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A victory for “populism” in the heart of democracy
Donald Trump and his nation — united in the pursuit of happiness

[Translated from Gegenstandpunkt: Politische Vierteljahreszeitschrift 2-17, Gegenstandpunkt Verlag, Munich]

A great president serving a great nation

In the USA at the end of January, a man came to power with an unshakable faith in the greatness of the American people and pure hatred for the country’s ‘political establishment.’

He holds the latter responsible for the disastrous state of the nation, which does not at all match the magnificent achievement Trump believes his countrymen capable of. Unlike his critics and competitors, who like to present good news about the economic dominance of Silicon Valley and Wall Street, the strength of the American military, and the openness, progressiveness, and dynamism of American scientific and cultural life, Trump detects one big disaster when it comes to business, domestic and foreign policy, and, not least, morals. He thinks the US is being beat in world trade by large and small competitors; the once glorious heartland of industrial world dominance has become a shabby Rust Belt; Americans willing to work hard are finding fewer and fewer jobs and making an ever worse living at them because the industrial companies their labor once made great would nowadays rather employ labor elsewhere. And America has not won a war in a long time, or much else either. For Trump, the USA as a world power is unacceptably damaged if it is no longer generally acknowledged in the world to be clearly number one in every way. This simply cannot be, because according to Trump the greatness of Americans means that — whatever they are or do as individuals — they are a collective of winners who outstrip their competitors across the globe in every field. There is no country or people on this earth as beautiful as America and the Americans, which for Trump is the same thing as saying that nothing and nobody can beat them in the fight that he sees in every aspect of the world. So if the American people’s circumstances, their nation’s wealth and their state’s power lag so far behind what this people is basically capable of and predestined for, i.e., being unbeatably superior in every arena that nations compete in, then the American people are obviously being prevented from showing their greatness in their own country; they’re no longer master of the house.

This must be rectified.

Fighting politics as usual in America…

To rectify this, it is necessary to do away with politicians and policies that, according to Trump, firstly do not even intend to use America’s wealth and might as a means of competition for America:

“For many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry; subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military; we’ve defended other nation’s borders while refusing to defend our own; and spent trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay. We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength, and confidence of our country has disappeared over the horizon.” (Inauguration Speech, Jan. 20, 2017)

Which secondly makes it clear that these politicians are not out to govern for the people, but only for themselves:

“For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished — but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered — but the jobs left, and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs; and while they celebrated in our nation’s Capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.” (ibid.)

And in so doing they thirdly, and conversely, have allowed the country to be “robbed of so much unrealized potential.” (ibid.)

The American people are a superior fighting community, which must be deployed and unleashed again at last: this is the mission Donald Trump declares he is in charge of. Taking “an oath of allegiance to all Americans” at his inauguration, he purports to be not just a new man heading America’s usual political establishment, but someone who will finally take away its power and hand it back to the American people:

“January 20th 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again. The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer. Everyone is listening to you now.” (ibid.)

So in Trump’s person nobody other than the people themselves will be ruling the nation from now on — there really can’t be any more perfect identity between the citizens’ will to be governed and the elected ruler’s autonomous will. But this immediate unity of leader and people that Trump is making his agenda does of course involve one crucial difference. What the people want will serve the boss as the authorization he invokes to do whatever he wants, while what the boss wants will show the people what they want. And what they want, what can be heard when “everyone is listening to you now” — this their new boss heard first and shouted out to his people right up front: “America first! America first!”

