Six months have now passed since Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States and, whilst this may be a short time in the scheme of things, already enough evidence exists for a reasonably informed view of the shape of Trump White House. Aggregating the rhetoric, the views and the policies of the 45th President over this time, what emerges is certain singularity; the moment at which political and corporate America collided to form a mass in which neither part is any longer distinguishable from the other.
It could be that this was inevitable. The relationship between the purse strings and power is as long as the existence of both institutions. Money is, after all, the lubricant of politics for both good and evil. No war has been fought nor stable democracy built without being underpinned by a steady supply of cash. The pursuit and acquisition of it has been the obsession of monarchs, despots and statesmen throughout human history, even Marx recognised that the ‘control of the means of production’ was the sine qua non of his socialist vision. Inevitable then that, at some point that the two should become one; Trump is no longer the President of America but its CEO.
However, whilst Trump may merely be an expression of the unstoppable march of capital, it may also be that he is the living embodiment of the moment the tide turned. Rather than being a joint venture between commerce and politics, is this the moment in fact when, in capitalist parlance the big fish ate the little fish? Rather than simply greasing the wheels, capital has become the engine itself.
Trump’s style, as head of the Board, would seem to suggest this. There is an essential difference between a political decision and a commercial one and it’s not one of style or necessarily of outcome, but of motive. Whilst politics is riven with examples to the contrary, broadly the point of politics in a democracy is to make decisions for the common good. By contrast boardroom decisions are made for the sole purpose of profit. This may, from time to time, include the common good, but when it does it almost an accidental benefit. Pleasing customers is seldom about what’s good for them in any kind of social sense.
Trumps politics, if indeed there be such a thing, must surely be seen through the lens of his life to date. Whilst not exactly starting from ground zero (his father was a wealthy man) Trump has amassed a personal fortune somewhere where between three and ten billion dollars depending on whether you believe the IRS or the Trump PR machine. There have, of course been wealthy Presidents before. In fact, although the research would suggest that there is no real direct correlation between campaign spend and electoral success, when looking at the numbers, having a few quid seems to go with the territory.
At quick glance at the ‘wealthy President’ chart (after taking out Trump, who sits at the top by some considerable distance) the source of wealth for top ten is revealing. Four (Washington, Jackson, Jefferson and Madison) made money from the slave economy, Kennedy and the two Roosevelts inherited it, Lyndon Johnson made some smart moves with his broadcasting business but could hardly be called an entrepreneurial big hitter and Clinton made it standing in front of an auto-cue machine. Leaving Hoover making shrewd and well-informed decisions in mining1.
In this context Trump is exceptional. Apart from his enormous wealth, he has no background in any of the traditional routes to the White House. His education at the New York Military Academy could hardly be said to constitute a military career, he has no legal background not did he go to any of the Ivy League Schools. His tertiary education was at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania for the slight grubby reason that it was one of the few schools with a real estate studies; grubby that is, when compared to more ‘nobler’ disciplines such as the Law.
The Donald Trump Brand
Compared to past Presidents, Trump is not so much a man as a brand; a concept forged in the fire of real estate and the licensing of the Trump name. You don’t get as good as Trump without knowing a thing or two about marketing; real profits come from appealing to consumers’ emotions. The marketer’s sweet spot is the moment at which consumers declare that they don’t care about the price, they just ‘had to have it’. The moment, of course, when reason files out of the window – and it’s just this that lies at the heart of the Trump political machine.
His Presidential campaign was a study in marketing perhaps encapsulated most perfectly when he hired that arch champion of emotional rhetoric, Nigel Farage. Standing before a Trump rally, fresh and flush from his utterly irrational Brexit victory, Farage repeated the phrase that had so whipped up the Brits by referring to the audience as ‘decent, ordinary people’. A brilliant, double-edged notion straight out of the Josef Goebel book of public relations.
Here’s the calculus:
- By referring to you as decent, ordinary people I show my respect for you
- By referring to you as decent, ordinary people I acknowledge what you believe yourselves to be – for who would consider themselves otherwise?
- By referring to you as decent, ordinary people I imply that there is another group of people who are neither decent and nor ordinary (could these be the inhabitants of Donald’s swamp? Of course!)
- By referring to you as decent, ordinary people I know it’s a total lie, I know that most of you are a bunch of self-seeking scoundrels who would love nothing more than to live in the ‘swamp’ but boy oh boy, do I have your attention, your hearts and your loyalty.
