicks like higher numbered floors is not always sufficient. Aggressive strategies for beating the competition are also required. Trump’s salesmanship has no problem with that:
I’m the first to admit that I am very competitive and that I’ll do nearly anything within legal bounds to win. Sometimes, part of making a deal is denigrating your competition.10
Trump’s business acumen did not fall by the wayside when he transitioned into the presidency. His formation as a wheeler-dealer carried over with all its canny and uncanny elements. Trumpian mythmaking produced a grandfather who allegedly came to America “from Sweden”11 and intimations about President Obama’s supposedly non-American birthplace.12
Trump operates in the amusing realm of extravagant exaggerations and the demagogic jungle of wildly untruthful claims. He has inflated his height by one inch13 and did not hesitate to declare the size of his hands cum private parts as “normal” and “slightly large, actually.”14 Yet he also linked Rafael Cruz, the father of his rival Ted Cruz, to the assassination of John F. Kennedy15 and argued that Obama “was the founder of ISIS.”
Trump aims his dark words deliberately. When conservative radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt in an otherwise compliant interview suggested that “founder of ISIS” might be a mistake, Trump said, “No, it’s no mistake. Everyone’s liking it.”16 And when Hewitt offered, “I’d just use different language” to convey the ISIS claim, Trump shot back, “But they wouldn’t talk about your language, and they do talk about my language, right?” Hewitt responded, “Well, good point. Good point.”
Trump is never at odds with himself. What is wrong with calling Obama the founder of ISIS when “everyone’s liking it”? And what could be better than everybody is talking about “my language”? Non-Trumpers may be hung-up on terminology and facts, but Trump supporters “get” Trump the way he understands himself. They follow the narrative truth of his words.
Trump and his people dwell in a postmodern world where the distinction between “factual” and “narrative truth” is suspended. Ben Shapiro, a former editor-at-large of Breitbart, expressed this observation in a remark about Breitbart and Bannon:
I knew Andrew [Breitbart] since I was 16 and the idea that he and Bannon were best friends and that Bannon was the natural heir was utter bullshit. Truth and veracity weren’t [Bannon’s] top priority at Breitbart. Narrative truth was his priority rather than factual truth.17
Shapiro has called Bannon and Trump “mirror images of each other.” Both have made their home in a world where reality-based politics has become an “elite thing.” Unmoored from facts and truth, Trump and Trumpism emanate from, and resonate in, the space of thought that postmodern philosophy has opened wide in the last forty years.
DARK PHILOSOPHY LETS the truths of all narratives bloom. An arcane study of the role of narrative in the social construction of individual and collective identities has taken to the streets and turned into the everyday application of postmodern relativity. Now, the doctrine of equal rights for all storytelling rules. The corrosive consequences of this thought change are ubiquitous.
Pure falsehoods have been elevated to “alternative facts.”18 Cynical slogans, such as “Fair & Balanced”19 for Fox News, cover hyperpartisan rants. Prejudice-reinforcing conspiracy theories can be widely distributed without shame and penalties. Political propaganda outlets are encouraged to practice RT’s black magic of “how any story can be another story.”
What began as a critique of the infinite-progress hype surrounding Western civilization has become an uncritical, generalized thought position. To comprehend this transformation, we must understand a French philosopher, Jean-François Lyotard, and his seminal work The Postmodern Condition.20
Lyotard qualified the European Enlightenment as a metanarrative in which “the hero of knowledge works toward a good ethico-political end – universal peace.”21 For Lyotard, a “metanarrative” is a second-order story about the “little narratives” (petits récits) people tell each other. And from these popular stories and tales – plural histories, so to speak – a singular story is fashioned for a community, a nation, or a culture. Yet that unified (hi)story violates the authenticity, diversity, particularity, and incompatibility of the original micronarratives of the people. Ergo, metanarratives (also called “grand narratives” by Lyotard) are essentially false narratives.
To put it differently, the grand narrative of the Enlightenment culminating in universal peace was but a big lie – a “mythistory”22 that suppressed the oppression of non-conforming ideas and people on behalf of the imagined march of history towards a fully enlightened society. Lyotard deemed the critique of such fables the objective of postmodern philosophy and wrote, “I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives.”