In this way, Trump defines the American people, who he will now be governing from the nation's capital, as the ones dictating the fighting agenda he is taking to the capital. And it is completely in terms of this agenda for America that he construes the people who have brought him to power. He addresses his Americans as the collective of “the forgotten,” who have been betrayed by the previous rulers — which is not an empirical finding about their situation or their own viewpoint, but a job description they are supposed to apply to themselves from now on. No matter what they think, how they judge their own situation and the actions of their government, and regardless of all the differences and antagonisms that may exist between them, as members of the wonderful, wrongly forgotten and neglected American people, they are all supposed to see themselves as enemies of the politics that Trump promises to end. That’s why the newly elected president wouldn’t dream of following established tradition when taking his oath of office and presenting himself as “the president of all Americans,” which always means that the winner of the election becomes the executor of largely fixed and unchanging imperatives and ‘objective constraints’ of the office. Trump instead defines himself as the leader of a movement that, because its candidate won the election, can justifiably claim, ‘We are the people!’ — with Trump as their voice and at the same time the sympathetic ear that hears it. So rule by the other politicians is over; his rule is putting into effect the will that a no longer disenfranchised American people have documented on millions of ballots. So it is not rule at all, but the fulfillment of this people’s right to proper leadership, i.e., to one identical to them. Or, as Trump likes to tell his critics, “You lost, I won.”

… for the benefit of the neglected hard-working Americans …

So Trump likes to invoke ordinary people, especially the impoverished figures in the Rust Belt and rural areas, as the reason for his claim to power and for his fighting agenda. He identifies with them to the point of declaring that he shares not only one “home” with them but also, from now on, one “destiny.” This is regarded by his critics on both sides of the Atlantic as the height of hypocrisy. As if this stinking rich billionaire could ever stand heart and soul with the sad, angry creatures in whose name he speaks, they say! Americans who voted for him are supposed to have been taken in by a con man — which is all the more obvious in view of the fantastically wealthy members of his cabinet. Trump is accused of merely posing as a fighter for the little guy in order to promote and quite literally empower the richest of the rich — especially those in his own family. But Trump is absolutely serious about advocating for ordinary people.

In the first place, he sees these people as living, or rather languishing, proof of what has gone so wrong in America for far too long. For Trump, the continuing decline of these hard-working Americans, whose capability is sufficiently demonstrated by the worldwide dominance that American industry once had, stands for the decline of the entire country. No matter what economic success stories the USA is otherwise presenting, and no matter how small the number of jobless Americans may be, the undeniable decline of these erstwhile core industries, the poverty of these erstwhile core regions and their inhabitants, attest that America is definitely not what it used to be, i.e., successful across the board and superior in every regard. America is rotten at the core, being killed from the inside, if its key industries and their toiling workers, once proud, now “angry white men,” are going to the dogs. So when Trump talks about the jobs that have been lost and that he promises to bring back, he is not simply talking about the specific worries of a certain section of the population, but about a ruined American equation whose validity these people once stood for: the hard work that makes the economy superior worldwide yields a modest but solid livelihood for the workers, and is the basis for a political and military power that is beyond all competition. By pointing to the lost jobs and disappearance of the means of existence for these people and these regions, Trump conveys his diagnosis of a nationwide decline that he promises to reverse. He even speaks of “our jobs” as a collective good belonging to all Americans:

“For years, they [the politicians] watched on the sidelines as our jobs vanished and our communities were plunged into depression-level unemployment. Many of these areas have still never recovered. Our politicians took away from the people their means of making a living and supporting their families.” (Donald J. Trump: Declaring America’s Economic Independence, June 28, 2016)

His promise to make every government decision from now on strictly “for the benefit of American workers and American families” (Inauguration Speech) thus stands for the agenda of restoring America’s competitive superiority in every respect.

