Culture And Politics In The Age Of Trumpery

We are witnessing a gigantic confidence trick being perpetrated against the most powerful and prosperous people on the planet.

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Trumpery is an archaic word for fraud, taken from the French tromper, to deceive somebody. Shakespeare puts it into the mouth of his rogue Autolycus, who boasts of defrauding the gullible with his worthless trinkets: “Ha, ha! What a fool Honesty is! And Trust, his sworn brother, a very simple gentleman! I have sold all my trumpery . . .” (A Winter’s Tale, Act IV, Scene IV.)

(Illustration by Michael Daley)

The dictionary definition of Trumpery is threefold:

1. Worthless thing: Often something showy that seems appealing at first glance.
2. Nonsense: Empty or ridiculous talk.
3. Deception: The deceiving of somebody, or schemes conceived for the purpose of deceiving.

In all three senses, “Trumpery” denotes the bill of goods that Donald Trump is seeking to sell to America. The subject of this essay, indeed, is not Trump the man, but the meaning of Trumpery. Millions of words have been devoted to the political, psychological and satirical dissection of the Donald, but far fewer to the cultural phenomenon of Trumpery. What we are witnessing is more than the rise of an individual, mesmerising though he may be, not only to Americans, but to the entire free world. Trumpery is the cult of a personality, certainly, but it is also the ascendancy of a cast of mind, a climate of opinion, a broadly-based sociological fact. Never before have we witnessed such a prodigious confidence trick perpetrated on the most powerful and prosperous people on the planet. The free world looks on in bewilderment at the prospective triumph of Trumpery in the land that gave us pragmatism.

Trumpery is the revenge of the rejected in more ways than one. Though Trump himself disclaims ideology, he is in fact one of the “madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air” evoked by Keynes: they “are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back”. More by osmosis than by design, he has picked up the ideas of Reagan’s former communications director, Pat Buchanan, and his “paleoconservatives”. Buchanan ran three times for the presidency between 1992 and 2000, but he fell out with mainstream Republicans, while relishing the notoriety provoked by his thinly-disguised anti-Semitism. The paleocons’ ideology of “nativism, protectionism and isolationism” was dismissed in 1996 as “a philosophical corpse” by Charles Krauthammer, the neoconservative Washington Post columnist. Now the paleocons are back with a vengeance, in the guise of Trumpery. Conspiracy theorists, kooks and crazies of all kinds flock to the Donald’s banners, from David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan to Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam. But so, too, do millions of decent, law-abiding, God-fearing Americans, oblivious of Trumpery’s dubious, even nefarious pedigree.

Long before Trumpery actually has a chance to take the White House by storm, however, the blame game has begun. In the dock, indicted by friend and foe alike, is the Establishment. It is revealing that 21st-century Americans, of all people, should have latched onto this word, popularised in the 1950s by Henry Fairlie as a catch-all phrase to characterise the English ruling class — the antithesis, supposedly, of democracy in the America he later embraced. Sometimes this term is qualified, as in “the Republican Establishment”, but often it is used in a more general sense to indicate the ruling elites — social, economic and cultural — whose arrogance, greed and incompetence are blamed for the rise of Trumpery. The Establishment, it seems, is everything that Trumpery is not. It is rich, educated and cosmopolitan; the followers of Trump are poor, ignorant and nativist. Establishment Americans mostly live on the East or West coasts in colonies of globalised urbanity such as New York, Washington, San Francisco or Seattle. Trumpery flourishes in the contemptuously nicknamed “flyover states”, the struggling, small-town communities that are looked down on by the elites from a great height.

President Obama — who, as an alumnus of Harvard and Columbia, is the embodiment of the liberal Establishment — directed a throwaway comment at the lower orders that has become notorious: “They cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.” The Salon columnist David Masciotra has used the threat of Trump’s populism to defend “American elitism”, on the grounds that the rest are so ignorant that only the elites can keep the show on the road: “The politics of contemporary America accompany the illiteracy and ignorance of contemporary Americans with the symbiosis of flies and excrement.” Flies and excrement: if this is how the elites regard their compatriots, is it any wonder that Trumpery is in the ascendant among Republicans? And is it any surprise that the Democrats are losing disaffected blue-collar voters to Trump on a scale not seen since the Reagan era?

