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Donald Trump, High Plains Drifter and the Politics of Obituaries: Towards a Political Economy of Reconstruction
The Broken Record
It shouldn’t be a secret that the Left is like a needle stuck in a broken record. Right now the major narrative seems to be how terrible Trump is rather than how to effectively create alternatives to his forthcoming regime. There is lots of remorse and depression, an occasional bashing of “identity politics” (among the more reflective), and fantasies about leaving the country. (For those who have already left, this is not really an option). One response to crises of this sort is the “talking cure,” i.e. the idea that talking about a problem will solve it. In this case, the talking cure is a kind of repression of the real, needed solutions. The Left is very much still, regrettably and without remorse, addicted to deconstruction and piecemeal politics. Trump thinks big and integrates issues in a dystopian fashion. The Left tends to think very small and atomizes issues in a dystopian fashion. The Left is unable to transform specialized issues attached to a certain social position or particularized form of oppression to a linkage with a larger system of power. Sometimes this is done rhetorically, but rarely is the rhetoric materialized. In contrast, Trump always combines his specific transgressions with a larger actually existing power accumulation system.
The Left as Little Dutch Boy and Petitioner of the State
Some who talk now about “fighting back” seemed to have learned zero from the failed effort to “fight back” against Ronald Reagan and the two George Bushes. These efforts largely led nowhere other than Bill Clinton and Barrack Obama. How do we know this? We have a cycle in which Bushes and Trumps follow Clintons and Obamas. The Left’s petitioning power strategy usually fails with the resulting vacuum filled by Democratic Party messiahs who turn out to be rather much like the Little Dutch Boy who puts his finger in the dike to save the day, only in this parable the Little Dutch Boy is also setting various houses and forests on fire. The Reactionary Republican flood was averted, but the fires lead to soil erosion which potentially generates floods. Yes, you say, “naughty Dutch Boy”—but why are so many dependent on him?
We need to think about why the Left is always putting its fingers into dikes to stem major floods rather than eliminating the original causes of these floods. One reason is that a simple reading of history and acting accordingly is not performed. In a 1971 essay for Liberation, “Protest, Power and the People,” Norman Fruchter wrote of the anti-Vietnam War movement: “Instead of confronting the question of power, we have continued to play out a series of strategies which are actually attempts to persuade power to change its mind, through demonstrations of our numbers or the intensity of our convictions. What we have done, for six years, amounts to different forms of petitioning. The mass peaceful demonstration is a way of saying, to the executive as well as to the nation via the mass media, that all these numbers of people want the war to end: it is a way of indicating the strength of opposition through show of numbers.” Some forty-five years later, not much has changed.
From High Plains Drifter to Political Obituaries
Each new Trump appointment, and the presidential election of 2016, reminds me of the Clint Eastwood Western, High Plains Drifter. That film starts off with a town unable to rid itself of threatening bandits. The leaders offer anything to a top gunman known as “The Stranger” to take the job. Eventually, the Stranger does so and makes a series of bizarre appointments of deputies who are completely beholden to him. The film ends in a major battle that destroys large parts of the town. The Stranger gets the job in the first place because the incumbents (read “messiahs,” Democratic Party elite) could not do the job in the first place, lacking competence, having blood on their hands, and provoking the wrath of various hoodlums. The film is about unscrupulous sorts paying any price to correct for problems which require a kind of Faustian bargain for their resolution.
A friend of mine once referred to Left writing as a kind of narrative of “political obituaries.” This most brilliant remark extends to the somewhat extensive frontiers of Left journalism and academic texts that usually replace strategic visions with moral pronouncements. The Standing Rock victory, while a welcome development and important, potentially will be erased by the new regime. At the very least, the Trans-Canada pipeline is also on the table. Trump assures us that he will take care of these very quickly once he assumes power. In any case, while the Left has these two important victories under its belt, the appointment of an oil executive to run the State Department is a sign that a cascading parade of non-victories awaits us. Therefore, we need to carefully trace how Trump got to where he is now and what we should do about it.
The Accumulation and Extension of Trump’s Capital
In the beginning Trump’s father lent him money which he bankrolled, with assistance from supporting institutions (like government tax breaks, via the “promise” of job creation), into a larger real estate fortune. Trump’s deal making and life style became interesting for various journalists, giving Trump an initial reservoir of media capital. Thus, phase one is to pool initial economic capital to leverage state support (political capital), greater economic capital and initial media capital.
