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Trump’s Leadership: the Apotheosis of a Neoliberal Imperial Culture

Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of a former imperial power, is remembered for saying that there is no alternative to capitalism. Thatcher had her counterpart in Ronald Reagan, a past President of a current empire. Both were avid cheerleaders for and promoters/exporters of neoliberal capitalism, not simply within their respective borders, but also to other nations. Lest one think that neoliberal capitalism is cause celeb for only Republican leaders, we need only turn to Bill Clinton and Barak Obama. Clinton was an enthusiastic neoliberal leader, gutting welfare, establishing NAFTA, and axing the protections of the 1932 Glass-Steagall Act, which exacerbated the financialization of the economy and the subsequent economic crisis of 2007. When Obama entered the White House, he chose Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers as advisors. Both were economists with close ties to Wall Street. While Obama can be lauded for the Affordable Care Act and the corresponding increase of people with access to affordable healthcare, it should be noted that the single payer option never had a seat at the table in deciding how to make healthcare available to all. It was a neoliberal table set for and by corporations. Thus, there was an echo of Thatcherism in Obama’s approach to healthcare. So, we have had Democrats and Republican leaders who have endorsed neoliberal culture and capitalism. When we consider Donald Trump it would appear to be more of the same, yet Trump is different from his predecessors. While Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Obama supported neoliberalism, they were primarily formed to be politicians in a representative democracy. To be sure, they were shaped by the beliefs and principles of neoliberal culture, but, except for George W. Bush, they did not come from the business world. Trump has spent all of his adult life in business and the media. He has been formed by and operated within a neoliberal capitalist culture and it is questionable about how much he has learned to be a politician in a business milieu that is fundamentally non-democratic. More specifically, in a neoliberal culture that seeks to produce entrepreneurial subjects Trump is the archetype, the spokesperson, the epitome. He embodies, represents, and assists in the production of neoliberal culture and governance.

All leaders, to some extent, must represent and reproduce their culture, otherwise citizens would find it difficult to understand and follow them. Trump is simply the clearest version of neoliberal culture, leaving one to ask, what is a neoliberal culture and what are the problems with having an archetype of this culture lead us? Our neoliberal culture emerged out of liberalism and its confrontation with German, Italian, and Soviet totalitarian regimes. The core beliefs of liberalism are individual freedom, rational self-interest, moral autonomy, equal rights, secularism, and the rule of law. These beliefs were initially understood in relation to political institutions and sovereignty, though the rise of neoliberalism in the 20th century resulted in significant changes. The market, not political institutions or political sovereignty, became the defining interpretive framework for these beliefs. Rational self-interests became economic self-interests. Political freedom morphed into economic freedom. Instead of the state forming citizens, the state serves the market and together they form not citizens but consumers and entrepreneurs—fitted for the market and not a representative democracy. Put differently, the goal of governance for neoliberal market society is, Thomas Lemke argues, to “construct responsible subjects whose moral quality is based on the fact that they rationally assess the costs and benefits of a certain act as opposed to other alternative acts” (in Dean, 2009, p.52).

A neoliberal culture possesses private, corporate, and governmental institutions that engage in practices that reproduce these beliefs. Indeed, these neoliberal beliefs become ubiquitous and for many unquestionable—the dogma of “there is no alternative to capitalism.” And when neoliberal beliefs are questioned, individuals are usually attacked in the media or ignored. Political and economic leaders and their respective organizations support, foster, and, if need be, defend this neoliberal culture. Directly or indirectly citizens are repeatedly told that capitalism is sacrosanct, an indisputable fact, an unshakeable truth—a truth that ontologizes the market.

In one sense, it is not surprising that in a neoliberal culture a business man, without ever holding political office, would end up being president. I have heard more than one person say that Trump could be an effective president because he is a business man who can run the business of government or make it run more like a business. Sentiments like these are evidence of just how far neoliberal capitalism has become a hegemon in society. Of course, there is some truth in what they said, but the truth comes by way of a neoliberal transformation of government into a servant not of the people and their individual freedom (early liberalism), but of the market and the freedoms of corporations qua persons. Trump is not really the president as much as he is CEO of the government largely bought and paid for by corporations. It is no accident or surprise that Trump’s cabinet is the richest in U.S. history—ostensibly claiming to look out for the little guy.

Before delving into the specifics of the neoliberal capitalist archetype, I wish to say more about how this archetype represents an identity that belies the separation of powers and separation of church and state as set forth by the framers of the Constitution. In terms of the state, the framers believed that a concentration of power would lead to tyranny. Ideally, the three branches of government were to be separate and equal. Power would be balanced, given their respective spheres of responsibility, and each branch would serve as a check to the other branches. They also feared tyranny that comes in the form of state religion, hence the separation of church and state reflected in the Establishment Clause, Free Exercise Clause, and the First Amendment. Identity, in terms of the concentration of power in the government or church-state fusion, is a recipe for something other than democracy. What we see in Trump is a movement toward an identity between corporations, the Executive, Legislative, and now Judicial Branches. Neoliberal governance is achieved when these three branches represent corporate interests and economic freedom at the expense of the freedom, well-being, and sovereignty of the demos. The façade of democratic governance and the three branches screens what Sheldon Wolin (2008) called inverted totalitarianism wherein political-economic power is spread over, though concentrated in, government and non-government institutions (e.g., corporations and lobby groups) and leaders. Add to this the religious aspects of neoliberal capitalism (Frank, 2000; Nelson, 2001) and we have a national religion where there is no separation between the church of capitalism and the state. Trump, as president, is the corporate chief of this morass of power that undermines the demos. Perhaps, we should have a constitutional amendment indicating that there should be a separation between capitalism and the state. While people are rightly afraid of the collapse of the separation of church and state, they should be frightened by the identity of capitalism and the state, which is epitomized in the election of a neoliberal capitalist to the Office of the President.

