From Nixon to Trump: Metastases of Cultural Power
By Carl FreedmanJune 4, 2018
DONALD TRUMP SEEMS to be such an unusual figure to hold supreme executive power in a major nation-state — let alone in the world’s only superpower — that attempts to make sense of him have often involved comparisons with earlier political leaders. Nervous American liberals have (predictably) compared Trump to Hitler, while less excitable commentators have found more plausible parallels that range from Joseph Chamberlain in late 19th-century Britain to Silvio Berlusconi in early 21st-century Italy. But one parallel has been drawn considerably more frequently than any other. Comparisons of Trump with Richard Nixon have become so commonplace that it is now more or less settled conventional wisdom that the 45th president of the United States is the most Nixonian figure to hold that office since the 37th.
In some ways, the comparison may seem counterintuitive, for the clear differences between these two political personalities are numerous. Nixon (unusually for an electoral politician) was always shy and introverted, whereas Trump made a career as a tabloid and television star out of being brash and outgoing. Nixon, a shopkeeper’s son, came from the lower middle class, worked hard to rise above his origins, and maintained a steady personal enmity toward those born with great wealth (as well as toward the poor). Trump was born heir to one of the largest real estate fortunes in New York City and has never done a day’s compelled work in his life. Nixon was not only extremely bright but studious as well, a voracious reader of books about history and politics. Trump, by all accounts, is barely literate (though an avid consumer of cable-television news). He evidently does not read books at all, and those responsible for the daily written summaries of US intelligence prepared for the president’s consumption have found it necessary to make these texts very brief, filled with pictures, and liberally sprinkled with Trump’s own name in order to get him to pay any attention to them at all. At least in public, Nixon was (usually) a man of steely self-discipline. Trump’s lack of even the most basic self-control has quickly made him a national embarrassment and a global laughing-stock. For most of his career, Nixon was the ultimate Republican partisan, and by the 1960s he had come virtually to personify the Republican establishment. Trump’s capture of the 2016 Republican presidential nomination was effectively a hostile takeover by a businessman celebrity who had little previous involvement with the party whose leader he became; and, even after he became the Republican nominee and then the Republican president, Trump’s relations with the Republican establishment have been both tentative and wholly instrumental.
And yet the conventional wisdom is, in this instance, right after all: Trump’s presidency is, in certain ways, the most Nixonian since Nixon’s own. The deep affinity between the two has resonated with sufficient emphasis in the public mind to make itself widely felt despite the many evident differences between Nixon and Trump as individuals. Trump himself has seemed aware of the parallels and has done nothing to discourage comparisons with Nixon. True, Trump has never explicitly identified himself with the 37th president: sensibly enough, since, more than four decades after Nixon’s forced resignation and more than two decades after his death, his name is still generally associated with political disgrace. But Trump happily let it be known that his acceptance speech at the 2016 Republican Convention was based on Nixon’s corresponding speech in 1968; and Trump has eagerly helped himself to such prominent campaign shibboleths of Nixon’s 1968 race as “law and order” and “the silent majority.”
It seems to be no coincidence that several especially disreputable operatives who, in their youthful days, served Nixon — the late media advisor Roger Ailes, the political trickster Roger Stone — lived to serve Trump. Monica Crowley, who was Nixon’s final and perhaps most ardently devoted protégé — she was a research assistant and a kind of granddaughter figure to the former president in his last years, and after his death she published two books based on her conversations with him — became Trump’s first choice to be communications director of the National Security Council (though she was forced to withdraw after widespread reporting of her habit of plagiarism).
Exactly what were the things in Nixon’s career and political persona that have been echoed most powerfully in Trump’s? I have argued at some length in a previous book, The Age of Nixon: A Study in Cultural Power (2012), that Nixon’s political success was largely based on his ability to establish deep emotional ties with the American electorate: despite lacking the kind of sunny personal magnetism that characterized Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, or, to a lesser degree, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. Nixon’s appeal was of a darker and more downbeat sort; and yet it was, in its own way, hardly less effective. Whereas Roosevelt could inspire a nation mired in the horrors of the Great Depression by assuring voters that they had nothing to fear but fear itself — and whereas Reagan could convince a nation reeling from the economic “stagflation” and the foreign-policy humiliations of the 1970s that, under his governance, it was “morning in America” — Nixon’s message was that the dark night was fast approaching: a night from whose terrors he was particularly qualified to save us. Nixon arrived on the political scene during the Red Scare, when the United States was traumatized by the dislocations of the recent war and had yet to enter into the prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s. Fashioning himself as the echt anticommunist, the hitherto unknown small-town lawyer played so skillfully on fear that he was able, in 1946, to wrest a Congressional seat that had appeared safely Democratic from Jerry Voorhis, the popular, conventionally liberal, and also anticommunist incumbent.