The second reason to take Trump seriously when he identifies himself — as the wealthy real estate investor, family man, and winner of the election — with the hard-working poor is that this demonstrates what kind of terrible, abstract character the so-called “hard-working American” actually is. In taking care of himself and his family, he represents the essence of an American people destined to win at everything. This abstraction is also exemplified by the key term “our jobs,” the epitome of American success and the path to that success. In reality, ordinary people’s unfulfilled need for work reflects the totally dependent existence that these Americans lead when their livelihoods completely depend on whether their hard work is seen by other, “entrepreneurial” Americans as a way to enrich themselves. And if this condition can only be met if there are politicians who roll up their sleeves instead of just looking on, then their lives evidently also depend on the resolute use of a state power that they do not hold in their own hands, no matter how hard they work. But if you simply ignore what counts, i.e., what “means of making a living” these Americans really have, and only consider their competitive will to support themselves and their families, then these Americans are actually not the servants of other people’s interests but rather specimens of a free and autonomous breed of people. Because they rely entirely on themselves within this dependent relation, without becoming a burden on anybody else, they are supposed to be completely independent beings. In this abstract view that distorts economic reality, they are really no different from the billionaire Trump, much less have interests contrary to his — it‛s just that the means he has and consequently the results of his work are a bit more abundant. Conversely, the most ostentatious wealth is perfectly acceptable as long as it is gained in free competition. So whether someone works hard or has others work hard, whether someone has a job or creates jobs to make money from them — regardless of the amount of capital he has — everyone shares the ethos of independently making something of his life with whatever means he calls his own. This shared morality of competition makes all the differences between people within the actually existing competition pale into insignificance.

With this point of view, Trump declares himself an upholder of a traditional American ideal of competition in the market, in which everyone is only out for himself and his family, but, in this very capacity, part of a community project of independent pursuers of happiness, always striving for something better. It doesn’t matter that this community might include such disparate figures as a working class and a whole lot of representatives of small and big business who are constantly at odds, long before they see each other in court. According to this notion, competition is simply the place where people are free and responsible, always striving to do better and not be a burden on each other. It is no secret that this competition always brings forth losers along with the winners, but this doesn’t tarnish the image of competition on the market: by forcing everyone to strive to be better, competition supposedly builds and strengthens the community of Americans. This ideal of competition and community coinciding is vividly expressed by “the families” that hard-working Americans “support” when they go out and compete against each other. "Family" elevates all the private, mutual viciousness of competition to the status of a responsibly rendered moral duty. It bathes all the harshness that competitors direct toward themselves or each other in the gentle light of selfless devotion to the smaller part of the greater good. The things you do for your family! — this is not just the moral of always popular American mafia movies, it’s the American way of life par excellence.[1]

This is in striking contrast to the democratic ideology that is mainly at home in Europe but also widespread in America. According to this ideology, the members of capitalist class society, despite all their economic antagonisms, are actually a community; that's because alongside their lives as competitors only thinking of themselves, they are under the authority of one and the same state monopoly on force, which they have to thank for equal rights and to which they are equally obligated. In contrast, in the deeply American idea of private, materialistic competition for money, this competition is by no means the arena for a productive but potentially community-damaging egotism that needs to be restricted. Free-market competition does not, in this view, create a division among citizens that must be healed by a patriotic sense of community that unifies all citizens alongside, in opposition to, and beyond their relation to each other as competitors. Those who see competition for money as the complete and total fulfillment of their freedom, who consider competition to be the most effective way of organizing a strong community, and for whom wrestling with the necessities of profit-making or of making ends meet without owning property is actually self-determination come true — such people’s behavior often makes a fairly uncivilized and brutal impression on Europeans who are at home with welfare-state ideology, i.e., civilized. An American idealist of competition will not subscribe to the lie that a state monopoly of force, of all things, creates something like a true community by socially supervising competition and the damage it causes. He sees the government’s supervising hand and the accompanying virtue of ‘solidarity’ as one big coercion, because for him they are a poor substitute for, or perhaps even the destruction of, his own ideal of a community of free competitors. For him, such a “nanny state” merely rewards the lazy with money it takes from decent, self-reliant citizens, which will ultimately drag everyone down. That is not only immoral, but also “kills” the jobs that hard-working workers need to to achieve responsibility for themselves in freedom. Church and private charity supply the minimal amount of community spirit required.

