Trump renovates the moral standards of democratic rule
The journalists of the world have two closely related adjectives for Trump’s style of rule: unseemly and undemocratic. The editors of GegenStandpunkt do not want to make the new resident in the White House more decent than he is. But a look at his conduct in office during his first hundred days shows quite clearly that there is nothing un- or even anti-democratic in Trump’s style of rule; and the standards that the guardians of democratic decency bring against Trump are not one bit better.
Nearly five months after his inauguration, Trump holds his first fully-staffed Cabinet meeting. And since the press is there and the cameras happen to be running, he takes the opportunity to explain why his policies are so great for the people. Of course, to understand that, the people must first put themselves in his position and recognize the extremely difficult challenges he must face when it comes to ruling them. He has to deal with “obstructionist” democrats who refuse to hastily confirm his Cabinet members and give him a single vote in reforming the health care system, and who question his greatness as president in general. According to Trump, that just makes his use of power all the more impressive:
“Never has there been a president, with few exceptions — case of FDR, he had a major depression to handle — who has passed more legislation and who has done more things than what we’ve done … I think we’ve been about as active as you can possibly be at a just about record-setting pace.” (June 12, 2017)
Isn’t that great, Trump is making great progress with his agenda. He is doing better than all the previous presidents with their agendas. That is in fact a rather odd comparison for Trump to make, given his insistence that he is out to fight the hated establishment in Washington, put an end to their treasonous policies and finally bring American policies in line with the right of the American people to a politics that follows the principle of “America first!”. And yet, what is missing in this self-congratulatory comparison to his predecessors is any mention of the substance of the policies that set him apart. Instead he points to the sheer quantity of his use of power and his determination to make use of it. Just as little does he mention the substance of the objections raised by the “obstructionists” — because they stand against him, they stand for nothing at all. It is as if he wants to make as clear as possible the eternal content of the will of a democratically mature people: regardless of what the individual members of this collective might want, need and expect from government, as members of the people their will is simply to be governed as extensively and intensively as possible. In short: people need rule, the rulers must deliver. It is this basic principle of democratic politics that Trump, in all his self-glorification, captures in a nutshell.
And as if Trump’s political opponents and journalistic critics wanted to prove just how right he is about this basic principle, they meticulously point out just how little of his own agenda he has accomplished, especially in comparison to his own campaign promises. This is also a strange reckoning with Trump’s rule thus far. After all, these critics are certainly not enamored of Trump’s agenda and they are not crossing their fingers for Trump to succeed in implementing it. What their criticism testifies to is the firm place of hypocrisy in a democracy. They clothe their opposition to the president by invoking a criterion that is indubitably non-partisan and in which none of their critique of the substance of his policies is to be found, likewise insisting that an administration is to be measured by how many policies it implements and how successfully it carries out the agenda it sets for itself and imposes on the society. Just like Trump, therefore, they equate the exercise of power over people and the exercise of power for the people. Of course, this needn’t be explained to America’s mature democratic citizens, for they too seem to take for granted that when it comes to winning their vote, it’s all about how profusely a government uses its power.
Yet the stir caused by this first cabinet meeting had nothing to do with Trump’s self-praise, to which the public has become accustomed anyway, but rather with the reaction of his cabinet members. Apparently, word got out that the new boss has a soft spot for public praise and that his fellow power-holders are well advised to kiss up to him as publicly as possible. And this they did, seizing the opportunity and lavishing praise on Trump on camera and affirming, each in their own way, what a great honor it is to serve such a hyperactive president. A true historical novelty in democratic political routines — at least, that is the impression one gets from the outrage on editorial boards on both sides of the Atlantic. Apparently they expected Trump’s staff to stick to the job description provided to them not by Trump, but by his critics, explaining to their boss how they plan to keep him in check in order to preserve the democracy and the peace he threatens, and that it is only with great reluctance and under the condition that he obey them that they are willing to serve under him. On the other hand, the press insists that a president must have his team under control, that they be loyal followers and function smoothly, while conveying a credible sense of unity. They show this insistence by letting their schadenfreude at the fact that Trump cannot keep his team under control run wild: behind the facade of such disgusting flattery, the White House is in fact the scene of unprecedented discord and “chaos” in center of power, compounding the general “failure” of the boss to exercise power. With this critical insistence on effective governance, the professionals of public opinion certify their democratic maturity.
A week later, Trump’s PR department gathers several thousand supporters together for a pro-Trump rally in Iowa. The positive echo that the chief gets from his official employees might be too subdued, in any case it doesn’t offset the negative echo reverberating from all corners of the capital. With this in mind, he welcomes his audience with a statement straight from the heart:
“It’s always terrific to be able to leave that Washington swamp and spend time with the truly hardworking people. We call them American patriots.” (June 21, 2017)
It’s understandable that facing such a frenetic audience make Trump feel better, as he sees the greatness of his politics reflected back to him in the most direct and palpable way, as fanatical love of his person. And as much as democracy as a system attaches value to the ‘checks and balances’ which severely limit the whims of individual politicians, democrats value the cult of personality around the beloved leader. After all, democratic elections revolve entirely around the greatness of leaders and those who want to become one. Certainly it is also good for the unity between ruler and ruled when a president so demonstratively shows his closeness to his followers in the tried and true form of a shared hostility toward a common enemy — a very fictitious form of solidarity indeed. After all, for Trump, Washington is not merely the home of his critics, but also of the power apparatus at whose apex he himself stands. So the celebrated unity between Trump and the audience surrounding him therefore needs to be clarified a little: in the jubilant masses, Trump has a source of support he can invoke when exercising his power in the way he sees fit. And despite all the aggressiveness of his rhetoric, his exercise of power does not at all consist in “draining the swamp” in the sense of fighting the political system in Washington, but of using state power as he sees fit. And by thus abusing the Washington politicians with whom his supporters could not be more dissatisfied, Trump has a ready-made explanation for any future dissatisfaction they may have: this has nothing to do with Trump himself; the troubles that governance causes for them are rather due to the troubles caused for him; he himself is not part of the swamp, he only lives or rules there. And vice versa: all the attacks that Trump has to deal with are attacks on his followers, the good people.
