Critical Theory in the Age of Trump

“By becoming part of a power which is felt as unshakably strong, eternal, and glamorous, one participates in its strength and glory. One surrenders one’s own self and renounces all strength and pride connected with it, one loses one’s integrity as an individual and surrenders freedom; but one gains a new security and a new pride in the participation in the power in which one submerges. One gains also security against the torture of doubt.”

–Erich Fromm, Escape From Freedom

In the early 1930s, a maverick group of academics anticipated the rise of demagogues such as Trump: at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, Germany. They were living through the horrific rise of Hitler, who rose from the ashes of the Reichstag, who promised to put an end to the corruption, moral bankruptcy, and the national humiliation and weakness of the short-lived Weimar Republic. Many of these researchers need no introduction: Adorno, Horkheimer, Arendt, Benjamin.

Of course, Trump is no Hitler, and history does not repeat, but it does rhyme, as Twain said. Trump is our own Berlusconi, a small-minded bigot, kleptocrat and tax evader, a narcissist, a world class womanizer and misogynist. At the same time, they both have the Teflon man condition: none of their brazen criminality and deviance seems to stick.

This is undoubtedly related to the childlike immaturity and emotionality of western electorates, who are willing to forgive any strongman/clown as long as the appearance of strength and national glory is upheld. All this chauvinistic patriotism comes at a huge cost, however. Rather than focusing on the material conditions of poverty and spiritual malaise, collectively, our gaze is diverted. Slavish devotion to the state, militarism, and to technology has only brought us closer to the brink of disaster, even as most people taken the rationality of the system as a given.  As Marcuse put it in 1964:

“This society is irrational as a whole. Its productivity is destructive of the free development of human needs and faculties, its peace maintained by the constant threat of war, its growth dependent on the repression of the real possibilities for pacifying the struggle for existence…” (1)

When CBS head honcho Les Moonves said the election season was “damn good for CBS”, he meant ratings and ad revenues were skyrocketing due to Trump’s bombast and idiocy. That he was a horror for democracy, for fighting climate change, for basic decency and social inclusion and cohesion, went unmentioned.  It was Theodor Adorno who specifically took aim at the limitations of the “culture industry”: it is these mass media/entertainment corporations which homogenize and set the imaginary boundaries of citizen’s thinking, who will stoop to giving any human-shaped piece of fecal-matter, any saber-rattling sensationalist who can stir the pot, a microphone and a public platform, molding potentially autonomous citizens into self-serving apologists of US foreign policy and consuming automatons.

Today, the arguments for media manipulation of public interests are well known, as works like Manufacturing Consent and The New Media Monopoly have made abundantly clear. Most of us are aware on some level that commercials, newscasts, and TV shows are designed to play on our emotional urges to buy, elicit sympathy to promote government policies, offering modes of fantasy, escape, and implanting our psyches with false needs and the epidemic of consumption and entertainment corporatization, as well as distracting and egocentric social media silliness.

Yet are we really having a good time, while watching the world around us crumble, mass extinction at our doorstep, and global temperatures hotter than ever? Fromm responded in 1956:

“Having fun lies in the satisfaction of consuming and ‘taking in’ commodities, sights, food, drinks, cigarettes, people, lectures, books, movies-all are consumed, swallowed. The world is one great object for our appetite, a big apple, a big bottle, a big breast; we are the sucklers, the eternally expectant ones, the hopeful ones-and the eternally disappointed ones.” (2)

(A few days ago, I happened to glance at a Nikon camera commercial. Towards the end, the narrator exclaims: “I am what I share.” Baudrillard would be so proud. The map has replaced the territory. )

The Oxford Dictionaries have declared “post-truth” the 2016 international word of the year. By relying on emotional appeals instead of facts, politicians such as Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage helped engineer Brexit in the UK. Donald Trump managed to use his “terrific, tremendous” rhetorical mélange of con-man salesmanship, nationalist fabrications, and attacks against minorities to propel his way into the presidency. Social media, we are told, is so rife with “fake news” that fact cannot be differentiated from fiction. This new form of sensationalized, reality-TV politics denoted more than post-truth, it signifies post-democracy. It is the system crumbling from within.