Of course, competing Americans also know patriotic duties toward the nation, but when Trump reminds his countrymen at his inauguration that they all share the “same red blood of patriots” (ibid.) who love their homeland, he is not calling on them to look beyond their lives as competitors for filthy lucre and commit to a greater good. Instead, they are supposed to think of precisely that ‘real community’ that exists as competition for money — that is their community as Americans. Just as Trump defines them into the abstract collective of hard-working Americans in the best but sorely neglected American tradition, they are fully themselves as a united national community along with the family values of a competitive society precisely when they are all competing against each other for money, and regardless of where they might be in the social hierarchy. And in just this way — as competitors who may be operating with very different means and outcomes but are somehow all the same in acting out of self-interest and independently — Americans make up a successful and strong nation, incomparably more successful and stronger than any other.[2]

So that is the first and crucial thing that “America first!” means as a domestic message. Trump is in absolute agreement with his people, as are the “forgotten” people with a president who personifies their will for rule, that for decent Americans, competition coincides directly with national success, and the morality of competition with nationalism.

… and against their domestic enemies

If success and strength leave something to be desired, then there have obviously been all kinds of un-American activities going on, to quote a term from the McCarthy era when ‘communism’ was the catch-all term for the enemies of all hard-working Americans. With this definition of the victims, it's clear who today's enemies are: everyone who, in Trump’s estimation, doesn’t fit the job description of a hard-working American, thus calling into question the identity between free and equal competitive efforts and patriotism, thereby undermining American morale and driving the American nation into not only a moral but a ‘total disaster’:

— The main enemy of all good Americans has already been mentioned. It is known as ‘the establishment’ and is composed primarily of politicians who prevent the people from competing freely. This they do with all kinds of regulations — regarding environmental protection, finance-market speculation, or health care, where Americans for a good seven years have been deprived of the freedom to go without health insurance, which they need but can’t afford.[3] Trump promises to give short shrift to such obstacles, and this likewise applies to the — alleged — special treatment of all kinds of minorities, who therefore invite the accusation of wanting not to compete freely but rather to freeload off the hard work of others. Politicians who instead of scotching such a supposed sense of entitlement actually promote it by passing corresponding laws are themselves guilty of freeloading. They are not serving the people’s desire to compete, they are just using them, only interested in their own jobs, i.e., in income they don’t earn by honestly competing or having others compete.

— The American people have not only been betrayed by bad politics, but also corrupted by a political culture that is fostered by the ‘liberal media’[4] and by ‘liberals’ in the democratic intelligentsia. Team Trump sees them as its true opposition, because by propagating ‘political correctness,’ demanding respect and recognition for, and solidarity with, the alleged victims of competition and the accompanying culture of taking responsibility for competing, they erode the nation’s morale and deny respectable Americans the honor of restoring America’s greatness with their hard work and family values. The widespread and wrong liberal criticism, that the victims of competition are not victims due to competition itself, but rather to a lack of consideration, respect, and solidarity in competition, is opposed by these Rightists with their general diagnosis: these victims are not victims of competition because in truth they only want to get out of competing — which actually makes them responsible for the real victims, the hard-working Americans whose money is taken away for social welfare and who are talked into having a bad conscience. ‘Liberal’ defenders of the victims are accused of being sanctimonious, because they help nobody, at best their own conscience, when they distort competition and look for ways to keep on extending the system of governmental nannying. Feminists are then reviled as ‘feminazis,’ socially conscious activists derided as ‘social justice warriors.’ This media, its protégés and allies in the universities, the better neighborhoods of cities and elsewhere, confirm how depraved they are by crusading against the President of the Forgotten. Because this media falsifies the nation’s morality of competition, its critical reporting about him is definitely all “fake news”!