Two decades later, Nixon won the presidency through an essentially similar strategy. By 1968, anticommunism had become a little passé in the United States. But there were plenty of other fears to be exploited in a nation attempting to deal with the unsettling new developments of the recent past: the political radicalism of the movement against the Vietnam War, which was fracturing the bipartisan Cold War consensus; the sexual revolution, which openly challenged behavioral mores that had been all but universally agreed to (if by no means universally practiced); the first insurgencies of second-wave feminism, which challenged the established sex-and-gender system in different though not unrelated ways; and, above all, the increasing assertiveness of African Americans, notably as expressed in the Civil Rights, Black Power, and Black Pride movements. Much more than any other individual, Nixon remade the Republican Party, which had always, since its founding, contained at least mildly anti-racist currents, into the unambiguous vehicle of white petty-bourgeois fear and resentment.
The Republican Party exists, of course, primarily to promote, protect, and defend the interests of big capital. But, as with any comparable party of the right, it is not possible for the GOP to put together a popular majority — or even that different thing, an Electoral College majority — without attracting voters far beyond those who would actually benefit from the party’s economic policies. Nixon’s political genius lay, in large part, in his acute sensitivity to the precise kinds of mobilization that were likely to be most effective in different political eras: from the Red-baiting of the 1940s and early 1950s (deployed with stunning success against Voorhis, Helen Gahagan Douglas, and Adlai Stevenson) to the muted racism that was central to his presidential victories over Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern in 1968 and 1972, respectively.
A frequently quoted saying of John Steinbeck’s about the 1930s hits off the point succinctly: “I guess the trouble was that we didn’t have any self-admitted proletarians. Everyone was a temporarily embarrassed capitalist.” With no feudal background of fixed cradle-to-grave identities, Americans have typically cherished the notion that this absence of formal, legally binding economic hierarchy provides the freedom to rise as high on the socio-economic ladder as one’s talents and hard work can enable. We call this “the American Dream”: beloved of so many and exploited so consequentially by politicians of many different stripes. In modern times, its most skillful exponent has surely been Reagan: “What I want to see above all,” as the 40th president said in a 1983 press conference, “is that this country remains a country where someone can always get rich.” But if one is free to rise high, one is equally “free” to fall low. What united Nixon’s base was a resentful fear that the comfort they enjoyed was threatened by the (black) poor, whom they imagined to be pampered and undeserving, yet whose ranks they were fearful of joining.
The Nixonian characteristics of Trump’s success should seem evident enough. Both violated the rule that the presidency is reserved for upbeat candidates who offer voters an optimistic, cheerful outlook on their country. Even more emphatically than Nixon in 1968, Trump in 2016 described the nation he offered to lead as a dystopian cesspool of chaos, crime, and economic decline. The central slogan of the Trump campaign — “Make America great again!” — was transparently based on the assumption that, though the United States had once been a great nation, it was so no longer.
Opposition to immigration, especially Mexican immigration, was central to the whole Trump message that first succeeded in breaking through the noise of the primaries. The most notorious passage in Trump’s June 2015 speech announcing his presidential candidacy set the tone for the rest of the campaign:
When do we beat Mexico at the border? They’re laughing at us, at our stupidity. And now they are beating us economically. They are not our friend, believe me. But they're killing us economically. […] When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. […] They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.
Among the voters most enthusiastically in support of the Trump campaign, by far the most popular of his specific policy proposals was his plan to build a wall, an actual physical barrier, along the length of the US-Mexico border.