On the other side of the political divide, the libertarian Charles Murray has analysed with more sympathy and insight the despair of Middle America, abandoned by those ostensibly elected to represent it, and sinking to the bottom of a society now “coming apart”. In his recent Wall Street Journal essay “Trump’s America”, Murray argues that the white working class has every reason to be angry: it feels it has lost the national identity that was its birthright, resents an upper class that sneers at old-fashioned values, and wants the “American creed” it has lost back again. The rise of Trumpery is linked to this cultural pessimism of a generation that sees its children in danger of sliding down the scale into the underclass, panicked by a seemingly inexorable spread among the white majority of pathologies hitherto associated with minorities: the collapse of marriage, respect for the law and the work ethic.

The Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam has also analysed these pathologies in Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (Simon & Schuster, £18.99). Putnam is more left-wing and less pessimistic than Murray, partly because he still believes in education as a cure for social immobility and decay. His main thesis is that class now divides America more seriously than race, with those lacking education now more hopelessly excluded from prosperity than ever before. That is certainly part of the background to the rise of Trumpery. But education is not the panacea it once was. Universities often act as engines of social privilege and political indoctrination, reinforcing the liberal elites in their contempt for those beneath them. Anecdotal evidence suggests that students from poorer and more conservative parts of America feel pressure to conform from their more liberal peers and professors. No wonder intellectual accomplishment has lost its prestige in the eyes of those who lack it.

In order to understand what Trumpery is all about, we need to go back to three works by cultural critics of the last century: The Revolt of the Masses by José Ortega y Gasset (1930); The House of Intellect by Jacques Barzun (1958); and The Culture of Narcissism by Christopher Lasch (1979). All three of these writers, as it happens, were liberals of an old-fashioned 19th-century stamp that is now all but extinct, especially among the so-called liberal elite in the US. During the half-century spanned by these three books, American capitalism dominated the world economy. As an academic, editor and politician, one of the last representatives of European culture at its best, Ortega sought to expose what lay behind the threat of Communism and Fascism. In Spain, civil war preceded the global war that brought Western civilisation close to collapse, and Ortega studied the impending catastrophe as if Europe were a laboratory. The magnitude of the threat had yet to emerge when he wrote The Revolt of the Masses, but he accurately diagnosed the danger posed by the collectivist zeitgeist to the bourgeois individualism of the past. “The world today is suffering from a grave demoralisation which, amongst other symptoms, manifests itself by an extraordinary rebellion of the masses, and has its origin in the demoralisation of Europe.” The complexities of civilisation mean nothing to the mass: “It has a deadly hatred of all that is not itself.” Ortega’s mass-man “finds within himself a sensation of power and triumph, which invites him to stand up for himself as he is, to look upon his moral and intellectual endowment as excellent, complete. This contentment with himself leads him to shut himself off from any external court of appeal; not to listen, not to submit his opinions to judgment, not to consider others’ existence. His intimate feeling of power urges him always to exercise predominance. He will act then as if he and his like were the only beings existing in the world; and, consequently, will intervene in all matters, imposing his own vulgar views without respect or regard for others, without limit or reserve, that is to say, in accordance with a system of ‘direct action’.”

What, though, does Ortega mean by “the demoralisation of Europe”? He means not merely the replacement of one moral code by another, but “the aspiration to live without conforming to any moral code”. As a symptom of this demoralisation, Ortega diagnoses the cult of youth, with its suggestion that the old order was in decline and should be swept away by a new one. No: the idea that actual achievement is worth less than mere potential is a way of enabling the inferior “to feel himself exempt from submission to all superiors”. Ortega’s “mass-man” is above all supremely self-satisfied: he makes no demands on himself, but makes infinite demands on society as though they were rights. Hence government expands infinitely to meet these demands, whether they take a left- or right-wing form. “It is indifferent whether it disguises itself as reactionary or revolutionary; actively or passively, after one or two twists, its state of mind will consist, decisively, in ignoring all obligations, and in feeling itself, without the slightest notion why, possessed of unlimited rights.”

Ortega’s mass-man is the prototype of the present-day devotee of Trumpery. As an ideology, it is protean: aggressive, yet also defensive; outrageously chauvinistic, yet seemingly open to everyone, from the Ku Klux Klan to “people of colour”; obsessed with success, yet irresistible to losers; a revolt of the masses inspired by a plutocrat.