That is, democratically speaking, a brilliant move. Trump thus takes up the stance of a ruler in power and of a victim of that rule, cultivating the hypocrisies of government and opposition at the same time. As the man in power, he points to the sheer extent of his use of power; and as an opponent and victim of the Washington establishment, he poses as a fellow victim, hence an ally of all those dissatisfied with the government that he heads. In addition, Trump has two solid arguments to offer as to why his followers should include him not in the swamp, but as one of their own: in addition to glorifying his sheer activity in office and lamenting the unfair obstacles he must face, there is first of all the sheer size of the followers so willing to accept his self-portrayal: “Look at the greatness of this crowd!” Secondly, some of the candidates he supported are winning elections — despite the enormous effort that the opposition Democrats put into these election battles and despite the attacks they are making on Trump and his team every day:
“I mean, they have phony witch hunts going against me. They have everything going. And you know what? All we do is win, win, win.” (ibid.)
That is quite a productive and thoroughly democratic circle: success in obtaining the assent of the people — both at rallies and in real elections — justifies further success and further assent to the measures that still need to be implemented. Governing can continue, the victims are standing behind him.
In this sense, the next week starts well. Not only his staff and his fans, but also the highest court in the land decides in Trump’s favor on one of his key initiatives: the fight for stricter immigration laws. The court reverses its suspension of his temporary entry ban on people from six Muslim majority countries and implements the law, at least provisionally and with certain restrictions: whoever can prove a ‘bona fide’ relation to a US citizen or a US institution can still enter the country.
This is a particularly sweet victory for Trump, given all the outrage from the general public and — much more importantly — from significant sectors of the national economy at his decrees, as well as the opposition of the judiciary. Trump did not concede defeat for a second, instead questioning the professional aptitude of the “so-called” judge who suspended his decree, and refusing to follow the counsel of his advisers not to utter the word “ban” when tweeting about the measure and to stop his attacks on the “political correctness” of the critics, in order to prevent his project from being thrown out on grounds of religious discrimination. Instead, he should declare a “temporary immigration pause” and defend it solely with regard to necessities of national security. Yet Trump despises such opportunistic sophistries, for him this is a matter of principle: if national security enjoys the highest priority, which is something that even his critics do not deny, then this holiest of holies must be preserved at all costs; then the blanket exclusion of dangerous foreigners is not just one measure to be weighed against other rights and considerations, but rather the unquestionable reference point for all other considerations. The validity of this principle must not be watered down by existing laws, the needs of that other holiest of holies called ‘the economy,’ and certainly not by democratic sensitivities about discrimination. On the contrary: the necessities of national security should define the law, thereby also the framework within which the economy can satisfy its need for labor power; and ultimately they define the nation’s morality — how Americans view and distinguish foreigners of various origins, to whom they open their hearts and homeland and to whom they concede the freedom to practice the religion they choose, and to whom they do not.
You have to hand it to Trump: by consistently refusing to take back even one iota of his plan and his arguments for it, he provides a general clarification about the relationship between the bourgeois state power and the society it rules over. The incontestability of the state’s sovereignty is the premise of the life of the nation; it takes absolute precedence over the rules and morality of the community, and must occasionally be asserted even against the nation’s laws, economic necessities, and customs. The principles of equality and freedom — the equal right to compete for money according to the rules laid down by the state, the freedom to cultivate one’s own private, often religious interpretation of success or failure in that competition — are only valid to the extent that the state power that grants these principles sees its sovereignty sufficiently respected and intact. And this is a matter to be decided by those who exercise the power of the state according to their priorities. Trump’s actions have earned him the accusation of violating the very essence of America, a nation that was built by hardworking immigrants and owes ts success to their hard work, ingenuity, and financial savvy; his critics point out that the country has always opened its doors to immigrants and allowed their private quirks to flourish, and it reaps the rewards to this day. Trump does not object to this very generous, not entirely factual vision of the extremely productive American class society and its liberalism, rather he adds a clarification: this state may govern a country of immigrants, but it should not allow its politics and its security needs to be influenced by foreigners. The state should acquire the people it needs and wants solely according to its own calculations, and throw out the rest.