Second to the Mexican in Trump’s defamation program was the Muslim. At times the two groups were rather incoherently associated with one another, as Trump seemed to suggest that Daesh and al-Qaeda terrorists could be found, secreted as it were, among the waves of undocumented immigration across the Rio Grande. There was one striking difference — in degree of Otherness — between the two groups as Trump and his supporters constructed them. The Latino is moderately Other. After all, Spanish, a European language, has been spoken (almost entirely by Christians) in North America even longer than English has been. Many states have had an important Latino cultural presence since the 19th century. Large numbers of exploited Latino workers are familiar to white America in sectors of the US economy like agriculture, construction, and hospitality (including Trump’s own hotels). But the Muslim is seen by white racism as radically Other: non-European, non-Christian, and presumed to be at least broadly sympathetic to terrorism. Whereas the Latino in Trumpian ideology is mainly an economic threat, or at worst the perpetrator of crime, the Muslim is constructed as allied to the United States’s most dangerous foreign enemies — Trump played on the Global War on Terror in the same way that Nixon relied on the Cold War.
All this may seem somewhat removed from Nixon’s more old-fashioned anti-black racism. The bigotries aimed at Mexicans and at Muslims have their own histories and their own faux-conceptual structures. Yet, though white supremacy in the United States may have more than one target, the African American has always been in every bull’s-eye. One group that seemed always to understand what was at stake was, unsurprisingly, African Americans themselves. On the day of the general election, Trump won (according to the exit polls) a surprisingly strong 29 percent of the Latino vote, somewhat more than Mitt Romney had won with the same group in 2012, but did no better than about eight percent among black voters. During the campaign, indeed, some opinion polls showed Trump within the statistical margin of error of having zero support among African Americans. Their evident fears were well grounded since the actual policies of the Trump administration have aimed at disadvantaging blacks much more than any other group. Trump appointed a neo-Confederate attorney general who more or less openly aims to reverse, as far as possible, all the gains of the Civil Rights movement from the 1950s onward. Among the specific projects of the new administration have been preparing to suppress the black vote in future elections (initially through Trump’s “election integrity” commission); winding down the Obama administration’s attempts to challenge in court the brutality of local police forces around the nation; harsher enforcement of the drug laws that are disproportionately applied to African Americans (even though there has never been evidence that blacks consume illegal drugs at higher rates than whites); and challenging affirmative action in university admissions. We must also, of course, recall Trump’s all but explicit expressions of sympathy for neo-Confederate ideology in Charlottesville and elsewhere.
As to the specifically class element in Trump’s coalition, it has become something like settled conventional wisdom that his base is the white working class. This is simply untrue. According to the American National Election Study — widely considered the most reliable source of such data — roughly two thirds of those who voted for Trump in November 2016 came from households earning more than the national median income of about $50,000. Trump’s voters, like Nixon’s, were predominantly petty bourgeois. The widespread confusion on this point derives partly from the perverse but increasingly standard journalistic practice of ignoring the actual socio-economic markers of class — occupation and income — and instead defining class as a matter of educational level, with the possession of a college degree as the crucial dividing criterion. Even leaving aside such obvious and extreme absurdities as considering the college drop-outs and decabillionaires Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg to be working class, educational attainment is, more generally, a very poor proxy for class in the United States. Especially among younger Americans, there are many college graduates with working-class jobs and incomes; indeed, in the millennial generation particularly, many of these men and women face dim prospects of ever rising out of the working class. But there are many prosperous business owners who are in no sense working class but who never graduated from college. It is, indeed, from this quintessentially petty-bourgeois stratum that Trump’s votes disproportionately came.
Another source of the false association between Trump’s base and the proletariat is Trump’s own campaign rhetoric. Unlike most Republicans — who tend to exalt entrepreneurs (especially small ones) as “job creators” — Trump presented himself as the candidate of American productive workers, especially those displaced factory workers whose jobs had been shipped abroad in the wake of the “free trade” pacts that had been sponsored with particular enthusiasm by Bill and Hillary Clinton. Trump liked to be labeled a “blue-collar billionaire” — a ridiculous phrase that nonetheless achieved a certain emotional resonance. Despite the fact that Trump was born wealthy and, by some informed accounts, has been so incompetent a businessman that he has managed to squander most of his inheritance, his long experience in reality television and his general skills at showmanship enabled him to project an affect that many Americans were willing to credit as blue collar. The contrast was sharp with Mitt Romney, who four years earlier had been unable to avoid calling attention to his upper-crust background almost every time he opened his mouth.
