Authoritarian Populism: Viewing Trump, Reviewing Thatcher

Photo by Karl-Ludwig Poggemann | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Karl-Ludwig Poggemann | CC BY 2.0

There has been much said in the media about Donald Trump’s “populism”, alleged by some to be the primary tool enabling him to do an end-run round both the Democrats and the establishment of his own party in the recent presidential election.

The combination of this populism with an anti-establishment stance during Trump’s campaign–the latter has so far not been translated into reality, witness Trump’s cabinet of billionaires, his planned abolition of the Dodd-Frank regulation of Wall Street, and so forth– recalls a figure from a different time and political context, namely, Margaret Thatcher.

The cultural theorist Stuart Hall coined the term “authoritarian populism” to define Thatcherism as the project of undermining the British post-war settlement between labour and capital, by mobilizing a right-wing popular movement aimed at strengthening the state.  This fusion of the popular and the authoritarian state would then be turned against the post-war settlement.

Hall had his critics, most notably Bob Jessop, a social theorist influenced by Nicos Poulantzas, who said that “Thatcherism must be seen less as a monolithic monstrosity and more as an alliance of disparate forces around a self-contradictory programme”.

To an extent both Hall and Jessop are right (which is not to say that their positions can be reconciled).  Thatcher did aim to destroy the post-war settlement and to strengthen the state, and this effort, despite a considerable measure of success, was also deeply self-contradictory.  In fact, it owed its success to its self-contradictory nature.

Thatcher, like her pal Reagan, made an awful lot of noise about “small government” and the need to “reduce the state”, when in fact the state was the primary instrument of her gleichschaltung (a buzz-word in recent weeks with regard to Trump-Bannon, though several of us were using it in the 1980s to describe Thatcher’s project).

Thatcher used the centralized state to wipe out entire tiers of local government;  to spy on her critics; to defang trade unions; to dismantle manufacturing industry;  to work-round the boycott of apartheid South Africa; to fight the IRA at a time when many reasonable people, including a handful in her own party, realized that only a negotiated settlement could resolve the Irish “troubles”; to obstruct German reunification; to enrich her husband Denis and their wastrel son Mark; to undertake the neocolonial task of repossessing the Malvinas Islands after they had been seized by Argentina; to reduce spending on education; to administer her programme of privatizing publicly-owned enterprises;  to deregulate the financial sector (with the disastrous consequences that have been evident since 2008); and so on.

The state, duly reinforced by her in areas that abetted her project and weakened in those that did not, was thus central to Thatcher’s project.

The signs are that the state and its appurtenances will be just as indispensable to the grey eminences around Trump, the latter being a front-man who will leave policy (aka “details”) to be crafted by Bannon and his aides.

In all other respects, though, and ideological orientation aside, Thatcher and Trump diverge significantly.  By all accounts Thatcher was a ferocious micromanager, something the impulsive and erratic Trump is not.  Trump’s obvious forte is showmanship, not micromanagement.

Then there is the matter of intelligence– Thatcher was no intellectual, but she could at least develop and express a consistent line of thought, an ability which eludes Trump.

Any Trump supporter who queries this should try disentangling the spaghetti syntax in this part of Trump’s recent interview on ABC News with David Muir (my thanks to the editor of CounterPunch for this reference):

I would’ve easily won the popular vote, much easier, in my opinion, than winning the electoral college. I ended up going to 19 different states. I went to the state of Maine four times for one. I needed one. I went to M– I got it, by the way. But it turned out I didn’t need it because we ended up winning by a massive amount, 306. I needed 270. We got 306. You and everybody said, “There’s no way you get to 270.” I mean, your network said and almost everybody said, “There’s no way you can get to …” So, I went to Maine four times. I went to various places. And that’s the beauty of the electoral college. With that being said, if you look at voter registration, you look at the dead people that are registered to vote who vote, you look at people that are registered in two states, you look at all of these different things that are happening with registration. You take a look at those registration for — you’re gonna s– find — and we’re gonna do an investigation on it.

None of this, however, seemingly matters to Trump’s supporters, who in the main have been persuaded to vote against their own interests.

A key to understanding how this could have happened is not by lamenting the loss of a politics based on interests, and consequently finding ways to reinstitute such a politics (for now at any rate this politics is moribund in the US mainstream), but to understand how the politics of interest has come to be supplanted by one premised on the sheer stimulation of desire and fantasy.

For those who prefer psychoanalytic terminology, Trump’s is a politics of the id, as opposed to one premised on the primacy of the ego.

