Sometimes symbolism rings a bell that straight non-fiction cannot, and where humor, as in Mel Brook’s “The Producers,” approaches the unmentionable and provides some sense of release or comfort. Such is the case here, Mar-a-Lago. Trump’s Southern White House, in Palm Beach, is a veritable termitarium (a termites’ nest) of extreme, and heretofore somewhat concealed, wealth that is is now coming out of the woodwork.
We owe to Trump what Veblen, C. Wright Mills, and countless radical critics of America’s class-and-power system, had not successfully revealed: the raw guts of oligarchy, with accompanying authoritarian values, always in process of formation and taking cohesive form by, say, the early 1950s, a period coinciding with commencement of the Cold War in earnest. (War, hot or cold, is an ideal setting for, and helps to reinforce, the process of wealth concentration.) This is not a matter of simple political confrontation at a particular stage of global imperialism.
Rather, America’s ascendance occurs, of course, in the changing environment of world revolution, with Russia and China as vanguard socialist political economies (and Third World nations industrializing and seeking common ground) over what was and still is perceived as ideological differences (even with the evisceration of Russian and Chinese socialism). Instead of intracapitalist imperialism, in the aftermath of World War II America defined a new stage of imperialism through adopting a global counterrevolutionary posture, applicable to capitalism and socialism alike: a march against history itself. America was in the game of unilateral capitalist world dominance, itself in this process nothing less than pre-eminent, from the start and here on out.
Yet Mel Brooks notwithstanding, this is no laughing matter, indeed, just as Trump is not your garden-variety would-be dictator who surfaces every generation or so, as in a figure out of Sinclair Lewis or Robert Penn Warren. He is the genuine article, not only in his own right but what he brings to the table: haute capital, brazen, claiming its alleged due of decision-making rights, prescriptively tuned to war, aggression, hegemony.
Brooks’s SS-lovelies, dancing in black leather (as seen in the overhead shot) in swastika formation, is a scene that is no match for reality, each announcement from Washington signaling the further dismantlement of democratic government, leaving the people vulnerable, unprotected, ripe for exploitation. The result, under the mantra of privatization as an absolute good (and token of liberty), is a Nazi polity in pseudo-Jeffersonian garb. That is, the announced purpose is to reduce, to the point of destruction, a viable public sector by cutting government—except for the military—to the bone.
Mar-a-Lago, both as symbol and fact, nicely summarizes where, with Trump’s election, the nation is at. His election is not determinative per se, only that, because it happened, it reveals the state of mind which indicates the American predisposition to fascism. (What else could such an election signify, even rejecting Hillary Clinton, Cold Warrior, servant of Wall Street, par excellence, as insufficiently reactionary and no real match for Trump?)
Whether confirmatory, aspirational, or still latent, this fascistic identity, pushing outward now from domestic to foreign policy, has been a long-term trend beginning with the crystallization of industrial wealth, the gradual filling out of finance capitalism, and a more assertive foreign policy, all in the generation after the Civil War. By World War I and the attempted conquest of the Russian Revolution, The Donald could already be perceived in the distance, as only a matter of time.
Mar-a-Lago in itself is hardly new, a gathering place for industrial and financial wealth to be placed historically alongside Bar Harbor, White Sulphur Springs, and other enclaves, watering holes, etc., nor is it even now a centralized locus of wealth in America. It is not central HQ for a unified, necessarily tightly cohesive, ruling group, itself not having yet shaken down to such an outcome. But it is a microcosm of the future.
Currently, as in some examples given below, it reflects the middle stratum, members, guests, visitors, of extreme wealth and upper-class formation, those, mostly active, near the top of megapower, with cross-sectional flow of visitation rights and consanguineous relations directed to incorporating the American military into the power structure. Wealth concerns class dominance; its militarization concerns fascism.
I do not denigrate the majesty of haute capitalism in my focus here on the middle stratum of the top tier of societal wealth and power, for it is from these ranks that further cohesion and cementing of identity occurs. Trump embodies the structural process at work, and he has already entered the danger zone of, if not irreversible social change, then at least an accelerated trend toward a totalitarianism difficult by this point to dislodge. Meanwhile, Democrats (and radicals, as well) are left picking daisies in a field of dreams, dreams already being nudged rightward through decades-old pressures of Reaction.
Here I draw on an excellent article (so far as it goes) in The Times (2-19) by Nicholas Confessore, Maggie Haberman, and Eric Lipton, “A Look at Mar-a-Lago’s Members, With a Front-Row Seat to History,” the latter an unwitting testimony to the qualitative change occurring in America today, and still opposed by Democrats in conventional political terms, rather than, as needed, unceremonious opposition to the grave danger facing the Republic. Chuck Schumer may be cardboard opposition, to be steamrolled over just as were Hitler’s critics during Weimar and subsequently. He is not alone in this regard.