— The freedom to compete is a privilege; it is not forced on Americans, it is their right. It is not imposed from above, but protected. When people who can’t survive in their home countries come to America illegally and think they can just go ahead and enjoy the benefits of this competition, then they are showing how little respect they have for this national heritage, which singles Americans out as a special and especially magnificent people. This makes them criminals from the start — maybe not every one of them is a drug dealer or rapist, but when one is, this shows the true colors of all such people. Their illegal status proves that they are also demanding special treatment when they go to schools and hospitals, or enter the labor market, although they aren’t allowed to be here. The low wages they earn or the low prices they charge — often illicitly — for their tradesman and other services show that they claim an unfair competitive advantage, making them the worst kind of parasites. When employers prefer to use Mexicans rather than Americans on either side of the southern border intending to earn dollars on the American market that way, then they, too, are freeloading and need to be punished. The morality of competition, of the general principle of bourgeois society, particularly in its fundamentalist American form, is really anything but inclusive in some universally human way. It exalts the American as a shining example and, as such, most firmly sets him apart — by a wall if necessary — from the rest of humankind, who just wish they could be so American.

The absolute right of a president committed to his people

The duty of a president serving the people therefore consists in enforcing the freedom to compete against all those who hinder or abuse it. The right of the man who devotes himself in this way to the duty of fixing the national disaster is fairly absolute. In any case, it does not keep to the limits of responsibility set by the American system of ‘checks and balances.’ His supreme authority does not derive from the office, but from the right of the hard-working American people who have put him in office — a right that neither recognizes nor tolerates limits. As everybody knows, it is one of Trump’s core beliefs that he has the people on his side — and proving how right he is in this belief is one of his favorite pastimes, which he likes to pursue by obsessively pointing out the size of his electoral victory and the number of people at his inauguration and also at the post-election gatherings he holds. The brazen lies are not only due to the president’s overblown self-image. His self-aggrandizement fits perfectly with the people-serving mission that Trump has given himself, making his will to power absolutely identical to the true popular will, which is thereby not being patronized in any way!

Trump wields his governmental authority accordingly. For the greatest deal maker of all time, a politics serving the people does not mean closing deals as such, achieving some sort of balance between competing, but equally legitimate, interests. It is instead about exercising executive power in the strict sense of the term, that is, enforcing the people’s already established legitimate interest — quite in keeping with the sole true ethos of competition, which condemns the art of compromise as gutless and weak.[5] Interests standing in the way of that ethos have lost all right and will be eliminated, while those that confront it reveal themselves to be enemies of the people and responsible for the nation’s dreadful state. The other democratic institutions outside the White House — courts, legislature, intelligence services, etc. — have to act as levers and transmission belts for enforcing the popular will as defined by Trump. If they use their authority to assert aspects of the national interest that deviate from the government line laid down by Trump and thus hinder it in any way, then the democratic haggling between the president and the other powers will take its course even under Trump, but one thing is clear from the outset: the others who are deviating are at least morally in the wrong. In the best case, these institutions are watering down the people’s will; in the worst, they are betraying it.

That’s why, from his very first day in office, Trump has done his best not to leave his plans to chance, and has simply bypassed whenever possible the institutionalized procedures of American rule. As far as possible, he rules by decree, by executive order — not, as his predecessors usually did, only in response to being obstructed by other institutions, but as the logical way to govern for the people and not for the establishment. Whenever possible, he ignores the latter, and moreover leaves numerous posts in the federal bureaucracy unfilled, and not due to a lack of willing candidates or unfinished business. In line with Trump’s advisor Bannon, the primary item on the new government’s agenda is not to find suitable replacements for administrative posts, but to “deconstruct the administrative state.” The posts that are to be retained and to which the White House itself may appoint the staff are cleared of representatives of the establishment and filled with family members, who are distinguished by their distance from the establishment and their closeness to Trump, i.e., to the people. Or they are filled with businessmen and generals who know little about politics, which doesn’t speak against them but rather for them, because they know how to win either in the market or on the battlefield, which as two arenas for proving oneself in competition are one and the same thing anyway. The necessary dialogue between the president and his people, which consists in numerous but brief messages about who is currently a friend and who an enemy of the people, is handled by Trump directly through Twitter — i.e., without the intermediary of the press, whose critical reporting shows how malicious and hostile to the people it is. This is how, in the way Trump exercises power, he puts into effect the ethos of his presidency, the immediate unity between his willed decisions and the people’s will to be ruled. When the ruler shows signs of arbitrariness, this signals that his subjects have been liberated from the presumptions of the establishment. For a large part of the public on both sides of the Atlantic, this is nothing but proof after proof that Trump lacks the mental and character traits suitable for office, that he has thin skin and can’t stand the slightest contradiction — no notice is taken of the politics behind his behavior. For another part of the public, all this only raises the question of whether the ‘populist’ Trump is a democratic politician at all, or not instead an authoritarian dictator type, or maybe even a fascist.