Like Nixon, then, Trump played to the insecurity of the petty bourgeoisie. Unlike Nixon, he raised the issue of class with an explicitness rare in US electoral politics. Nixon had not made the economy in general the central issue in his campaign: understandably enough, since in 1968 the country was still enjoying its extraordinary postwar prosperity, with strong growth and low unemployment (though the inflation rate was slightly over four percent, high enough to make much of the middle class feel a bit nervous). The petty-bourgeois insecurities that Nixon exploited in his constituency, if ultimately due to the class situation of those who belong neither to the proletariat nor the big bourgeoisie, were generally more cultural and racial than directly economic; and sometimes the two were inextricably bound up with one another. For example, one economic worry that was fairly widespread among white American homeowners in 1968 was whether residential property values in their neighborhoods would hold up. But this fear was based less on macroeconomic housing trends than on the possibility that blacks might move into formerly all-white neighborhoods — a possibility made more likely by the “open housing” provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Of course, to worry about the value of the house one owns is an anxiety of the comparatively prosperous. If Trump played on overtly economic fears much more than Nixon did, this was because he came along at a very different moment in the history of American capitalism: something that needs to be discussed in more detail in order to understand the passage from Nixonian to Trumpian cultural power.
First, however, it will be useful to conceptualize the difference between Nixon and Trump in psychoanalytic terms. My aim, needless to say, is not to attempt long-distance therapeutic diagnoses of these two politicians as private individuals, but to use the tools of the Freudian theoretical framework in order to understand the cultural significance of their public personae.
One way to understand Nixon’s self-presentation is as the anal-erotic superego: not, of course, in those express terms (it is nearly impossible to imagine Nixon uttering the word “anal” in public, or maybe even in private), but as the personality type that Freud, particularly in “Character and Anal Eroticism” (1908), suggests to be the result of the sublimation of those libidinal drives that take the anus as the primary erotogenic zone. Freud describes this type as characterized above all by three qualities: orderliness, parsimony, and obstinacy. All fit well with the superego — the authoritarian and punitive conscience — of the white American petty bourgeoisie. Orderliness was probably the most prominent anal-erotic element in Nixonian cultural power. Not only was “law and order” the most important of Nixon’s campaign slogans in 1968, but it must be remembered that the term does not mean what the two nouns literally denote. The ostensible purpose of law, after all, is not only to establish order but also to promote justice. The scrupulous administration of justice may often be in some tension, or even in open conflict, with the imposition of order as such — as in the Blackstonian principle, generally considered fundamental to the Anglo-American judicial system, that it is better for 10 guilty defendants to escape punishment than for one innocent defendant to be subjected to it. It is often necessary to choose between law and the petty-bourgeois yearning for order; and there was never the least ambiguity as to which Nixon chose. His attacks on the courts and on Ramsey Clark (the chief Nixonian villain of 1968, almost comparable to Alger Hiss as Nixon had constructed him earlier in his career), and his derision of basic Constitutional rights as “technicalities” that allowed dangerous (and implicitly black) criminals to walk free, made perfectly clear that Nixon was always ready to sacrifice law to order.
The quintessentially petty-bourgeois insecurity on which Nixon played in 1968 was in no respect fiercer than in the widespread white American horror at the disorder that had seemed to overtake American society: as typified by radically left-wing antiwar demonstrations, by young Americans’ open flouting of received sexual morality, and above all by the evident determination of black America to demand much more than the subordinated “place” that four centuries of racism had prepared for it. In no way did Nixon establish a deeper emotional bond with his followers than in his determination to clamp down on the disorderliness that seemed to be “everywhere” in American society.
Parsimony was also integral to the Nixonian superego, but parsimony not in the sense of personal or individual stinginess (something that has almost never been considered attractive), but rather in the sense of public fiscal austerity. To be sure, Nixon in the White House made little attempt actually to curtail social spending, and in some cases he even increased it; compared to his successors, Democratic as well as Republican, he almost looks, in this respect, like a lavish New Dealer. But his campaign and presidential rhetoric was antithetical to this record. In standard Republican fashion, Nixon argued that federal spending was out of control, and that it was time to hit the brakes. The popular appeal of austerity may superficially seem baffling. Since federal spending goes almost entirely to Americans in one way or another, why should Americans ever object to it? But to reason thus is to ignore the social divisions on which Nixon played.