In the late 1970s, when Lyotard formulated his philosophy of the postmodern condition, he noted that the Enlightenment narrative was losing “its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal.” He interpreted this change as “a product of progress in the sciences.”
As “postmodern knowledge” advanced, the statues of Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan, and Hernán Cortés began to melt. Traditional textbook chapters about the heroic age of discovery became obsolete. One-sided celebrations of Columbus Day were protested, and local histories of pre-Columbian Native Americans featured. The complex interplay between rapacious European colonizers and indigenous populations emerged. And all that happened because “our [postmodern] sensitivity to differences” and “ability to tolerate the incommensurable” grew and gained strong intellectual traction.
Postmodern critical theory of the Enlightenment developed in opposition to Critical Theory with capital letters. Lyotard rejected the Frankfurt School approach of Jürgen Habermas who had defended the Enlightenment as an “unfinished project.”23 The French philosopher endorsed the relativity of norms and ideas and asked, “Is legitimacy to be found in consensus obtained through discussion, as Jürgen Habermas thinks?” Lyotard did not think so (“Such consensus does violence to the heterogeneity of language games”).
Lyotard promoted “inventor’s paralogy” (new things, rules, and ideas via “dissension”) in contradistinction to Habermasian discourse theory. He criticized the legitimation of power structures by metanarratives (such as the march of modern science towards rational explanation of everything or the global advancement of universal human rights) and featured the articulation of different beliefs, desires, and aspirations “in clouds of narrative language.”
However, two historical developments problematized the postmodern critique itself. First, people did not heed the philosopher’s prescription to banish grand narratives, in fact, they created new ones, the metanarrative of globalization, for example. Globalists hailed the “flattening” of the world with unrestricted communication, open borders, and free trade.24 But populists and authoritarian strongmen rallied their troops against unfettered globalization, and the likes of Decius-Anton, Bannon, and Estulin are now nurturing anti-globalism as a grand counter-narrative.
Second, far from eliminating metanarratives, postmodernism has only succeeded in liberating all narratives from the restrictions of factual accuracy, scientific objectivity, social fairness, moral rectitude, and personal honesty. When postmodernism trickled down from its original philosophical heights to Rorty’s “postmodernist professors” (see Foreword above), their students, and ultimately the Trumpian base, it toppled all naïveté about facts and truth, indeed it sidelined the quests for facts and truth and mainstreamed the stories people tell on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media.
The postmodern review of presumptuous Enlightenment claims thrived in the 1980s and 1990s. It was an overdue and warranted intervention, but the corrective critique became a problem when paralogy changed from remedy to prescription (Figure 1), that is, when postmodernism began to spread narrative truths wholesale and empowered the epistemological anarchism of “anything goes.”25
POSTMODERN RELATIVITY IS the result of surging narrative truths and ebbing factual truth. It is transmitted in, and by, the small particles of language, the words we speak, read, and write. Every ideological sea change occurs in language first and must spark novel words subsequently. Postmodernism affirmed that rule with “post-truth” – a word first used in 1992.
Oxford Dictionaries named “post-truth” the international Word of the Year 2016.26 It defined the adjective as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals.” It also revealed that “its usage increased by 2,000% in 2016 compared with last year.” Casper Grathwohl, President of Oxford Dictionaries, described the word’s career:
Fuelled by the rise of social media as a news source and a growing distrust of facts offered up by the establishment, post-truth as a concept has been finding its linguistic footing for some time. We first saw the frequency really spike this year in June with buzz over the Brexit vote and again in July when Donald Trump secured the Republican presidential nomination. Given that usage of the term hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down, I wouldn’t be surprised if post-truth becomes one of the defining words of our time.27
The Society for German Language elected “postfaktisch” (the German loanword for post-truth) also Word of the Year 2016 (followed by “Brexit” in the number two position).28 A noteworthy feature of both the English and German neologisms appears when one realizes that postfaktisch is not counterfactual (kontrafaktisch in German) but something else entirely. The Economist highlighted that by calling post-truth politics a new mindset in Austria, Germany, North Korea, Poland, Russia, Turkey, the UK, and the US in which “truth is not falsified, or contested, but of secondary importance.”29
Post-truth and post-truth politics have entered the English language and Wikipedia for good. The linguistic innovation was foreshadowed by “truthiness,” a word Stephen Colbert had launched in The Colbert Report in 2005. The comedian’s mock term took off when the American Dialect Society called it the 2005 Word of the Year and explained, “truthiness refers to the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true.”30
Now that truth is no longer the shared priority of speech for politicians, the media, and the public, but merely an optional feature of communication, the problem arises: Whose post-truth dominates the ferociously competitive 24-hour news cycle?
