Trump’s fakery will lead nowhere except to more government control, the exact opposite of what he claims to offer. Playing on nostalgia for a long-lost period of history the people will be bitterly disappointed. Erosion of wages and skills by globalisation and technology leaves us with no answers. Current bankrupt politics will have to be re-invented.
“We are Americans, and the future belongs to us” said Trump recently, echoing the German folk song, adapted in the 1972 film “Cabaret”, which was sung by an angelic member of the Hitler Youth to the adoring gazes of young and old in a beer garden.
At first idyllic, the song becomes more and more aggressive as people are caught in its emotion. Although the song was not an actual Nazi anthem, a cover version of it was later recorded by the openly white supremacist group Skrewdriver.
Hard to believe that Trump – or maybe his puppet master Bannon were unaware of the connection.
So, Trump deals in dreams, dreams of past greatness; ‘American dreams’ and ‘American greatness’, forget the 30% of Spanish speaking US Americans, or the fact that the US was built on immigration – a part of the identity of US Americans which was acknowledged by those who marched in protest against his anti-Muslim executive orders.
But what does ‘American Greatness’ – let’s give it capital letters – really mean? When was the US truly great?
Back in the 50s after the World War II and the defeat of fascism, and before the failed dreams of Vietnam, we can suppose. So, it is interesting to read one of the classic books reflecting on this period, Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders and see some of the quotes he collected from the ad-men.
On page 16 one of them observes ‘with fervour’: “What makes this country great is the creation of wants and desires, the creation of dissatisfaction with the old and outmoded”’.
And the shift towards marketing in politics is clear in the failed Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson’s remark in 1956 (on p.172): “The idea that you can merchandise candidates for high office like breakfast cereal …. is the ultimate indignity to the democratic process.” A pithy statement from before the era of soundbites.
Most of the book is a description of how the admen discovered that people don’t choose what to buy on the basis of values like efficiency or durability, but for subconscious psychological motives.
And they made a further discovery that advertising can nudge people into a buying decision by making the images of products appeal on this subconscious level. At the same time manufacturers realised that when there is little or nothing to distinguish one company’s product from another’s the whole dynamic shifts from the manufacturer to the consumer and the packaging of commodities.
An indication of how the use of depth psychology can degrade the citizen into a consumer is provided by the following insight: “The depth-wise soap maker, the report advised, will realise that many housewives feel they are engaged in unrewarded and unappreciated drudgery, when they clean.”
But the remedy is of course not political, instead the advertiser should carefully choose their images and packaging to “foster the wife’s feeling of worth and esteem” (p.63).
When Trump talks about making America great again, I imagine he doesn’t want to evoke this image of consumerism and superficiality, but rather to hint at something solid and respectable, when men were real men, women were real women who didn’t mind being ‘grabbed by the pussy’ by a real (rich) man, and Mexicans were ‘only good for leering round corners’ in movies, as someone once said.
The problem with Trump’s dream, of course, is that we are already in the nightmare land, the ‘society of the spectacle’ where people are just reflections of the commodities they buy, and all the real jobs he wants to repatriate will soon be replaced by robots.
Trumpism is global
Moving away from Trump, a bigger picture is offered by Mark Blyth who identifies two major reasons for Trumpish politics; the loss of jobs and skills due to globalization, and racism: take back control. This is not just Trump, it’s going on in Europe too.
It isn’t just about income it’s essentially about loss of status, on both counts: the skilled white working class who now see themselves as deprived of respect. And it’s job insecurity and being treated like a robot, and loss of public services. Likewise, for Brexit there is a very clear correlation of voting to leave with lower education – and hence lack of opportunity and control over life.
So, years of distrust of politicians and their lies lead people to authoritarian, simplistic and populist solutions.
Capitalism has changed enormously between the 1930s to the ‘50s the ‘70s and now. The recipe for leaving the Depression of the ‘30s was government investment leading to full employment, but over time, Blyth points out, the other result was a loss of the ability of the capitalist class to discipline their workforces by the threat of job losses. By the ‘70s this led to widespread industrial action and low investment. Since then, in the next phase of the cycle the capitalist class has responded by globalisation, driving down wages and creating massive job insecurity. And ideologically by attacking trade unions and appealing to competitive individualist sentiment in the electorate.
While through de-regulation, capital can move freely around the world, jobs in the developed nations cannot. Personal consumption for those on low incomes, can only continue through more borrowing.
This growing inequality, plus loss of parliamentary control leads to extremism on the left and the right, while the old centrist parties do their best to strangle the new ones.
Blyth sees the current situation as a debtors’ revolt against the creditors’ paradise: re-nationalise, anti-austerity, anti- globalisation, anti-Euro, anti-trade treaties.
Although the extreme right are distinguished by their attempts to blame immigrants and minorities for their problems, they are remarkably similar to the extreme left in their economic demands.
Relatively, there have been large gains for the poor in the developing world, and also the holders of international capital, but the working class and lower middle class in the developed world have found themselves slipping down the ladder and ignored by politicians.
Are there any solutions?
As Blyth summarizes the situation, there are few skilled jobs to bring back to the West, due to technological change, so this is a false claim of Trump’s. The digital revolution is already here – some of Blyth’s examples: the world’s biggest taxi company (Uber) owns no taxis; the world’s largest accommodation provider (AirBnB) owns no property; the most popular media owner (Facebook) creates no content.
Getting the rich to pay tax would be a good idea, but that is difficult because they own the politicians and much of the media.
The Keynesian solution adopted in the 1930s of government spending on infrastructure will have to be used, but unlike then it cannot create full employment.
It seems inevitable that we are moving towards a guaranteed income for all, which is already being trialled in Finland.
Sounds good, and we shall have to see, but here is an interesting final thought. In Tom Burgis’s book about Africa, “The looting machine”, he reverses the famous slogan from the US War of Indpendence ‘No taxation without representation’, pointing out that when a government does not depend on taxation it has no incentive to represent the people.
His example referred to countries where the government is so corrupt that it gains all its income from untaxed thieving by its own ministers and politicians, so the rest of the population can go to hell. But isn’t this just another version of huge income inequality, and isn’t the conclusion the same – those on universal income will depend on the government, but the reverse will absolutely not be true?