Loyalty to the Don

Photo by Chairman of the Joint Chief | CC BY 2.0

Secretary of State Scott Tillerson nailed it: his boss is “a fucking moron”; Donald Trump is a world-class embarrassment too.

But this hardly makes him stand out.  Is there a Republican politician at any level of government who is not a moron and an embarrassment?   And don’t most Democrats, especially the prominent ones, fall under the same description?   Federal and state courts, up to and including the Supreme Court, have their share of morons and embarrassments too.  Trump has lately been adding to their numbers, but there were already plenty even before the tabloids discovered that he made good copy.

The difference is not just that Trump is worse than most of the others, though he surely is.   It is that, in virtue of the powers presidents have, he is more dangerous; indeed, it would be fair to say that he is, by far, the most dangerous man on earth.  Imagine a troubled teenager with a gun or a middle-aged Stephen Paddock with an arsenal of automatic weapons.  This is many times worse.

Nevertheless, there are millions of Americans, perhaps as many as thirty percent of the electorate, who stubbornly refuse to take this fact on board.

They are flooding the Republican National Committee with money, far more than their counterparts in the so-called “resistance.”  According to The Washington Post, of the $68 million that the RNC had taken in by the end of August, more than $40 million came in donations of $200 or less.

Could so many people really believe that their hard-earned money will be used to  “drain the swamp?”  Could Fox and Breitbart and talk radio shock jocks have made them that stupid?  That is almost as scary a thought as the ones that Trump’s presence conjures into being.

Everybody knows that “you can fool some of the people all of the time,” and that the United States has fools to spare.  Even so, it is surprising, and more than a little disheartening that so many of them are putting their money where their folly is.

But folly alone cannot explain the fervor of the most steadfast supporters of the most appalling president in modern American history.  Trump’s hardcore supporters may be foolish and stupid, but they aren’t all moral cretins.  I would hazard that many, maybe most, of them are aware at some level of the flaws in Trump’s character; and that even those who are not try to keep their children from acting out in the ways that Trump often does.

If they nevertheless back Trump with an almost cult-like fervor, it is because they hate what they think he hates, and because even the ones who realize what an asshole Trump is think that he is their asshole.  Their enemy’s enemy is their friend.

However, they are wrong – not to hate Clintonites (war-mongering, neoliberal imperialists) and what they stand for, but to think that the Donald shares their views.  Even at a cultural level, he is, at most, ambivalent about them.

He plainly yearns for the approval of the “bicoastal elites” pundits go on about.  It is true that, when it suits his purpose, he will deride latter-days version of Spiro Agnew’s “effete intellectual snobs,” and he is certainly no fan of  “political correctness.”   But it is also true that he craves admiration from people more refined than the patrons of his over-the-top hotels, resorts, and casinos.  The Donald’s tastes run towards the vulgar, but he wants the kinds of people who would never buy the schlock he and his children peddle to see him as one of their own.

He even used to crave admiration from Bill and Hillary Clinton.  It should surprise no one that, when it suited their purpose, they were willing to confer it.

Hardcore Trump supporters could care less.  They see what they want to see.

Just as there are still people who remain willfully blind to Barack Obama’s ties to Wall Street, people still standing by Trump fail to see that, notwithstanding his tweets and campaign bluster, their man is not only a populist poseur, but even more of a “capitalist tool” than his predecessor.

The capitalists Trump is keenest on serving are generally more odious than the ones who supported Obama, and he is not just their servant; he is one of them as well.  If anything, Trump is even more on the side of those who are bleeding working Americans – black, brown, and white – dry than Obama or Bush or, for that matter, those two unreconstructed epigones of the neoliberal turn, Bill and Hillary Clinton.

And yet, his marks don’t see it.  Instead, many of them actually believe that his aim is, as he says, “to drain the swamp.”

If, by that, they think that he favors workers over capitalists, they could hardly be more wrong.

If they think that the “swamp” is deleterious because it teems with predatory capitalists, and that Trump wants to save them from that, then shame on them.  With Trump and his family in the West Wing, some of the most detestable capitalists on earth now live in the White House itself.

But if they understand the “swamp” in the Steve Bannon sense, they arguably do have a point.

When Bannon explains his intentions, he talks about “deconstructing the administrative state.”  These are terms more commonly used by chowder-heads in highfalutin academic precincts than by “alt-right” (quasi-fascist) babblers; and it is far from clear what Bannon thinks they mean.  A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

But his general drift is clear enough.

The word “deconstruct” obfuscates more than it illuminates; depending on what Bannon and therefore Trump has in mind, “diminish” or “neuter” or even “eliminate” would be more on point.  What Trump, following Bannon, wants to do is weaken and, insofar as possible, dismantle government programs and institutions that serve the people, the better to enrich and empower people like him, his class brothers.

In a word, Trump wants to empower the swamp he rails against.  This is plain as day; and yet the fools in his base don’t see it.  How pathetic is that!

The short answer is – very.  But then, the obsequiousness of the high and mighty from whom Trump demands, and obtains, public displays of loyalty is worse.

This is not just a matter of their character flaws or his own, though it must be said that the willingness of self-promoters in the Trump orbit to abase themselves when they see a percentage in it truly is mind boggling, as is the degree of psychological insecurity and emotional immaturity that cause Trump to demand it of them.