In 2002, a senior adviser to President George W. Bush answered that question in a meeting about an article that had irritated the Bush White House. The aide told the writer, Ron Suskind, journalists like him were living “in what we call the reality-based community” – bad company in the eyes of the aide and the White House. The aid’s further clarification that Suskind and his kind “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality” puzzled Suskind. Yet when Suskind interjected something about “enlightenment principles and empiricism,” the aide (believed to be Karl Rove) cut him off and declared:
That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.31
True, power politics has always produced “new realities” for writers to report and historians to study. But political actors and observers also always had a shared sense of “discernible reality” – until the rise of narrative truth.
The evolution from Bush’s “faith-based presidency” (Suskind) to the dreamed-up worlds of conspiracy and fiction (Trump world) is devastating. America has slit down the slippery slope from boldly creating its own imperial reality and tipped over into the realms of fantasy. Old-fashioned politics as “a strong and slow boring of hard boards” (Max Weber) has fallen into oblivion. The holders of state power and millions of anonymous “history actors” are now producing invented-reality stories on social media every day.
Great private wealth has shifted from the landowners of long ago (George Washington) over yesterday’s real estate tycoons (Fred and Donald Trump) to the social media entrepreneurs of today (foremost Mark Zuckerberg). The inclination of social media toward mass plantings of irrealities combined with the proclivity of superior wealth to inspire delusions of expertise32 is extremely worrisome for the present and the future.
Trump admitted in Art of the Deal that “modest” is not his favorite word, yet Trump’s analog boasting pales in comparison to the digital capabilities of a Zuckerbergian government33 that would operate on a post-truth basis:
We believe in giving people a voice, which means erring on the side of letting people share what they want whenever possible. We need to be careful not to discourage sharing of opinions or to mistakenly restrict accurate content. We do not want to be arbiters of truth ourselves, but instead rely on our community and trusted third parties.34
The formula for an updated brave new world is clear: Start with the libertarian “Mercer” constant (a person’s net worth is a person’s value), add both the Trumpian equation (superrich equals most knowledgeable) and the value of avowed agnosticism about truth, then multiply the result with algorithmic social media superpower. The terrible outcome is no longer unimaginable.
The empowerment of the voices of all people and the postmodern relativity of all truths have created myriads of Zuckerbergian “dumb fucks.”35 Are we looking into a global future of billionaire dictators presiding over rival narratives? Is there a way out of this predicament? Can we return from post-truth to factual truth? Can we reign-in populism and authoritarianism? Yes We Can. Make Trumpism Small Again!
DARKNESS LOST IN the United States presidential election on Tuesday, November 3, 2020. Light won by a wide margin: 81 million popular votes for the Biden-Harris ticket versus 74 million for Trump-Pence and 306 Electoral College votes versus 232. However, Trump did not concede.
The defeated worked all legal and illegal angles to prevent President-elect Biden to succeed him. Trump’s “big lie” – the election was “rigged” yet I really won “in a landslide” – successfully reversed the 2020 election results in the minds of his followers to deadly and devastating effect. Incited by Trump’s dark-words narrative, his supporters stormed the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, in his name and with his flags to “STOP the STEAL” (Figure 1).
What Trump did between November 4, 2020, and January 6, 2021, was exactly what he said he would do. Four years earlier, in late October 2016, he “promised and pledged” to “all of the people of the United States” he would “totally accept the results of this great and historic presidential election – if I win.” In other words: Trump was set from the beginning to totally reject the voters’ verdict if he lost (see chapter 1).