Indeed, it cannot be denied that Trump has open contempt for the political system and its agents. A court ruling blocking his travel ban on seven Muslim countries prompts him to dispute the “so-called” judge’s aptitude; he rejects unfavorable reporting out of hand as “fake news,” declares almost the entire mainstream press an “enemy of the American people,” reacts to inopportune reports and concerns of the intelligence services by denouncing the latter for spearheading a conspiracy against him and by firing their leading representatives if need be, and lastly threatens to withdraw federal funding from cities that declare themselves sanctuaries for illegal immigrants. None of this constitutes by a long shot an agenda to abolish the country’s democratic institutions, its system of checks and balances, or the responsibilities divided within Washington and between the federal government and the individual states. And conflicts between the president and the other branches of politics and the political public sphere are certainly nothing new. Yet Trump unmistakably has the standpoint that his agenda to make America great again means waging within the state a fight that no longer tolerates the normal functioning of American democracy. And this brings him very close to the fascist element within the system of bourgeois rule. He radicalizes a criticism of democracy that is at home in democracy, namely, the criticism that concern for individual interests only weakens the nation and the power of its state, and that nation and state can’t afford this if the national crisis is to be successfully overcome. So he keeps adding more fuel to doubts about the normal competition in democracy between the branches of state power on the grounds that it hinders decisive governing without regard to obstacles. He considers a free press subversive because it institutionalizes the standpoint of constructive doubt in the road to success that the state has decided on. Trump’s fighting agenda aims at politically rescuing America from the state of fundamental national and imperialist emergency that he has diagnosed. But in Trump’s eyes – and this is the special American twist on his governing style some call “fascistoid” – this rescue does not require subordinating the private materialism of self-interested competitors to the necessities of state power. His rescue of the nation consists rather in radically affirming the standpoint of private competition, that is, committing nation and politics to this standpoint no holds barred. This is exactly how all of America is to be made “great again.”

Notes

1 That’s why Trump’s supporters don’t find it at all offensive that he practices nepotism so openly. It is proof of his trustworthiness and closeness to the people.

2 As president, by the way, a hard-working American therefore shouldn’t have to part with his extremely successful business in order to serve the nation. After all, his individual success is his honest contribution to the nation and can only strengthen the benefit that the nation will get from his time in office.

3 According to Trump’s recently introduced budget plan, heating assistance apparently also counts as one of the violations of freedom — in the world of free competition, you obviously have to wrap up warm.

4 A ‘liberal’ in the USA — especially in the eyes of right-wing, freedom-loving Republicans — is characterized not by the traditionally American faith in the blessings of a free market, i.e., unleashed competition for money, but by his good faith in the blessings of a welfare state that amends the freedom of the market, and in the salutary effects of a culture of tolerance and concern for the victims so reliably produced by the world of free competition. In the land of the free, even those who favor welfare-state intervention in free competition won’t have it said that they somehow want to restrict freedom.

5 This is well matched by Trump’s self-praised negotiating tactic: “I aim very high, and then I just keep pushing and pushing and pushing to get what I’m after.” (Trump: The Art of the Deal).