A few weeks later, Trump provides additional clarity on this point with his plan, first, to significantly restrict legal immigration to the USA and, secondly, to switch to a ‘merit-based’ immigration policy that emphasizes specific higher qualifications. A democratic state allows people into the beautiful world of free and equal competitors ideally according to its own needs; it therefore insists on performing a typically democratic form of discrimination: a distinction between those who are nationals and those who only want to be. And apparently, nothing is easier than justifying this distinction as a tribute to the humanity that Trump’s critics accuse him of violating: Trump reminds his critics of those fellow humans who are already here and for whom the poor immigrants from the South represent serious competition on the labor market. For the parties involved in this uplifting discourse on values, the fact that the poverty of Latin American “economic refugees” apparently counts as a competitive advantage that threatens the locals is never grounds for objecting to the state-regulated competition over jobs itself. On the contrary, they regard that as confirmation of the delusion that being forced to participate in this competition is a precious privilege.
Trump at any rate is adamant that the people he thinks of ‘first’ are the Americans to whom he whole-heartedly grants the pleasure of being dependent on a job in the service of genuine American capital and for whose economic existence the others represent a threat. And on this question, Trump scores two more victories on the same day. The House of Representatives passes, firstly, stricter penalties for criminal, illegally entering immigrants and, secondly, a “No Sanctuary for Criminals” law that is intended to force cities to take tougher action against illegal immigrants. Trump knows how to dispel the accusation that he has at last revealed himself to be a racist who is after immigrants: the very name of his proposed legislation — ‘Kate’s Law’, named after the victim of one such foreigner — proves that he cannot possibly be accused of making unjust generalizations, but is instead providing a genuine service to real life victims of immigrant crimes. Regardless of what these crimes might be, the important thing is that they have not been committed by Americans; thus they are proof that the state has failed to defend Americans against foreign attacks, meaning that the sovereignty of the state itself is clearly not intact. Trump’s reference to the concerns of private citizens while restoring the sovereignty of the state thus appears as an effort to strengthen the state’s capacity to defend the private citizens, e.g., the beautiful ‘Kate’ and the many beautiful American families for whom the sheer presence of illegal immigrants represents a life threat. The cities that refuse to make sweeping arrests and deportations of immigrants are therefore guilty of protecting criminals. It is well-meaning, but foolish to argue that the general persecution of all illegals also puts innocent, hard-working, family-oriented immigrants at the mercy of criminals, since none of them would dare call the police. This is exactly what the new laws are supposed to do. This is not a side-effect, but the whole point of Trump’s proposal: Americans’ security requires foreigners’ total insecurity. A true legislative achievement; the other House only has to add its seal of approval.
The next morning, however, Trump is in a bad mood. Even though his electoral victory, not to mention all his productivity in office, has proven his greatness, the mainstream media simply refuses to acknowledge what a gift he is to America. And so he adds another episode to the long history of his fight against the “mainstream media.” This morning, it’s the two hosts of a morning magazine show that is particularly popular with Democrats (Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski of “Morning Joe”) who get to experience what it means when Trump “fights fire with fire”:
“I heard poorly rated @Morning_Joe speaks badly of me (don’t watch anymore). Then how come low I.Q. Crazy Mika, along with Psycho Joe, came to Mar-a-Lago 3 nights in a row around New Year’s Eve, and insisted on joining me. She was bleeding badly from a face-lift. I said no!” (June 29, 2017)
For journalistic professionals, Trump’s personal attack on “Crazy Joe” and “dumb as a rock Mika” reveal a personal weakness: he does not stand above the ‘public debate’ carried on in the press, but reacts sensitively every time he perceives something as a slight — which is quite often. The main problem with Trump’s thin-skinned and aggressive tendencies is the harm he does to the office: by engaging as a party to the debate about his presidency and his person and acting as if he still has to win the election, something that always involves personal nastiness, he sullies the“dignity” of the high office which he has long since won with his obviously effective methods. In this sense, Trump’s critics in the press make a revealing comparison:
“Maybe we should all take a moment to feel a little sorry for Donald Trump … After all, he so clearly lacks the toughness of George Washington, who once privately observed that his critics’ ‘arrows … never can reach the most vulnerable part of me.’ He lacks the confidence of Dwight Eisenhower, who said, when asked if he thought his press coverage was fair, ‘Well, when you come down to it, I don’t see what a reporter could do much to a president, do you?’” (New York Times, June 30, 2017)
Or, as the attacked moderator himself summarizes it:
“He should be a lot more worried about NATO and building a relationship with Angela Merkel than he is with cable news hosts.” (ibid.)
It is interesting how representatives of the democratic public sphere demands that a ruler stand above his critics and not let criticism get under his skin, at least not to the point that he sees himself moved to retaliate. This explicitly acknowledges the freedom of those in power to simply ignore journalistic attacks — even insisting that this is what makes up the “dignity of the office”: the highest office holder should take comfort in the certainty that he is in charge, with the sole capacity to determine the course of the nation and to know that in practice his authority is undisputed. This demand betrays the true nature of the freedom that the press demands: it is merely the flip side of the freedom that the press concedes to the real power-holders. They insist on the permission to question all the doings of the government on the basis of the certainty that the press is ultimately harmless, ‘mere’ criticism without any practical power. That is the free speech journalists demand to be able to practice — a strict separation between criticism, which may be ruthless, and the practical consequences aimed at by any kind of criticism. The respect the press demands from the president consists in the freedom to express opinions which, for all their spitefulness, leave the criticized power-holder free to decide for himself what, if anything, follows from them.