There are four features of Trump as an archetype of neoliberal culture/capitalism. The entrepreneurial subject focuses on successfully pursuing his/her self-interests, cooperating with others when they are seen to advance these self-interests and fighting those who are seen as obstacles. Trump has spent decades in business relentlessly and aggressively pursuing and advancing his economic self-interests. He has gone so far as to make himself a brand—identity as commodity. His opportunism is legendary. Staying within the law, as far as we know, he has pushed the limits like any good neoliberal who abhors regulations and protections because they impede maximizing profits. Exaggerating, bullying, lying, and obfuscating are mere tactics in achieving his aims. All of these are licit in a neoliberal capitalist culture where the end (profit) justifies the means. If past is prologue, a man who has spent his life focused on pursuing his self-interests is not likely to change when becoming president. In other words, Trump’s quest for and occupation of the Office of President must be understood as yet one more illustration of his pursuit of his self-interests and the furthering of his brand. The tactics he used in business to market himself and achieve greater economic success are present in the Oval Office. Some people claim he is a pathological liar, but it more likely that he lies (and bullies) to advance his self-interests.

Consider the fact that under pressure from various sources, Trump had to find legal means of handing over his business. Initially, he had no intention of doing so, believing he was exempt to continue to advance his economic self-interests while serving as Commander and Chief. Later, he finally agreed, but not to divest from his business, like previous presidents, but rather to hand it over to his sons. Clearly, this indicates not only someone who is not concerned with appearances of being ethical. More importantly, this demonstrates that self-interest is his primary consideration in being president. As an archetype of a neoliberal subject, I am not sure if Trump is actually capable of serving the interests of the public, unless those interests coincide with his own.

A second feature of the neoliberal archetype that Trump takes to the extreme is responsibility. In a neoliberal culture individuals are responsible for their economic successes or failures. Trump sees himself as responsible for success, overlooking or denying how he has exploited others and used the system to further his profits. Interestingly, though, Trump seems incapable of taking responsibility for his failures. He used the tool of bankruptcy to cover his economic losses, but he did not interpret them as failures. Over the years I have known a number of people who went through bankruptcy, all of them feeling tremendous shame and guilt. I have doubts that Trump experienced any of these emotions when he filed for bankruptcy several times. The market fails, he does not. Trump reminds me of the character Willy Loman—a man who constantly exaggerates his success and who is unwilling to face squarely his failures. Of course, Trump’s retreat into fantasy and braggadocio, like Willy Loman, may simply be a strategy he uses to maintain the image of his brand, but unfortunately he does not seem capable of differentiating between his brand and the Office of the President of the United States. I suspect that his continual refusal to acknowledge mistakes as President indicates that for Trump the image is at one with the office. In terms of taking responsibility, Trump, if he was to read Harry Truman’s quip, “the buck stops here,” would place the buck in his pocket, oblivious to its meaning.

The third aspect of the entrepreneurial subject is that it is infinitely pliable, following the flow of capital. Trump is pliable in more ways than one. He has business interests in over 20 countries suggesting a willingness to follow the profits, like any business person. But he is also flexible with the truth and facts, as we have seen in his campaign and in office. Alternative facts, dismissing news media as enemies of the people (except for right wing media), frequent switching positions on campaign promises, stretching the limits of the Constitution (emoluments clause) and ethics rules, are just a few examples of someone who is so morally flexible that it is difficult to see if he has any morals at all. Of course, this fits well in a neoliberal culture where financial success is touted and morality seen as an obstacle—regulation that unduly hinders the hidden hand of the market. One might argue that Trump does have morals in the sense of making money, but that would be to confuse morality with mere business acumen.

The final feature of a neoliberal capitalist archetype is anti-democratic character. Business organizations are hierarchical with power in the hands of top management and in particular the CEO. Of course, many corporations have boards and they gather the votes of stockholders at the annual meetings, but these “votes” are weighted by how many shares one owns. Also, in the day to day operations, the CEO rules, though this rule is partially limited by regulations and laws that are aimed to prevent egregious actions (e.g., sexual harassment). This power is even more concentrated when one owns the business. It is not simply that Trump has never held a political office, it is that he has been involved in non-democratic institutions. When people say that he is authoritarian, I understand that to mean he is an entrepreneurial archetype who exercises power the way he operated his business. Moreover, in his business the art of the deal and winning for oneself and one’s company are paramount, which conflicts with the power of the demos where one needs to be willing to compromise to achieve something for the common good.

Elected leaders, especially presidents, ideally represent and live out the democratic ideals that founded this nation. Indeed, presidents, even while furthering the aims of a superpower, generally tout the values of democracy, insuring that the Office of the President is not on the surface tarnished by the underlying authoritarian hierarchical tendencies of imperialism and capitalism. With the election of Trump, presidential leadership is becoming ever more entangled in the web of neoliberal culture/capitalism. Trump’s leadership represents the worse of this anti-democratic culture that ignores the common good while furthering the interests of the political-economic elite.

References

Dean, J. (2009). Democracy and other neoliberal fantasies. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Frank, T. (2000). One market under God: Extreme capitalism, market populism, and the end of economic democracy. New York: Anchor Books.

Nelson, R. (2001). Economics as religion. University Park: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Wolin, S. (2008). Democracy incorporated. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Ryan LaMothe is a professor of pastoral care and counseling. He has written six books and numerous articles in the areas of psychoanalysis, politics, and pastoral theology. His forthcoming book is Care of Polis, Care of Souls: Toward a Political Pastoral Theology.

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