Two weeks ago I called this the Ceiling-Feeling Election. Without taking anything away from that pungent analysis, this election also represents a triumph of late capitalism beyond anything we’ve seen before.
For decades, people argued over the idea that a businessperson could run the country better than a “professional politician.” Ross Perot attracted 20% of 1992’s voters with that pitch. Michael Bloomberg became mayor of New York in 2001 with a related rationale. Carly Fiorina gave it a go this year. But until this election, our businesspersons – like George W. Bush and Mitt Romney – were also politicians prior to their securing a major-party nomination. So did business triumph?
Rhetorically, Trump and his surrogates have made running against “professional politicians” a centerpiece of their campaign, far more than the subject was raised in the summer. No doubt it polls well.
One problem we have is that Trump may be a bad businessman – it’s hard to tell, since he won’t tell. If a more credible businessman like Jack Welch or Mark Zuckerberg were to get as far as Trump, that might provide a better answer to the question Do Americans Want a Businessman in the Oval Office?
On the other hand, Trump’s candidacy does represent a triumph of post-modern capitalism.
Walter Benjamin wrote one of the most lauded, scrutinized, and influential essays of the 20th century when he wrote “Post-Modernism or the Logic of Late Capitalism.” One difference between capitalism and late capitalism is that with the latter, the effects of capitalism have metastasized into ways of life previous thought impermeable to intrusion.
In his every word and deed, Trump suggests that all relationships are transactional. His book “The Art of the Deal,” shaped into a political campaign, implies that every policy suggestion is a negotiation – if we can’t get a 50-foot 1000-mile wall at the Mexican border, perhaps we’ll get a 25-foot 500-mile one. On some level, that’s not crazy.
However, Trump seems to have replaced every long-held moralism with materialism. If the countries in NATO aren’t paying their “fair share,” whatever that is, let’s cut them off. If Korea and Japan and the Saudis might want to buy some nukes, maybe we should sell them some. This is returning geo-politics to the height of the Dutch East Indies Company empire: mercantilism over ethics.
In the old days of the Cold War, we stood for something even when the financial cost was high: freedom, liberty. Yes, that freedom often looked like capitalism; yes, we often defended capitalism. But not always. Kennedy and Reagan would have paid billions to tear down the Berlin Wall. Now Trump’s supporters want to put up a big wall. That’s not freedom, that’s isolationism. It might make sense from a capitalist perspective (and it might not), but it certainly isn’t what the Federalist Society has been talking about for these many decades.
These days, we see screens everywhere (like the gas station, or the supermarket) and thus commercials everywhere; we’re all becoming NASCAR drivers with corporate patches on our clothes. The only question now is: what can you do for me? Religion and community for their own sake are meh. TV/social media is our religion, because it’s so customized. The so-called “long tail” has triumphed: we believe we deserve exactly what we want. Mint chip won’t do, it has to be mint chip with just the swirl I expect.
It feels like Trump is both riding the “long tail” hurricane and getting displaced by it. On the one hand, in 16 GOP debates he spoke the language of the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately crowd, blaming both parties for the Iraq war and other problems. The two major parties are what Silicon Valley upstarts gleefully call “legacy brands.” They want your loyalty based on the fact that they’ve always had it. Running against Republicans but as a Republican, Trump had to thread a needle, a bit like New Coke. We’re the same as 100 years of tradition, but different! How did that work out for New Coke again?
The other thing is, if we can get exactly what we want, why should we want Trump? Or Clinton? At least, that’s the thinking of people voting for Jill Stein (Green) and Gary Johnson (Libertarian). And who knows, Trump’s divide-and-conquer strategy may pay off in the end. It’s like America is being asked to choose between New Coke and Pepsi, while real Coke (Obama) isn’t on the ballot. Of course Dr. Pepper and A&W will draw a few votes, but either New Coke or Pepsi have to win…right?
Whether or not Trump becomes President, he’s shown us for who we are: capitalists in every facet. The two major parties, stuck as legacy brands, face a choice that they don’t even yet seem aware of: become even more transactional, or try to actually appeal to something moral, to the better angels of our nature. I hope at least one of those two parties chooses the latter.