As constructive as the intent of this criticism is, it leaves Trump cold. After all, in Trump’s eyes the press is supposed to take sides, his side — and indeed, precisely because he doesn’t merely stand above the fray, engages in a no-holds-barred skirmish with his critics. After all, according to Trump, that is the kind of spirit that has been missing in Washington: a willingness to fight all-out for American success against all comers. He wants to put the fight (back) into politics, so that America can finally win again. This entails a fight against his critics in the “mainstream media,” though this does not mean that Trump is merely hostile toward the press. Rather, his feeling of being so profoundly insulted by the press betrays how much he feels entitled to recognition by the press; not merely because of his thin skin, but because of the nature of his political position. As much as Trump sees himself as an enemy of ‘the establishment’ and ‘the mainstream,’ just as little does he see himself as a representative of a merely marginal position that can therefore expect the hostility of the mainstream. He craves for praise and recognition because he is sure that he is the true representative of the true American mainstream.
Shortly after his trips to Poland and to the G20 summit in Hamburg, Trump returns to Europe, this time to Paris to celebrate the Franco-American friendship on the occasion of the French national holiday and the entry of the USA into the First World War. Paris is still not Pittsburgh, so it is not of any political concern to Trump, but it does offer a nice chance to celebrate the greatness of the American nation, that is, the glorious deeds of its military, such as rescuing France and the world. Partnership between nations, brotherhood between peoples — the ‘America first!’ fanatic is clearly no stranger to such values and ideals. He even celebrates them in their most beautiful form, that is, in the brotherhood of arms. That’s how the members of the nation prove themselves — with every fiber of their being and up to the ultimate sacrifice — as a people in the elementary sense: as pawns at the command of the state, whose sacrifices aid that state to assert its interests against its rivals, up to and including global military victory. And France does not even have to pay us back for it!
After the military parade comes a press conference at which Trump bestows the highest possible compliment on Macron: he is just like Trump himself, a “great leader, a tough president. He’s not going to be easy on people who are breaking the law.” And there is no denying a certain affinity between the leaders of the great Americans and the grandiose French, the best president of all time and the président jupitérien: Macron demonstrates it at every opportunity with all kinds of pomp and circumstance, with a showcase of French power before the country’s most magnificent palaces and at an impressive military parade with the leader of the mightiest nation on earth at his side. With their extended hand-shaking session on the Champs Élysées, the two demonstrate with utmost clarity that the glory of power makes those who hold it shine brighter, and the steadfastness of the rulers shines a beautiful light on the dignity of the power they command and represent. So Trump finally finds in Macron the positive echo that those at home in Washington deny him: France is a podium for the greatness of America, which came a hundred years ago to triumph, and for Trump’s will to triumph, which comes a hundred years later to make America great again.
All of this is perfectly normal in the eyes of the democratic press. Their main concern is how successfully the person in power represents the power of the nation. And here the press manages to find another hair in the soup, since Trump once again performs his duties as a statesman as a demonstration of his personal greatness: as the No. 1 guy in the No. 1 nation, as “America first!” in the flesh, he allows himself, ever the gentleman, a lewd remark, meant to be flattering, about Mme Macron’s stunning figure. This causes a slight brouhaha, because in this day and age, demonstrative respect for the dignity of women is essential when demonstrating a military’s glorious power to destroy.
After this pleasant trip abroad, Trump returns home to find that the “Russian witch hunt” has been patiently awaiting his arrival.
It turns out that Trump’s son and a few other members of the Trump campaign had met with a Russian lawyer and a few others to gather ‘kompromat’ on Hillary Clinton during the campaign. The ‘Russia affair’ thus continues. The American press is both shocked and not at all surprised: for them it has long been clear that Trump illegally colluded with the Russians; the new information is not a ‘smoking gun’, but ‘the damage is spreading fast.’ And that makes for an exciting summer, almost as thrilling as the appearance of Trump’s fired ex-FBI chief before the Senate Intelligence Committee a few weeks earlier. It’s nice how American democrats carry out their internal power struggles with such impressive transparency as a media spectacle.
The incident and the excitement surrounding it display something normal and necessary about any democratic election campaign: the hunt for ‘dirty laundry’ that morally discredits the opponent, all the way up to character assassination, is — as many former professional campaigners confirm in interviews — a tried and true method of enlightening the citizens about who they should cast their vote for. And it is definitely more effective than refuting the other side’s ‘arguments.’ Apparently, the Democrats were no laggards either, having sent at least a few agents to Ukraine to investigate some shady business partners of the Trump family. Still, as these same agents confirm, collaborating with foreign powers is absolutely taboo. The patriotism of democratic mud-slinging demands this because campaigns are supposed to be about putting the right men in office rather than damaging the world power. Yet for Trump this distinction does not apply, so he brings a bit more consistency, i.e., ruthlessness, to the democratic election campaign: first, if the point is to win, then anything goes; that is how he succeeded as a businessman, so that is how he — successfully — presented himself as a candidate for the highest office. Second, from his point of view, America’s main enemy is not in Moscow, but in its own establishment swamp, whose treason has long since been established.