Such explanations of an emergence of a politics based on desire and fantasy, as opposed to interest, are of course not new.  Decades ago, the Frankfurt School pioneered an analysis of the “authoritarian personality” that has been in the news after Trump’s election; Slavoj Žižek has furnished accounts of ideology based on this suppression or overriding of interest (see his film The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology); and Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari provide an exuberantly recondite treatment of this thematics in their two-volume Capitalism and Schizophrenia.

If the theorizations are somewhat recent, the phenomena associated with a politics of desire and fantasy, overriding considerations derived from interest, are not.  Hitler’s massive and dramatic night-time rallies are the initial exemplary instance, but Reagan with his syrupy voice and “aw shucks” cowboy-movie manner, and Thatcher with her hats, pearls and handbag-swinging snarl, involve in differing ways an infusion of the libidinal into the political.

(Thatcher’s libidinal appeal escapes many non-Brits.  The explanations canvassed in the popular culture for her appeal at the visceral level pivot on the fact that from a very young age most of the British elite is educated in private boarding schools, in which beatings by masters and prefects, and a frequent regimen of laxatives prescribed by matron, are de rigueur.  In such establishments, chronic constipation is an inevitable accompaniment of the unremittingly stodgy institutional food, and matron, dragon-lady though she may be, of course possesses the perfect “cure”.  The late Alex Cockburn, who went to such a school, extracted much sardonic humour from this kind of factual scenario, where a more or less delicious masochistic submission to matron/Margaret Thatcher is ingrained from the beginning in the collective psyche of the British elite.)

As is to be expected, Trump’s libidinal appeal has a quite different form and aetiology.  Christian Lorentzen, of the London Review of Books, spent months accompanying the primary candidates in the 2016 presidential campaign.

Lorentzen, an American, attended several Trump and Sanders rallies, doing interviews at them, and noted that the typical attendees at a Trump rally were the bullies at his school, whereas those at a Sanders rally approximated to those who were the victims of these bullies.

The videos of Trump’s campaign rallies show them to be attended by a fairly wide cross-section of the country’s white population.

Not just Joe and Jill Six-Pack, but also frat-boy types in their uniforms of white baseball caps and shirts with collars, a great many heavily jowled like Trump’s puppet master Steve Bannon.

All however, Joe and Jill Six-Pack and the frat-boys alike, seemed to confirm Lorentzen’s hypothesis about bullying– the rallies had an air of menace and intimidation (and did become violent in several cases), while racial, ethnic, homophobic, and misogynistic slurs (the latter directed primarily at Hillary Clinton) can be heard repeatedly on many of the videos.

Trump clearly found a way to tickle the ids of his supporters to the point of near-delirium.  They were not there to reckon with their interests employing any kind of informed objectivity, but to give vent to something deeply primal and preconscious.

Wilhelm Reich, rather than Harvey C Mansfield or Sheldon Wolin, gives us the better insight into what was transpiring at Trump’s rallies.

The biggest difference between Trump and Thatcher has however nothing to do with politics per se or the libidinal dimensions of a politician’s persona.  I’m referring here to the fairly recent burgeoning of computer-driven technologies, especially the development of instruments to mine and analyze “big data”.

The politicians of Thatcher’s generation had to make-do with polling information based on standard demographic indicators (age, gender, education, occupation and income-level, religion, place of residence, and so on).

The emergence of social media and the requisite technological tools to harvest data from the “click-prints” of those on social media, as well our computer-recorded subscriptions, donations, credit-card transactions, vacation choices, social networks, leisure pursuits, hotel, airline and restaurant reservations, and so on, allow these to be translated into detailed psychometric information useful to politicians and their campaign teams.

There has been much hype, some of it excessive no doubt, over Trump’s use of Cambridge Analytics (of which Steve Bannon is a director) to provide his team with complex “number crunching” information of the kind just described.

Whatever the hype, it is difficult to gainsay, from the accounts given by informed reporters, that Trump’s team was able to use Cambridge Analytics to target very precise niches of voters with political pitches tailored specifically for them.

By contrast, Clinton relied heavily on TV advertising, and Trump hardly at all– television is simply too imprecise in its targeting when compared to techniques derived from the computer-based psychometrics employed by Trump’s team.

Compared to Trump’s technological scalpel, what Thatcher had at her disposal was a bludgeon.

Both however found their respective ways of pouring oceans of libidinal energy into a politics at once populist and authoritarian.

The less well-off amongst her supporters were effectively defrauded by Thatcher, as is starting to happen to those of the Orange Swindler.  Whether this is undertaken by a scalpel or a bludgeon does not matter in the end.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.