Trump’s efforts to manipulate the 2020 election culminated in the concoction of ever wilder schemes to overturn its outcome. His transgressions earned Trump two impeachments from the US House of Representatives. One in 2019 for soliciting foreign interference in favor of his re-election bid, and a second one for his incitement of the January 6 insurrection.
Trump’s willingness to employ mob violence to derail the certification of a democratic election brought American democracy to the brink of collapse. Even then, the US Senate could not muster a two-thirds majority for a guilty verdict. It has acquitted Trump twice.
TRUMP’S FOUR YEARS in office are in the past now but the assault on American democracy by Trump and Trumpism is not over. A one-term president has vacated the White House, yet he maintains the fable of a landslide re-election. Trumpism and Trumpists keep this big lie alive proclaiming, “We Will Never Ever Ever Concede” (Bannon).
Two thirds of Republican voters believe Joseph Biden was illegitimately elected. Only 7 out of 50 Republican senators found Trump guilty of incitement. Mitch McConnell said Trump was “practically and morally responsible for provoking” a brutal domestic terrorist attack on the US Capitol, but he voted “not guilty.”
All Democrats can agree with McConnell’s words about the national “disgrace” of January 6:
American citizens attacked their own government. They used terrorism to try to stop a specific piece of democratic business they did not like. Fellow Americans beat and bloodied our own police. They stormed the Senate floor. They tried to hunt down the Speaker of the House. They built a gallows and chanted about murdering the Vice President. They did this because they had been fed wild falsehoods by the most powerful man on Earth – because he was angry he’d lost an election.1
This much is clear. Everybody knows that Trump broke all norms of democratic behavior. He trampled its explicit as well as tacit rules and gained momentum for doing so. He has gotten away with leaving the legislative branch of the American government under assault and unprotected. Trump has set a precedent for better or for worse.
The Democratic Party must sway workers, rural Americans, white men, and non-college educated voters, but the Republican Party must fight an existential battle for its identity. Radical Trumpism (T-Plus) targeted the traditional understanding of Republican conservatism from the start. McConnell’s recent break with Trump and the angry Trumpian shouts, “Destroy the GOP! Destroy the GOP!” (during the second Million MAGA March in December 2020), have put this struggle on the Republican agenda.
America’s future is wobbling atop a cluster of unsolved problems. Can Democrats and Republicans overcome the zero-sum behavior of dark party politics and find common cause in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic? How does one defend factual truth against rampant conspiracy theories and post-truth narratives on social media? American democracy and its institutions need protection against populist assaults and authoritarian propaganda, yet Trump and Trumpism use populism and authoritarianism to derail democracy.
Who or what will be more consequential, Trump or Trumpism? Nobody knows yet. But one thing is evident: Trumpism was conceived to survive Trump and it has all it needs in terms of manpower and money to prosper.
In 2016, the ideologues of T-Plus considered Trump “the principal vehicle of Trumpism,” i.e. a great carrier for Trumpism, but nothing more (see chapter 3). Yet in 2020, the erstwhile “vehicle” had gained the tremendous traction of 74 million votes. Will that power remain with Trump or fuel Trumpism? Will it transform the Republican Party further in Trump’s image or run out of steam and dissipate?
FOUR YEARS AGO, when I wrote Dark Words and Deadly Winds, I did not know how close Americans would come to wake up to tweets from its first dictator. I feared this was where Trump and the country was heading.
Make no mistake now. Yes, Trump is out of office and may not return, but Trumpism is not yet made small again. T-Plus is alive in coalitions of much too many Americans of high and low socio-economic status. They will seek a comeback via Trumpism.
Revisiting the chapters from 2017, I found my essay depressingly accurate. Trump and radical Trumpism expressed themselves rather bluntly and I took their dark words seriously. The eight whirlwinds in the dark Trumpian force field – technology, free speech, capitalism, demography, party politics, geopolitics, political culture, and philosophy – did not lose but gain strength. And finally, unlike most other approaches in the sprawling library of Trump books and articles, I aimed to capture the context that enabled Trump and Trumpism, present a comprehensive, panoramic picture of its, and our, stormy landscape.