In this manner, the need for social media, TV, computers, and smartphones are driven by not only the technology and “infotainment” corporations, but by our need to escape and divert attention from the collapse of values, political justice, and rational discourse. Are these devices not unlike a fake substitute for a mother’s breast, as Fromm forewarned? They fill the gaping void, they are agents of what Daniel Quinn terms “mother culture”, they are the great “lie whispered in our ear”, Huxley’s soma, they are what Morris Berman quoting Winnicot calls transitional objects, they try to replace the gap, the lack, of what Jean Liedloff calls The Continuum Concept. Yet there can be no real substitute. And millions of deluded Americans wishing for a proto-fascist demagogues like Trump to turn back time to the 1950s isn’t a real solution either.

If demagogues, religious fundamentalists, war-mongerers, and stooges for global capitalism are ubiquitous on our screens and newsfeeds, the normalization of ignorant bigots like Trump accelerates, because it seems as if there are no exceptions, no leaders with any semblance of humanity on our monopolized airwaves. For liberals and court historians, there really are no alternatives, because the ideological blinders are so firmly implanted (see: The End of History and The World is Flat).

A few weeks back, CounterPunch and other alternative media fell victim to a (trademark in progress) “Bezos Drive-By”, with the publishing of this McCarthyite smear against the alternative media by the Washington Post.  By the way, my marked-up paperback copy of Escape From Freedom has a blurb from the Washington Post on the front cover. How many current WP journos and editors do you think can spell Gemeinschaft? (For reference, there could be one at The New Yorker, though, as per the usual milquetoast from them, he doesn’t mention Marx, Hegel, Kant, or Freud once in his piece.) We’re taking bets, and I’m going with zero. There is a “trump card” though: you can win the entire pot by egging/silly-stringing/toilet-papering Craig Timberg’s car/house/face.

The accusations of Russian involvement are absurd, but they do make evident what Marcus termed One Dimensional Man: if you are not a friend or servile quisling of the US military or national security establishment, you must be a Ruskie agent, or at least an unwitting pawn.

The ascendancy of Trump is intimately bound up in the commercialization of public and politically oriented discourse, with deadly, narcotic effects. Here’s Habermas, from 1962:

“Today the conversation itself is administered. Professional dialogues from the podium, panel discussions, and round table shows- the rational debate of private people becomes one of the production numbers of the stars in radio and television…it assumes commodity form…discussion, now a ‘business,’ becomes formalized; the presentations of positions and counterpositions is bound to certain prearranged rules of the game; consensus about the subject matter is made largely superfluous by that concerning form…conflicts, once fought out in public polemics, are demoted to the level of personal incompatibilities.…Critical debate arranged in this manner certainly fulfills important social-psychological functions, especially that of a tranquillizing substitute for action…” (3)

If you have to literally be a billionaire, like Trump, or raise a billion dollars in campaign money, like Clinton, to become President today, well, that’s a huge problem, to put it mildly. Yet in our neoliberal, post-truth world, it’s just one’s personal opinion, nothing more, and no deep thinking is needed: there is very little reflection on any normative guidelines for political campaigning among the public or our representatives in Congress.

How to resist this onslaught of ignorance? An antidote to this tranquillizing effect of commercialistic public debate in mass media is desperately needed. Funding and support for alternative media, socially and eco-conscious non-profits, and civil disobedience and protests against the rising tides of intolerance and authoritarianism are our only hope. The sectarianism, numbness and isolation from the disparaged and dispossessed, and the petty personal conflicts among leftists should be addressed starting now. For the atomization and alienation our culture spreads does not stop at our doorsteps simply because Das Kapital is on our bookshelves, or we attended that local production of The Threepenny Opera.

There is, in fact, no shelter from the storms of neoliberalism, which are only slated to get worse. To all those who are willing to “give Trump a chance”, my only reply is: “¡Ya Basta!”


1.) Marcuse, Herbert. One Dimensional Man. 1964. Boston: Beacon Press, 1991. p. xli.

2.) Fromm, Erich. The Art of Loving. 1956. New York: Bantom Books, 1963. p. 73.

3.) Habermas, Jurgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. 1962. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991. p. 164.

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William Hawes is a writer specializing in politics and environmental issues. He is author of the ebook Planetary Vision: Essays on Freedom and Empire. His articles have appeared online at CounterPunch, Global Research, Countercurrents(.org), Gods & Radicals, Dissident Voice, The Ecologist, and many more. You can email him at wilhawes@gmail.com. Visit his website williamhawes.wordpress.com.

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