From the outset, Trump’s admiration for the manly man in the Kremlin has been disconcerting for the American media and has kindled the ever-growing suspicion of a conspiratorial collaboration between Trump and Putin. And certainly Putin has always been a model for Trump as far as the morality of presidential use of power goes. He appreciates the sheer strength of leadership that Putin emanates — especially in a hostile environment. He is impressed by the decisiveness and above all the success with which Putin stages himself as a strong leader and also operates both internally and externally. Trump also does not concur with the American media’s indignation at Putin’s actions against his internal and external enemies, but rather considers this to be sheer hypocrisy: “You think our country’s so innocent?” Trump has the utmost respect for Putin’s hostility to certain excesses of ‘liberalism,’ his manly defense of Russia as a country that not only pursues economic and global political interests but also wants to preserve no less than “civilization.” That’s what motivates the “true patriots” who Trump likes to spend time with outside the swamp in Washington. Trump heartily agrees with the fact that Putin has finally made the restoration of Russia’s sovereignty, its global political strength, his primary goal. And this is certainly not because Trump is a ‘friend of Russia’ or advocates the resurrection of Russia’s world power, but because that is exactly what he wants for America — only on a much larger scale, of course. For this reason, Trump is stumped as to why Russia should have favored the candidate Trump of all people — a man bent on American domination of the world energy market and the strengthening of its absolute military superiority over the whole world! Whether the amazement is genuine or just an act does not matter; either way it testifies to the thoroughly patriotic fanaticism for American power that underlies Trump’s appreciation of Putin.
The freedom of American power, Washington’s sovereignty in relation to all other powers — this is the very same standard by which Trump’s critics scandalize his ‘relationship’ to Putin. They fear he is capitulating before America’s main rival, wallowing in the worry that Trump could fall for the tricks of this Machiavelli in the Kremlin, or allow Putin to instrumentalize America’s power and weaken its strategic position. And this concern extends even to the suspicion that Putin must have compromising information on Trump himself, blackmail he could use to severely restrict the ability of the superpower to take ruthless action. Trump fires back with the same accusation: it was the Democrats under the leadership of the Clintons who really collaborated with the Russians to strengthen the enemy and weaken America. By contrast, he merely wants, as he has said before, to strengthen the USA in relation to the whole world.
And thanks to the progress of the national arms buildup, Trump now gets the opportunity to celebrate just that.
This is because, at the conclusion to the “Made in USA” week at the end of July, Trump gets to inaugurate the world’s largest aircraft carrier:
“American steel and American hands have constructed this 100,000-ton message to the world, American might is second to none and we’re getting bigger and better and stronger every day of my administration. That I can tell you. Wherever this vessel cuts through the horizon, our allies will rest easy and our enemies will shake with fear because everyone will know that America is coming, and America is coming strong. (Applause)” (July 21, 2017)
Patriotism is not a mere Sunday event for Trump, it’s a living. And this does not just apply to soldiers, who serve their country professionally and even lay down their lives for the country that commands their services. Americans show their patriotism in the daily grind of going to work and providing for themselves and their family. This is especially true when going to work means building the goods that make up America’s destructive capabilities. Although Trump fails to mention the arms companies in his poetic image of a deeply intimate union of ‘hand’ and ‘steel’, of hard work and hard power, Trump has not forgotten the close relationship between their profits and the nation’s power to destroy: at the conclusion of his ceremonial speech, he praises his own plan to enact record-setting military spending. The workers can take that as proof of how much the president cares for them personally while he’s optimizing the thriving relation between more business and more force, creating “tons of jobs” with a few tons of greenbacks! He also portrays his military upgrade of America’s imperialist superiority as a favor to the productive Americans who, in order to make a living, need hard work in the service of well-funded employers. This moves a democratically mature press to offer some constructive skepticism: “Is Trump’s military spending increase really record-setting?” “Will that really create so many jobs?” And so they also do their part to affirm an equation that can be read forward and backward: American work produces imperialist power potential, which enables great American companies to do business and in turn offer work for America’s great workers. That is the service the fatherland provides to its patriotic subjects:
“Now we need Congress to do its job and pass the budget that provides for higher, stable, and predictable funding levels for our military needs that our fighting men and women deserve — and you will get, believe me. I will tell you — you will get it.” (ibid.)
And the soldiers themselves can make a contribution to an additional service their government provides for them — democracy makes it possible:
“And by the way, you can also call those senators to make sure you get healthcare.” (ibid.)
But it isn’t any help. A few days later, ‘repeal and replace,’ the reform of the American health care system, fails. And not because of the Obama Democrats, but because of disagreement among the Republicans themselves after having spent seven years projecting their unity in their hatred of ‘Obamacare.’ Some senators say that the cuts go too far and point to the harm that would be caused for millions of citizens deprived of any health insurance at all. In some states, there is a rampant ‘opioid epidemic’ for which Obamacare provides too little. Somewhat more important are the losses feared for the companies that earn money on providing medical care and have long relied on government funding. In addition, hospitals are the largest employers in many cities, and their biggest source of money is subsidies from the federal government. Conversely, other Republicans see too much of the old system in the new legislation: too many costs for entrepreneurs and — as long as they stay healthy — mandatorily insured citizens. Some see mandatory insurance as an attack on the principle of freedom at the heart of the American nation. Citizens are supposed to be self-reliant and thus enjoy the freedom to decide for themselves what sacrifices they need to make without other citizens having to sacrifice for their problems and vice versa. Others need freedom from the tax or other costs of providing medical care for their employees. Finally, there are the fiscally responsible politicians who need freedom from the burden of certain state budget items… In their internal debate, the Republicans thus present all the aspects of the contradictory monster known as a capitalist health care system. Here the disparate claims of the state collide: firstly, the claim to public health, i.e., the body politic’s fitness for all the demands made on it by capitalist competition and political life; secondly, the political interest in a thriving health care ‘industry’; thirdly, the state’s insistence that the financial burden it causes for ‘the economy’ and the national budget should be kept to a minimum. That’s why a successful health care system is one of the unequaled ideals of bourgeois politicians who see in this nest of competitive claims, so characteristic of a market economy, something that must be tackled with accountable expertise, political wisdom, and horse-trading, so that the social market economy represents an endless history of reform plans, reforms that will soon need reform, and new reform plans.