Even so, the problem is of more than clinical interest.  Trump’s need for abject expressions of loyalty, and the readiness of people around him to indulge that need, shed light on a problem of great political moment: the legitimation crisis brought on by the increasingly transparent decadence of the American political system, and of the neoliberal world order which it superintends.

*                                              *

The virtue of a thing, according to Plato, is that which makes it perform its function well; thus speed is the virtue of a runner and sharpness of a knife.  Loyalty is the virtue of masters and subjects in feudal societies.

At the dawn of human history, there were primitive societies in which economically productive activity — hunting and gathering, mainly – yielded only a bare subsistence.  In such cases, there is no economic surplus and therefore no struggle over its appropriation.

Everywhere else – that is to say, in nearly all human societies everywhere from the time that settled agricultural production emerged – property rights regulated the production and distribution of wealth.  Thus class struggle, struggle over the control of productive assets and rights to appropriate the wealth they generate became, as Marx put it, the motor of history.

Before the emergence of distinctively capitalist social relations some four or five centuries ago, nearly every society on earth recognized property rights in human beings.   In one way or another, people owned other people.

In many instances, it is appropriate to describe the owners as “masters” and the people they owned as “slaves.”  Economic systems based on slavery were sustained both by violence and by beliefs about the naturalness of master-slave relations.

In many parts of Europe, as levels of economic activity declined in late Roman antiquity, property rights in persons were accordingly transformed; masters still demanded and received a share of the economic surplus that their underlings produced, but they no longer controlled productive labor directly.

This was the worldwide norm.  Most direct producers were peasants, not slaves, who controlled their own labor power and means of production, but who were obliged, even so, to turn over portions of the wealth they produced to feudal “lords.”

Nearly all societies that predate the modern era in which the majority of direct producers were peasants could be described as feudal in some respect.

For sustaining and reproducing feudal societies, the use or threat of force was generally less important than in societies based on outright slavery; and ideology – especially, religious ideology – was more important.  In Europe throughout the so-called Dark Ages, the Church was the cement of society.  There were functional equivalents all over the world.

Emerging capitalism ushered in modernity, which, in turn, established a secular understanding of civil society in which relations between persons, and between a people and its ruler, were based on mutually advantageous, hypothetical contracts, not divinely grounded obligations; and in which, in theory if not always in practice, the rule of law superseded the personal authority of masters and lords.

In economically and culturally backward quarters where the rule of law was precarious at best, and in more developed societies in which groups of persons chose, for whatever reason, to live outside the law to at least some extent, order was maintained by overt violence — in more or less the ways it had been in pre-capitalist societies.

This was inevitable because, without the benefit of divinely grounded fealties, there are limits to how well order based on loyalty can be maintained; and because what cannot be sustained by conviction can only be sustained by force.

  • *

When Trump held his first and so far only cabinet meeting last June, he presided over one of the weirdest spectacles in memory, as cabinet officers, many of them as rich or richer than Trump, regaled the Donald with flattery so obsequious that it was hard not to turn away in disgust.

Their professions of servility would have repulsed the two Don Corleones, father and son, in Parts One and Two, respectively, of The Godfather.  However, they would both have understood Trump’s need for deference and his strategy for obtaining it.

The fictional Dons earned their standing, in part, on their merits; they were wise leaders – keeping their friends close and their enemies closer, and they maneuvered their way through the underworld landscape with consummate skill.

Trump doesn’t have a wise bone in his body.

But he was like them in at least one respect – having grown up in his father’s house and having been mentored by miscreants like Roy Cohn and by sleaze-balls in the New York real estate world, he understood, as they did, that to come out on top, the appearance of strength is indispensable.  He also learned that moral constraints are nuisances at best, and that they should be ignored whenever following them would make him look weak.

The fictional Corleones would kill when they thought they needed to in order to establish and retain their power.  Unlike them, Trump doesn’t have it in him for the evil he does to rise to a similarly sublime level, but by giving free reign to his playground bully side, he gives a good approximation.

He has usually been able to get away with it until now because his enemies, unlike those the two Don Corleones dealt with are, wusses — little Marco Rubio types, easily put in their place.  Trump wouldn’t survive a minute against enemies as formidable as those the two fictional Dons had to deal with.  However, in the New York real estate world and in Washington D.C., he was able to do just fine: fooling some of the people all of the time, and all, or nearly all, of the people some of the time.

The Godfather dons were more impressive characters than our Don, and they were also more like true feudal lords.  As Mafiosi, they, like their counterparts around the world, had something like an ideology to fall back upon. Thus their power was not based on force alone, but on something rather like the legitimacy the Church conferred in medieval times.

Trump has nothing like that; all he has is money and a blowhard persona, slender reeds indeed.   And so, he lashes out in counter-productive ways.

If he really did care about anything beyond his own power and glory, the last people he would set out to humiliate are cabinet officers he deems insufficiently obsequious, and Republicans in the House and Senate upon whom he must rely.

Too bad for him that he is too much of a moron to grasp that simple truth.

The good news is that he has put himself in an impossible position that cannot endure for long.  That is the bad news too, inasmuch as the institutional power that comes with the office he holds confers upon him the power to do catastrophic harm, while his failings incline him, as his presidency founders, and as he self-“deconstructs,” to take the world down with him.

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).