The white petty bourgeoisie to which Nixon appealed did not, in fact, object to those programs that they felt certain benefited themselves directly: Social Security, for instance, or the mortgage-interest deduction in the federal income-tax system, which amounts to a big subsidy to homeownership. What Nixon’s supporters disliked were those programs — typified by Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, which Nixon took a particular glee in deriding — that they believed gave handouts to the undeserving poor, chiefly meaning, of course, the undeserving black poor. Parsimony in the political form of austerity had appeal precisely to the extent that it was understood as parsimony for other people. Nixon knew exactly what he was doing when he asked a reluctant Johnny Cash to sing the satiric racist song “Welfare Cadillac” at the White House.
It is obvious that anal eroticism does not describe the political personality of Donald Trump — quite the contrary. Staid, neat, disciplined, and impeccably conservative in manner, Nixon presented exactly the persona in which he could most believably promise to enforce, unyieldingly, order and austerity. Even in purely visual terms, the tidy, buttoned-down look of Nixon’s “dressedness” contrasts strikingly with the deliberately casual and disheveled look that Trump cultivates. During the 2016 campaign, there were many jibes to the effect that it was remarkable how a man who claimed to be worth billions of dollars was apparently unable to acquire a suit that fit him properly.
Yet the continuities — as well as the differences — between Nixon and Trump may be illuminated by considering the nature of the superego itself. Though the term does not appear until relatively late in the Freud oeuvre, the complex of ideas that cluster around it — law, conscience, the enforcer of the moral norms that are meant to hold a society together — is important throughout Freud’s writings; and, at least from Totem and Taboo (1913) onward, he stresses the ambivalence, the divided quality, with which morality is always experienced. For example, the lawgiving father who is loved and admired is also hated, feared, and resented. Slavoj Žižek (in The Metastases of Enjoyment: On Women and Causality, 1994) explores ambivalence in the superego, an elaboration that is particularly useful for the analysis of political culture. Following on the Lacanian reading of Freud, Žižek posits the superego as fundamentally split. In a potentially confusing but ultimately coherent terminological move, Žižek calls what we have been examining in the case of the Nixonian anal-erotic superego — that is, the superego as avowed, public enforcer of social norms — the “Law”: and Žižek reserves the term “superego” itself for “the obscene ‘nightly’ law that necessarily redoubles and accompanies, as its shadow, the ‘public’ Law.”
For Žižek, in other words, the Freudian superego presents two quite different — and in some, but only some, ways antithetical — faces. On the one hand, there is the superego as Law with a capital L, the respectable, “official,” and completely overt enforcer of a society’s binding mores. But, on the other hand, the superego has another face that is “unofficial,” the reverse of respectable, and comparatively covert; far from presenting itself with public propriety, the superego in this sense traffics in dirt, transgression, and obscenity. The superego, we might say, does the dirty jobs that the Law wants done but cannot afford to be seen doing itself.
A simple example would be what happens when the authorities who run a school desire the punishment of a nonconforming pupil (who, however, has perhaps not actually violated any official rules) and so choose to turn a blind eye to the nightly torment and bullying of the pupil by other pupils.
The superego in this Žižekian meaning is not only obscene but also — typically — obscure: that is, it tends to impose its disgusting, abominable punishments under cover of darkness, afraid to speak its name openly. The Law and the superego (in the Žižekian senses) may thus appear to be opposed, and, in certain situations, they really are, to a limited extent. But it is important to understand that, as opposite sides of the same psychic and social agency, they are, as we have seen, ultimately allied as moral enforcers within a given set of social standards. Some of the examples that Žižek chooses to illustrate the relation between Law and superego — and, in particular, the way that a society may define itself by the kind of transgressions of the Law allowed to the superego — have an astonishingly exact pertinence to Trumpian cultural power:
Let us return to those small-town white communities in the American South of the 1920s, where the reign of the official, public Law is accompanied by its shadowy double, the nightly terror of Ku Klux Klan, with its lynchings of powerless blacks: a (white) man is easily forgiven minor [or often, we should add, major] infractions of the Law, especially when they can be justified by a “code of honour”; the community still recognizes him as “one of us”. Yet he will be effectively excommunicated, perceived as “not one of us”, the moment he disowns the specific form of transgression [emphasis in original] that pertains to this community — say, the moment he refuses to partake in the ritual lynchings by the Klan, or even reports them to the Law (which, of course, does not want to hear about them, since they exemplify its own hidden underside).