Trump might not have any clue about the contradictions of a capitalist health care system, but he does know himself very well: “I hate to lose.” That is the substance of his dissatisfaction with the failed reform project. However, this is not because he does not care about ‘healthcare’ — something he is accused of by all sides, even Republicans:
“Some of the Fake News Media likes to say that I am not totally engaged in healthcare. Wrong, I know the subject well & want victory for U.S.” (June 28, 2017)
For Trump, even public health and the huge business of providing it is just another case of the nation’s perpetual need to be No. 1 in everything, even when there is no opponent on the field. Trump’s whole critique of Obamacare was that it violated the most sacred American principle: success. Obamacare — according to Trump’s mantra — was a failed reform. It doesn’t matter why, just that there was for some reason dissatisfaction on all sides. This scathing criticism was never meant as a prelude to a plan of his own. Contrary to the accusations of the media, this is not a case of poor planning or a mere desire to take revenge on Obama. Rather, it is another example of Trump’s general diagnosis: America already has all the means necessary to achieve the best for the nation; it’s just that Washington lacks the political will and ability to get the right deal. Trump has never been dogmatic as to what the deal has to look like, but he does ensist that it ensure both the freedom to do great business and the pacification, if not satisfaction, of all other legitimate claims. That is the key to Trump’s stance at all stages of the negotiations with Congress: he acts as a cheerleader and an admonisher, as a figurehead who, unlike the individual politicians, represents the unity between government and the people, their common right to successful governance. He embodies the welfare-state ideal of a reconciliation between all competing claims, almost like a political-moral authority who stands above the political process and waves Damocles’ sword. The other politicians owe him a successful reform; to allow his great reform proposal to fail is to betray him — especially since the media mostly blames Trump himself, as a dealmaker who simply does not know how to succeed in politics.
Because the politicians assembled in Congress have betrayed Trump, it is clear that they have discredited themselves. Trump lets them know it with his characteristic bluntness, after this group of losers in all seriousness wants new sanctions against Russia, which restrict Trump’s freedom to determine foreign policy:
“Our relationship with Russia is at an all-time & very dangerous low. You can thank Congress, the same people that can’t even give us Hcare!” (August 3, 2017)
With the failed reform project and the escalating ‘Russia affair,’ Trump has had enough. Not only are members of his own party stabbing him in the back, he is surrounded by whistle-blowers and traitors. So he applies his core talent for hiring and firing and decides to reorganize his personnel. He fired the head of the FBI long ago because of the “Russia thing,” but that did not make the “thing” go away; so he blames his own Attorney General who has treated him so unfairly — “and that’s putting it very mildly” — and trying to make it as clear as possible that he should resign willingly. He reorganizes his PR department, which he holds responsible for his low approval ratings, firing his Press Secretary and then his Chief of Staff, thereby severing the personal link between his administration and the Republican Party, which he now firmly sees as part of the treasonous establishment:
“It’s very sad that Republicans, even some that were carried over the line on my back, do very little to protect their President.” (July 23, 2017)
He hires a new Director of Communications named Scaramucci, who attracts attention for his hair gel, women’s sunglasses and, above all, exuberant loyalty to the chief. First, he promises to fix the “disconnect” between the Trump administration and the media, which obviously suffers from a perceptual disorder:
“I think there has been at times a disconnect between the way we see the president and how much we love the president and the way some of you perhaps see the president. We’re going to make sure that we get that message out directly to the American people.” (July 21, 2017)
At the same time, he vows to win an ultimate victory in the fight against the “leakers,” the true villains.
It is common for democratic politicians to put down the lack of approval for their great deeds in office to a “communication problem.” Nor are political intrigue, betrayal and the insistence on loyalty, sacrificing a pawn, etc. anything unusual to democratic politics. And yet, the fact that Trump is so insistent that he should be loved unconditionally by the American people, that he deserves the personal loyalty of both his party and the entire political establishment, earns him the accusation of obviously not being a democrat, but rather a dictator, at least at heart.