The scene is idyllic, Kushner, “by the beachside soft-service ice cream machine,” Bannon, “on the dining patio,” while Trump “could stop by your table for a quick chat.” However, “you will have to pay $200,000 for the privilege [of the chat]—and the few available spots are going fast.” Why the hefty entrance fee (not including annual dues)? Wealth attracts wealth and the window is opened, cocktails and dancing for assured background of worthiness and respectability, to one-on-one influence peddling (a phrase once derived from a slightly more innocent time, a hegemonic class structure not yet in place or getting there).
Yes, idyllic, free from riff-raff (aka radicals) where negotiation is only less important than the identity of the negotiators—a burgeoning class of Billionaires stamped essentially from the same mold and holding the same outlook. “Virtually overnight,” here Trump “has entertained a foreign head of state [PM Abe], health care industry executives and other presidential guests”—and this, only into the first four weeks of his presidency.
The reporters are not reticent in their description (plutocracy and conflict of interest are not mentioned explicitly but patently obvious): “Trump’s gatherings … have also created an arena for potential political influence rarely seen in American history: a kind of Washington steakhouse on steroids, situated in a sunny playground of the rich and powerful, where members and their guests enjoy a level of access that could elude even the best-connected of lobbyists.”
In fact, we are beyond the level of lobbyists as though an unnecessary intermediate level, when, as the mark of the new cohesion forming at the top, wealth can talk face-to-face to itself, shorn of all sense of wrongdoing, sordidness, or illegality. Fascism is thereby made to appear respectable, the advantage of a common setting, in which the State and Capitalism have become integrated, and a mature site for the reception of the military factor as an essential component of the whole.
Who’s around this past weekend, according to the news report? In addition to the retinue Trump has already gathered, an influential elite from family (nepotism?) and bureaucratic appointments (approved and prospective), there were undoubtedly present, drawn from “the club’s nearly 500 paying members,” an assortment that includes “dozens of real estate developers, Wall Street financiers, energy executives [a growing center of power and interest in the administration] and others whose businesses could be affected by [and could affect] Mr. Trump’s policies.”
This by itself does not constitute a ruling group, but centripetal forces are at work to winnow down the chaff (wannabe Trump developers) and provide through the consolidation process a strategic core of power-wielders, especially as from such decisive areas as defense and energy, capable of defining the makings of a ruling class attuned and inclined to the need and desirability for a fascist polity. I didn’t call the roll, so some may have been elsewhere, but I note Koch, “who oversees a major mining and fuels company,” and—a new one to me—“the billionaire trader Thomas Peterffy, who spent more than $8 million on political ads in 2012 warning of creeping socialism in America.”
Then there is Janet Weiner, “part owner and chief financial officer of the Rockstar energy drink company, which has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying federal officials to avoid tighter regulations on its products.” Nothing sinister here, just business as usual, a glimpse of which can be seen in the interview of Trump’s son, Eric, who “rejected suggestions that his family was offering access to his father and profiting from it. First, he said, only 20 to 40 new members are admitted per year, and second, the wealthy business executives who frequent the club, among others, have many ways to communicate with the federal government if they want to.”
Eric is right, for that is a useful description of the interpenetration of business and government, except that now two-way access is greatly facilitated, accelerated, and structuralized, already seen in the Trump presidency and its Cabinet selections (and Supreme Court nominee, a self-admitted junior Scalia), intentionally chosen to destroy the workings of the departments they will be administering. Conflicts of interest? Impossible in the new dispensation, for as Hope Hicks, a White House spokesperson, explains, “federal law exempts [the president] from provisions prohibiting federal employees from taking actions that could benefit themselves financially.” POTUS, in sum, is above, or rather is, the law.
And like Eric, she, too, is right. Personal enrichment, for Trump, is small potatoes in a position such as this; for now he can dedicate himself to the ideological construction and defense of a systemic framework of wealth aggrandizement. (Opponents, regrettably, still focus more on his personal enrichment through worldwide holdings, than on the harm he can do in the transmogrification of the American polity.) This is not government as we once knew it; Mar-a-Lago is a private preserve of vested wealth: “But unlike the real White House, it has no public access, and no official visitor log is available.” The press corps covering Trump “were housed during part of the trip in a room whose windows had been covered with black plastic.”
Perhaps soon, the entire nation will be covered in black plastic. For the elite, which pretty much defines the membership, this does not apply, and a camaraderie prevails in which the president “might seek guidance on a major government project the way another New Yorker might ask around for a good orthopedist.” Such is the community of wealth and friendship drawing together. Berchtesgaden? I may exaggerate for now, but it may also be a matter of time before its full consummation. Fascism, American style, does not have to replicate the German model, accomplishing the internalization of restraint and obedience of society as a whole, instead, through other means, such as the projection of an enemy inside or outside the gates. What is certain is that democracy presently is not putting up much of a fight.