The essential difference between political and marketing rhetoric is that, whilst the former must acknowledge that there is a colour grey, the latter deals only in black and white. In their seminal work on branding (Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind) Al Ries and Jack Trout see the human mind as having a series of ‘holes’ into which you can fit ideas and, furthermore, once the hole is filled there is no space for any other. So that Coca Cola is the ‘ultimate’ brand, Rolex the ‘superior’ brand, Ben & Jerry’s the ‘caring’ brand, Evian the ‘purity’ brand and Donald Trump, the ‘drain the swamp’ brand.
Developing this idea, Trump spins us that Mexicans are the ‘lazy’ brand, Arabs are the ‘terrorist’ brand, women are the ‘I only have a c***t’ brand and climate change scientists are the ‘bleeding heart’ brand. What works for Coca Cola works for Donald and so on marches brand Trump.
What world do we want?
Is this really the world we want? If we consider the astonishing success of market capitalism, even if it may be a case of be careful what you wish for, then perhaps the answer is yes. The trouble is the world now appears to fall into two camps, those who are enjoying the fruits of the market and those that want to. For those of us who have either wittingly or unwittingly participated in the consumerist game Donald Trump is our high priest, the capitalist prophet riding on a Buraq of ever rising stock values.
There is, of course, another group. Donald Trump’s most reviled enemies – Islam. Whilst this blog is no apologist for the bigotry of political Islam nor the prejudices of Sharia law, it’s possible that, by looking deeply into the issues that have allowed ISIS to flourish, we may find the cause of our ills and a possible source of salvation; an idea which is developed in depth and persuasively in ‘The Age of Anger’ by Pankaj Mishra. In it Mishra argues that the ‘one world’ that global capitalism has created strips us of our identity and deprives us of any spiritual dimension to our lives, where the word spiritual had no religious implications but covers a broader definition in which fulfilment in life requires both physical and spiritual nourishment in equal measure.
There are two quotations that Mishra’s uses in his book that encapsulate the problem here. The first taken Goethe’s ‘Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship’ and the second from Friedrich Schiller.
“Man is born to fit into a limited situation; he can understand simple, close and definite purposes and he gets used to employing the means which are near at hand; but as soon as he goes any distance, he knows neither what he will nor what he should be doing.”
“The Enlightenment and science had given an ‘intellectual education’ to man but left undisturbed his ‘inner barbarian’ which only art and literature could redeem.”
Goethe, the great figure of the German Romantic movement, points out to us the importance of scale in human affairs and, by implication, the folly inherent in too much ambition; ambition that fatally dumped Daedalus into the Aegean. Schiller echoes Rousseau in observing the short-comings of a life based on pure reason.
ISIS’s recruitment appeal through North Africa and the Middle East is aimed at those caught up in this double jeopardy. Disillusioned by the direction of travel towards a materially based consumer economy and finding themselves unable to see a horizon in their world, thousands have flocked to the comfort of their religion, not so much for what it says but what it represents for them. The majority of us who encounter religion do so first in our childhood which, by definition, is an age of innocence and an age without personal responsibility. Finding yourself cast adrift in a world where there is nothing but uncertainty a regression to the havens of childhood is compelling.
But Schiller offers an alternative in ‘art and literature’. Put baldly like this there are rather high-brow and exclusive connotations which may give a somewhat pejorative edge to the idea. But Schiller is not suggesting that we all go to the Opera. He is hinting at what Rousseau recognised as a lone voice in an Enlightenment storm; that without taking pause from the material world, the world of Trump and profit, to consider our environment and our place in it, we will suffer. Then to soothe the anxieties that arise from being the only living thing in the known universe that can consider our non-existence, to enjoy the transcendent effects created by Art in all its guises.
Trumps world may not be the world we want but is certainly the world we have created and the one which will endure until we wish for another. This is a world in which we dump the cult of self and once again acquire a social conscience. The world gave us the NHS in 1948 rather than the world in which Trump strangles Medicaid.
Facebook may connect us but it does not bind us together. It’s only when we recognise that the forty character sound bite of Twitter has none of the poetic power of a Haiku but all the guile of baseless rhetoric, that we will begin to have a vision of a better world. A world run by politicians with a social conscience and with the courage to make unsavoury decisions that will benefit all of us. It’s not impossible but it does require a collective will.
1. Oddly, of the top ten, only two were out and out Republicans (Hoover and Roosevelt T), five were Democrats (Roosevelt F, Kennedy, Johnson, Clinton and Jackson), two (Jefferson and Madison) were both and Washington was neither.
Abraham Lincoln, arguably the greatest of all Presidents, was one of the poorest.