Trump proves day after day what a false opposition this is: he takes the democratic personality cult celebrated in elections extremely seriously in office. He considers it an unbearable contradiction that, on the one hand, elections celebrate the people’s need for a credible leader and that the act of putting a president in power is supposed to be the pinnacle of democracy, while, on the other hand, an elected president has to fulfill all kinds of requirements and obey all kinds of rules and restrictions, legal and otherwise — even in matters of public and private conduct. With every tweet and every new broken taboo he insists that an election should not merely fulfill the constitutional function of selecting representatives for office, but put ruling personalities in power, who are thus free to determine the needs and freedoms of others. An election does not bring to power specific private interests or state necessities, but a president assigned to be the leader by the people. As such, he has an absolute right to allegiance, to loyal and successful service from his political servants. Trump does not invoke an undemocratic act of ‘Providence,’ nor even so much his own proven personal excellence, but rather the democratic electoral act that has put him in office — that is the achievement that proves his own personal excellence. In the spectrum of democratic morality, Trump’s self-image and living message are only remarkable because of the radical way in which he replaces the hypocrisy of service according to prescribed constitutional rules with the brutally plain language of political power. For him, the unbreakable unity between people and leader that is promised in a democratic election is only realized when his word counts and the entire government apparatus stands behind him or at his service.
The reorganization comes to a temporary halt with Scaramucci’s dismissal after eleven days. The press finds this somewhat regrettable, as his rude style was quite entertaining, but also cause for contemptuous head-shaking. They find Scaramucci outlandish because for some reason they view him as a bizarre intruder in the democratic apparatus, instead of seeing in his synthesis of bravado, showy opportunism, and determination to morally and politically screw his enemies certain core elements of democratic competition — distorted to the point of clarity. The press is much happier with the new chief of staff, a true general who promises to end the “chaos” in the White House and finally enforce the principle of command and obedience among the staff. So democracy can breathe a sigh of relief and the President can go on vacation.
But at the end of his well-deserved time-out, something happens that again makes Trump “very sad”: a march by right-wing radicals in Charlottesville leads to street battles with counterdemonstrators and culminates in an attack on the latter with one dead and many injured. The militant and marching right-wing radicals think Trump is just great, which is not only revealed by the frequency of “Make America Great Again” baseball caps in the crowd, but by the fact that they aim to put Trump’s very own mission into action:
“We are determined to take our country back. We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump.” (David Duke, former head of the Ku Klux Klan and co-organizer of the demonstration)
The first step in reconquering the nation consists in demonstrating their right to be recognized as the “true” but “forgotten” Americans. They are the real, and yet oppressed rulers of the country, and their redeemer Trump is now in office. So they will no longer put up with symbols of their heroes being torn down, in this case a statue of General Lee. The statue and its copies throughout the south were mainly erected by right-wing politicians in the late nineteenth century and during the civil rights movement of the 1960s to underscore whites’ justified privilege in America; and ever since the success of the civil rights movement, which these angry white men consider a tragic defeat, such statues stand for one last piece of recognition for disenfranchised whites. For the right-wing demonstrators, Trump’s arrival in the White House signals that the time has finally come to assert their birthright; and their armed appearance leaves no doubt as to their will to make good on this claim. In short: we are here, we are armed, we are entitled! After the police break up their demonstration when faced by brawls with left-wing counterdemonstrators, a right-wing kindred spirit sets out to carry on the righteous struggle and steers his car into the crowd of counterdemonstrators.
After the battle and the attack, all eyes turn to the President. After all, part of the job of being president in a egalitarian democracy is to kneel down to the subjects on tragic occasions and give them consolation from on high. The main victim in the eyes of the press is the unity of the nation across all ethnic, cultural, and party boundaries, and the most pressing issue is whether the President will do justice to his office: if the unity of the nation is so viciously assaulted from the fringes of the right, then it is up to the chief to play not only supreme proprietor of state violence, but also father of the national family, and to give his people the necessary moral orientation. After two days of silence, which is unusually long for him, Trump discharges his duty in his own way:
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides. It’s been going on for a long time in our country. Not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama, this has been going on for a long, long time. It has no place in America. What is vital now is a swift restoration of law and order and the protection of innocent lives. No citizen should ever fear for their safety and security in our society.” (Trump’s statement on Charlottesville, August 12, 2017)
Given the time lag after the event and even more so his words, it is clear that Trump has had to bring himself to deviate from his moral principles. He doesn’t take sides, not even for fanatical supporters who celebrate him as their leader. He decides rather to adopt a non-partisan response that is statesman-like in the literal sense: he takes the attack and the street battle that preceded it from the perspective of the state monopolist on the use of force, and sees a forbidden dispute, a violation of the law — committed “on many sides” — enforced by the state power. In opposition to all those who expect him to unequivocally condemn the radical right-wingers who in his name have set out to divide the good America, Trump sees the main victim of the battle as order itself, including its anthropomorphic version: the “innocent citizen” who needs this order, obeys it, and is physically threatened by such violence everywhere in America, not just in Charlottesville. In keeping with this statesman-like view of the events, the motive identified by Trump for the many-sided breach of law and order is, on closer inspection, “hate” itself. That is what has run riot in Charlottesville — a motive that is not really a motive, but merely a denunciation of this violence projected onto the perpetrators whom the state condemns. For Trump, this violence is not the outflow of any political stance at all; in this initial reaction, Trump is visibly and audibly anxious not to call out the right-wing convictions that have struck fiercely in Charlottesville. Rather, he diagnoses a pure negation of the rights the state grants all citizens and enforces over all, so that the promised remedy is the restoration of respect on all sides for law and order in America.
Even Trump’s subsequent appeal to the nation is very becoming of a statesman:
“Hate and the division must stop, and must stop right now. We have to come together as Americans with love for our nation and true affection for each other.” (ibid.)