As noted above, Trump’s Department of Justice has made quite clear that it does not want to hear about — for instance — extrajudicial police beatings and murders of African Americans.
If, then, Nixon can be understood as the superego in the public, “official” sense — as the Law, in Žižek’s vocabulary — Trump represents the Žižekian superego, the Law’s obscene underside. With Trump, however, the underside openly revels in its obscenity and sheds its customary obscurity. This was one extraordinary thing about the 2016 race, which again and again surprised nearly all political commentators (the present author not excepted). Part of Trump’s political genius — and, if that noun seems too strong, it ought to be remembered that he easily defeated an unusually large, well-credentialed, and apparently formidable set of Republican rivals to capture his party’s nomination, and then won what was generally supposed to be an unwinnable general election — lay in seeing that, in 2016, the kind of outrageousness that had been thought fatal in electoral politics might be not only tolerated but even, to some degree, embraced.
Again and again in 2016 journalists proclaimed that Trump had finally “gone too far,” that his campaign was now doomed. Early in the intra-Republican competition, for instance, he violated one of the strongest taboos in American politics by mocking the military service of John McCain, who had spent several years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam: Trump (who had himself ducked the draft during the Vietnam War) said that he preferred people who managed to avoid being captured. Nearly any other politician who had said such a thing (if, indeed, one can even imagine any other politician saying such a thing) would have almost immediately apologized for it, or would have claimed to have been misquoted or quoted “out of context.” Trump stuck to his guns, mostly just ignored the firestorm of anger and indignation that he provoked, and quickly proceeded to perpetrate fresh outrages. This pattern reached its climax late in the general election campaign with the release of the Access Hollywood videotape, in which Trump was seen and heard bragging gleefully that his celebrity allowed him to sexually assault women with impunity. In the face of all but universal condemnation in the mainstream media, Trump neither apologized nor denied anything. He defended himself only to the extent of saying that he had heard Bill Clinton say worse things on the golf course (a not particularly implausible claim). Like Antaeus gaining strength from being slammed against the earth, Trump seemed to emerge with renewed power after every supposedly fatal self-inflicted blow. In the Trumpian obscenity, there was, for his followers, a kind of refreshing authenticity, an assurance that he would respect their resentments and fears that could not have been so convincingly conveyed in the mode of Nixonian formality. His remarks to the Access Hollywood correspondent Billy Bush (a cousin of the presidents Bush, curiously enough) made clear that Trump was, at any rate, no slave to feminist political correctness; and Trump’s supporters could hardly have objected to the disrespect shown to the pompous McCain, a darling of the hated mainstream media who had failed to defeat Barack Obama in 2008.
Trump’s unprecedented use of transgression in a winning presidential campaign — his successful deployment of the obscene thrills and jouissance to be derived from the violation of quasi-official moral norms — was not without its roots in recent, post-Nixonian American history, where transgression has been incorporated into the ideological apparatuses of the status quo. There are many examples of this process — the career of the comedian Andrew Dice Clay in his persona as “the Diceman” was a prominent instance in the late 20th century — but the most important, especially in the current context, is surely the informal network of right-wing radio talk-show hosts of whom Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity are only the most widely known.
Beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, and initially operating, for the most part, under the radar of the mainstream media and of liberal opinion in general, these (overwhelmingly white and male) performers created a new sort of popular communicative space characterized by an aggressively offensive, macho style that presented itself as “straight talk,” as the courageous willingness to say out loud what a putative post-Nixonian silent majority privately believed. Far from being subversive, the content of this straight talk was (in Michael Rogin’s convenient term) resolutely counter-subversive, consisting largely of the most banal racist platitudes. “Political correctness” — originally a term coined on the hard left to make somewhat affectionate fun of the over-earnest comrades — was redefined to mean a set of nearly dictatorial liberal speech codes that the talk-show hosts took great glee in violating.