Later, Trump used the architectural and symbolic space of properties he owned to launch a brand, the Trump name, from which he got lucrative royalties. Therefore, phase two is to leverage symbolic politics and a brand from expanded economic, political and media capital.
The accumulated economic capital and Trump brand became a foundation for producing and hosting the well-known television program, The Apprentice, founded in 2003 and watched by millions. Trump has had a radio program, made cameo appearances in movies and other television programs. Thus, phase three is the transformation of economic, political and initial media and symbolic capital into further developed media capital. This media capital included strategic use of a Twitter account to bypass established media. Media audiences were transformed into voters.
Eventually, Trump traded on his celebrity status, the compounding of his symbolic and media capital, into a presidential run. There Trump exploited various “memes” tied to economic restructuring in the form of deindustrialization, racism, Islamophobia, sexism, contempt for Wall Street and elite bankers, and a militarist foreign policy. His formula was to link truths symbolically or tangentially related to such matters (job loss, violence in cities, terrorist threats, macho culture, the financial crisis, and destructive wars) with lies regarding solutions or resolutions. The truths relate to fragments of reality and not moral stances. The media celebrated Trump even while criticizing him, with audiences sufficiently disinterested in these criticisms to help elect him as President. Thus, phase four is the transformation of economic, symbolic and media capital into political capital.
In his presidency, Trump will use his Twitter account and presidency to validate and invalidate companies, politicians and individuals he does not like, extend his symbolic and media capital, and thus the potential value of his future royalty licenses. He has already used presidential appointments to complement the strategic power of the real estate industry with the extensive power of the oil industry. The presidency will become an engine for accumulation of all forms of capital with potential spin-offs including: a new media network, an institutionalized “party within the party” challenging established Republicans, and various new economic ventures.
Three Lessons for the Left: Learn to Accumulate Power
Someone reading this might say, “it’s just about established money and corporate power.” Yet, when we compare the investments the Left makes in petitioning the state to the dynamic power accumulation system of Donald Trump, one sees other possibilities. For example, in contrast to the tangential “occupying” of space (sometimes represented by the notion of “The Commons”), Trump owns spaces or gains leasing arrangements with them. Therefore, lesson one is for the Left (i.e. the larger citizenry) to own things. This can take the form of private cooperatives and banks, public banks, or cooperative or municipal utilities and broadcasting platforms.
Notice how Trump leverages one form of economic capital and turns that into another, i.e. he follows market and entrepreneurial logics. This means that lesson two is to leverage upstream capital at a smaller scale into downstream capital at a larger scale. This is not about celebrating capitalism. Consider the Mondragon Industrial Cooperatives which presently have 12.1 billion Euro in revenue and employ more than 74,000 persons through 261 businesses and cooperatives. These cooperatives began with a relatively small scale entrepreneurial platform.
Finally, what do these lessons have to do with the recent election? Should we say, once you lose and election, just wait for the next round? No, Trump shows us that it is far more complicated than that. Lesson three for the Left should be, use elections as front organizations for accumulating economic and media capital. Let us go back more than thirty years ago to New York Magazine, April 1, 1985. There, in an otherwise inconsequential article by Michael Kramer, “Koch’s Re-Election Strategy,” we find a description of the late Frank Barbaro who challenged Ed Koch for mayor of New York City in the 1981 primary. Kramer writes that Barbaro’s “favorite target, besides Koch and Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau…is Donald Trump. Everything would be okay, says Barbaro, if Trump and his real-estate buddies paid their fair share of taxes.”
Why is this item so important? In 1981, Barbaro got 209,369 votes in the primary against Koch (36% of the vote) and 162,719 votes as a radical third party candidate (also opposed to Koch, with 13% of the vote). Many of these votes were the byproduct of an intensive grassroots campaign and political canvass operation. Imagine if the Barbaro movement had also extended their canvass into a move-your-money operation supporting an alternative bank or consumer cooperatives? Here we see how an early defeat for the forces opposed to Trump allowed a kind of multiplier of costs down the road. Let’s not forget that in many ways New York City was the incubator for Donald Trump. Likewise, the City was the incubator for the Occupy movement which largely operated in a vacuum vis-à-vis the three lessons enumerated above. Even the Bernie Sanders campaign could have made much more of these lessons instead of narrowly focusing on the political frontiers of capital accumulation. In sum, a politics of economic reconstruction is now needed to oppose Trump. Otherwise, we can expect infinite dystopia and an endless cycle of political failures and their recycling as remorse.