The citizens of Charlottesville and elsewhere may still be just as irreconcilably opposed to each other in terms of how they define the American homeland, but such differences pale in light of the fact that they are all citizens of the same collective that Trump governs. He thus addresses the demonstrators, counterdemonstrators, and American citizens in general as what they are for him as their leader: members of the people who are lead by him, united as such, that is, by his definition of them and their concerns. Trump thus regards the irreconcilability revealed in Charlottesville as an affront to himself, a sad stain on the beautiful image that America has radiated ever since he took office. And it is certainly true that under his rule, national capitalism functions splendidly:
“Our country is doing very well in so many ways. We have record, just absolute record, employment. We have unemployment, the lowest it’s been in almost 17 years. We have companies pouring into our country, Foxconn and car companies, and so many others. They’re coming back to our country. We’re renegotiating trade deals to make them great for our country and great for the American worker. We have so many incredible things happening in our country, so when I watch Charlottesville to me, it’s very, very sad.” (ibid.)
The great money makers are making great money, more and more Americans of all colors can work to enrich them and are even getting paid money to do it: why all the hate?
But Trump receives no gratitude for his statesman-like impartiality. To be sure, the majority of the demonstrating right-wing radicals thank him for not singling them out for blame, regarding this as evidence of a great advance in the moral condition of the nation. They are no longer the bad guys facing off against a united nation of self-proclaimed good guys; their enemies — the left-wing liberals who in their eyes long ago usurped power and cultural hegemony in the country — have been denounced by the President himself as enemies of the nation. Apart from that, however, Trump reaps nothing but indignation. And certainly not just from the most prominent leader of the radical right, David Duke, who says that Trump’s obvious effort to leave out the rightist sentiments behind the rightist violence is too little. Duke demands the explicit and aggressive partisanship that right-wing radicals have always appreciated in Trump; after all, that’s why they voted for him. Conversely, the rest of the nation accuses Trump of sparing the right-wing radicals who invoke his name the denunciation they deserve, thus failing to follow his aggressive instincts the one time they would have been appropriate. Led by the most right-wing Republicans in Congress — who dispute the demonstrating neo-Nazi’s honorary title as ‘patriotic fighters in the battle against the liberal establishment’ and claim it for themselves — the opposition and the public demand that the President finally speak the fine words demanded by the dignity of his office and needed to bring the nation together in such difficult times: “Nazi,” “terror,” “evil!” In view of his unwillingness to do justice to his office, an opportunity arises to hand Trump another defeat and deprive him of legitimacy. And indeed, after a few days of constant attack, Trump deviates once again from his moral guidelines and offers a more one-sided rejection of the right-wing supporters in his “Make America Great Again!” mob. He calls the Ku Klux Klan and the “white supremacists” by name and even speaks the required magic words.
But it doesn’t help, he has come to late. And it is all too plain to see from the President’s diction and body language that his words do not reflect his attitude. He’s obviously faking it — which is no crime in and of itself; after all, he only needs to do justice to the requirements of his office. And that is certainly not — as the journalistic public emphasizes — too much to ask for in this case. All he has to do is recite the mantra “racism, Nazis, evil.” But such hypocrisy, expressed here as presidential conscientiousness, is simply repugnant to this President. The first chance he gets, he returns to his line of sincerely unadorned support for right-wing patriotism in all its manifestations. He reiterates his verdict ‘All sides are to blame!’ in the certainty that he will no longer be misunderstood as distancing himself from his outraged supporters. So Trump is again recognizably on good terms with himself and his inner compass.
This is followed by two statesman-like deeds that in liberal circles one would never have expected of the President. On the one hand, Trump fires his close pal Steve Bannon after Bannon taunts the right-wing scene in Charlottesville as clowns and declares evil North Korea, at times Trump’s favorite enemy, an unimportant sideshow. That much critical distance from his gloomy whisperer and radical alter ego is irritating. On the other hand, the President announces an intensified continuation of the Afghanistan mission and openly declares that this contradicts his own campaign promises. After the public generally praises this act of imperialistic good sense, Trump is, of course, immediately criticized for breaking yet another promise! But at least he clearly explains to his people why he has placed the calculus of his generals above his own infallible instincts:
“My original instinct was to pull out, and historically I like following my instincts. But all my life, I have heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the oval office…We must address the reality of the world as it exists right now, the threats we face, and the confronting of all of the problems of today, and extremely predictable consequences of a hasty withdrawal. … In Afghanistan and Pakistan, America’s interests are clear. We must stop the resurgence of safe havens that enable terrorists to threaten America. And we must prevent nuclear weapons and materials from coming into the hands of terrorists and being used against us …” (August 21, 2017, Fort Myer, Arlington)
And secondly, precisely in this self-correction, Trump remains true to himself. He still rejects his predecessors’ crazy idea of creating a state for the Afghans. When he sends additional soldiers to Afghanistan, it is for one reason: “We are not nation building again. We are killing terrorists.” (ibid.)
And that’s that. Applause. The chief even claps for himself. A sensitive liberal press on both sides of the Atlantic is aware that nothing other than killing was really ever on the agenda, once one leaves aside the whitewashing. Yet it does not stop them from being indignant: a leader of the good people of the world mustn’t speak so openly and so drastically!
It’s understandable: foregoing so much professional hypocrisy and displaying so much brutal honesty is extremely borderline in the canon of democratic good manners.