Trump — who, in 2016, denounced political correctness obsessively, and sometimes seemed almost to be identifying it as the source of all of the United States’s ills — owes much of his style to right-wing talk radio. During the contest for the Republican nomination, the Republican political establishment and its respectable organs like National Review and The Weekly Standard responded to Trump with horror; the former magazine even published an entire special issue succinctly titled “Against Trump.” But talk radio appropriately provided Trump with a generally sympathetic hearing.
Indeed, Trump’s role as the obscene superego of the white petty bourgeoisie has some precedent even earlier than the flourishing of right-wing talk radio, in the 1968 presidential campaign itself. In that contest, there was, in addition to the Republican Nixon and the Democrat Humphrey, the independent candidacy of Nixon’s shadowy alter ego or doppelgänger, George Wallace. As governor of Alabama, Wallace had made himself into the very symbol of white racist opposition to the Civil Rights movement. He was almost as openly obscene and transgressive as Trump, who stylistically resembles Wallace more closely than either man resembles any other important presidential candidate during the intervening years. While Nixon remained restrained and respectable, Wallace, with sadistic joy, riled up giant rallies of a sort that would not be seen again until Trump’s own rallies nearly half a century later. Wallace’s signature boast was that, if protestors lay down in front of his car (as antiwar demonstrators had sometimes done in front of Lyndon Johnson’s presidential limousine), he would happily run them over — a claim one can easily imagine Trump admiring and appropriating. Nixon tacitly acknowledged his affinity with Wallace by refusing to criticize the Alabama governor, save rarely and in very mild terms. But he maintained his own quite different style, confident that the electorate would (in Žižekian terms) choose the Law over its own obscene underside.
One can describe 2016 in the terms of the 1968 race by saying that, in Trump, Wallace swallowed up Nixon. Or one can describe 2016 with Žižek’s psychoanalytic vocabulary by saying that the dark obscene superego managed to dispense with the well-lit public Law.
Psychoanalysis, then, provides a powerful conceptual problematic with which to understand the passage from Nixon to Trump. But there is a still more powerful one, which, in conclusion, I will briefly engage: namely, that of the critique of political economy.
I have already noted that overtly economic issues were a relatively minor presence in Nixon’s 1968 campaign, because the economy was a matter on which he had little to gain. The United States was still enjoying what, in retrospect, looks like the most golden age in the history of capitalism, surpassing even the prosperity of Victorian liberalism in the United Kingdom. But the end of the golden age was fast approaching. Fordism would soon be supplanted by post-Fordism, the latter marked by intensified economic competition among the advanced capitalist nations, by the decline of the trade-union movement in the United States and the concomitant stagnation of wages, by the relaxation of state regulations on business, by the partial dismantling of the United States’s paltry welfare state, and — especially from the 1980s — by the increasing regressiveness of the federal tax system and the increasing financialization of the US economy as a whole. Many important steps toward post-Fordism were, in fact, taken during Nixon’s own administration. If you wanted to name a particular date on which Fordism ended in the United States and post-Fordism began, you could perhaps do no better than to name August 15, 1971. That was the day on which Nixon announced his “New Economic Policy” (the allusion to Lenin, whom Nixon in some ways admired, was possibly deliberate), which ended the dollar’s convertibility into gold and within two years destroyed the Bretton Woods system that had been basic to the world capitalist order during the postwar period.
It is plausible that the cultural and racial anxieties fundamental to Nixonian cultural power represented (inter alia) unconscious premonitions of the economic troubles to come. Perhaps Americans, or at any rate the white American petty bourgeoisie, somehow sensed that the good times could not and would not last. The economic element in Trump’s appeal has been and is anything but unconscious. Of course, Trump, as we have seen, has also played on cultural resentments, above all on white racism. In particular, it is almost impossible to overstate Trump’s dependence on the rage in large sections of white America at having lived for eight years under the governance of an African-American president, and on the terror at the certain prospect that the United States will, within about three decades, become a majority-nonwhite nation. Yet it is not just that economic and racial fears are often combined, as in the idea, repeatedly proclaimed by Trump, that cheap Mexican labor degrades American wages.
The point is also that when, in the familiar economic metaphor, the pie is expanding, as it still was in 1968, it may seem that everyone can reasonably look forward to a bigger slice. By 2016, nobody thought the pie was getting larger — or, if it was, it was generally assumed that any extra pie (and probably then some) would be quickly gobbled up by those inhabiting the top one percent of the US economic hierarchy. In such a context of severe economic anxiety, the divide-and-rule tactics of racism naturally find their best opportunities, and the obscenities of Trump’s style come to seem most acceptable.
Yet the triumph of Trumpian obscenity is by no means the whole story of the 2016 election and its aftermath. Any account of this triumph is bound to be one-sided and misleading if we do not recognize that it was exactly contemporary with a radically different, infinitely more hopeful, and at least as extraordinary political development. To understand Trump in context, we must recall that the 2016 race featured another major candidate fully as unusual as Trump himself: the self-described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, who threatened to deprive the “inevitable” candidate Hillary Clinton of the Democratic nomination. During the campaign, parallels between Trump and Sanders were frequently drawn, including, occasionally, by Trump himself (though never by Sanders). These parallels were often exaggerated and based on secondary or formal resemblances, like the fact that the two candidates were both “outsiders” with respect to the establishments of their respective parties. Yet there really was a deeper similarity. Alone among all the candidates in both parties, Trump and Sanders acknowledged that there was something radically wrong with the American economy. Trump, indeed, occasionally took economic positions that were unprecedented for a post-Reagan Republican, like promising to defend Social Security and Medicare. Sometimes he went even further than that and took stands that were clearly to the left of every other candidate in the 2016 race except Sanders, like promising to raise taxes on Wall Street plutocrats. (All such promises, needless to add, were quickly forgotten by Trump in the White House.)
What Trump and Sanders both recognized was that the American Dream — still upheld by Hillary Clinton and by the other Republican candidates — had finally died. The electorate could no longer be bamboozled into thinking that honest, conscientious hard work, when combined with an ordinary amount of talent and luck, would lead to economic success. During the 2016 campaign, Trump, indeed, explicitly said, “The American Dream is dead.” Nothing less extraordinary could account for the unprecedented nature of the Trump and Sanders campaigns.
On one side, a man wholly without any governmental or military experience won the White House for the first time in American history, and a man, moreover, deeply distrusted by almost the entirety of his own party’s establishment and generally portrayed in the mainstream media as buffoonish, bigoted, vulgar, and dangerous. Yet the Sanders campaign, on the other side, was in some ways even more amazing. In a country where almost the only use of the word “socialist” in mainstream electoral politics had been as a nasty accusation that politicians made against those to their left, an elderly, uncharismatic man who forthrightly claimed the designation and who openly called for a “political revolution” made a credible bid for a major-party presidential nomination. It should be added that, in the Democratic primaries, Sanders usually won an overwhelming majority of younger voters — including younger women, who were not much attracted by the prospect of Hillary Clinton as the first female president. Many Sanders supporters believe that, had he become the Democratic nominee, he would have defeated Trump in the general election and won the White House. This claim can never be proved or disproved, but it is, at least, not implausible.
So it is possible that the future in the United States belongs to the kind of politics represented by Bernie Sanders: not, really, a socialist politics in any rigorous sense, but something like a neo-New-Dealism or a radically left-Keynesian approach to the current crises of post-Fordist capitalism, with its steep decline in the opportunities for upward mobility and its stratospheric rise in economic inequality. Whether such “Sandersism” (as it might be called) will indeed prove ascendant — and what sort of success it will have if it does — remain, of course, to be seen.
For now, we are in the age — or perhaps the interval — of Trump. As he increasingly ceases even to pretend to be interested in concretely addressing the economic fears that he accurately identified in 2016, it seems reasonable to suppose that Trump will rely ever more emphatically and extensively on his ideological bedrock of white racism — an ominous prospect. His remarks after Charlottesville may be a harbinger of things to come.
For all the affinities between Nixonian and Trumpian cultural power, the most consequential difference may be that, despite the various kinds of social turmoil in 1968, Nixon presided over a nation of comparatively prosperous economic stability. In the absence of such stability today, the metastases of Trumpian cultural power are likely to lead to greater and greater malignancy.
Carl Freedman was born in 1951. He is the William A. Read Professor of English Literature at Louisiana State University. His best known books are Critical Theory and Science Fiction (2000) and The Age of Nixon (2012); his most recent is Art and Idea in the Novels of China Miéville (2015).
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