In the Europe of the Thirties, the phenomenon led to war and genocide. In the US, of course, the danger took a much less tangible form: not the horrors unleashed by Hitler and Stalin, but the New Deal and the Arsenal of Democracy, the era of big government ushered in by another plutocrat, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Yet Jacques Barzun, surveying the scene from his chair at Columbia at the height of American post-war predominance, sounded the alarm at the same crisis of civilisation that had animated Ortega a generation earlier. Barzun’s subtitle sums up his thesis: “How intellect, the prime force in Western civilisation, is being destroyed by our culture in the name of art, science and philanthropy.”

One might baulk at the culprits chosen here, but Barzun justifies them: “The intellectual class . . . has been captivated by art, overawed by science, and seduced by philanthropy.” Barzun’s target is the reduction of the intellect to a means rather than an end in itself, resulting in the loss of independent minds. “The money of philanthropy should smell of its object, not its origin; which does not mean being Puritanical about its use.”

Whether the philanthropists are businessmen or bureaucrats, Barzun is suspicious of their influence on intellectual life in general and academics in particular. Large-scale corporate and public funding of the arts, education and science were then relatively new to America; since the 1950s the funds have flowed freely, despite all the protests of the recipients. While this largesse has enabled universities and other cultural institutions to multiply, many of those employed there have betrayed their vocations by sacrificing their integrity on the altar of political correctness. Barzun, who died in 2012 aged 104, lived to see it.

In this trahison des clercs, the malaise of intellectual bondage that Barzun diagnosed 60 years ago has indeed come to pass. Intellect, he warned, had a special responsibility, for “its chief business is cultural criticism. It exists to perpetuate itself and to wage battle when attacked, whether the attack be external and violent or insidious and as it were self-inflicted. Intellect watches particularly over language because language is so far the only device for keeping ideas clear and emotions memorable.” Since these words appeared, we have seen the opposite take place. We have witnessed the tyrants of trivia, the juntas of jargon and the dictators of relativism extending their sway over our language to the point where nothing can be said clearly or memorably. Instead, language has been put through the grinder of mediocrity until all that is “inappropriate” is crushed. Ordinary Americans have chafed for decades under the tutelage of puritans with PhDs who tell them what they may or may not say, on pain of public disgrace, dismissal or worse. They are sick of it, but they are also too frightened to protest.

Enter the Donald. Here is a man who seemingly says and does what he likes, who deliberately defies political correctness and tramples all over taboos. What makes Trumpery doubly dangerous is the abdication of leadership by the educated elite. Once the prestige of the academy had been dissipated by the petty despots of priggishness, the way was open for a revolt of Ortega’s masses, not only against thought police but against any form of intellectual rigour, linguistic discipline or scientific method. Trumpery throws out the literate baby with the politically correct bathwater. Trump University, which awarded “degrees” that allegedly amounted to little more than photo-opportunities with a cardboard cut-out of the great man, was a bare-faced parody of the real thing. This quintessence of Trumpery, now the subject of lawsuits, could have been designed to be a reductio ad absurdum of the academy — a Trump Tower in place of the ivory tower.

Barzun’s house of intellect is now besieged by barbarians who make no distinction between scholars and pedants, between Poets’ Corner and Pseuds’ Corner, between Kant and cant. Once unleashed, the power of mob rule is a terrible thing. “Away with him, away with him! He speaks Latin,” yells Jack Cade, a kind of 15th-century Donald Trump, in Henry VI Part 2. “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” says Dick, his henchman. In Julius Caesar, the rabble dismember an unfortunate with the same name as a conspirator: “I am Cinna the Poet,” he pleads. The plebs do not care: “Tear him for his bad verses!” Shakespeare was good at mobs. 

By the end of the 1970s, the American industrial worker was being undercut by global competition. One step up, the middle class had long since felt its status and values threatened by the counter-culture. Both anxieties are adumbrated in Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in An Age of Diminishing Expectations. Admittedly, the diminishing expectations of 1979 applied only to some: the manual workers and lower middle class, many of whom lost their pride and their prosperity. For others, the dynamism of the 1980s was a blessing. What Lasch called “the dotage of bourgeois society” turned out to be the prelude to a new age of affluence for those who embraced the new technologies and financial services that began to emerge in the 1980s. Silicon Valley and Wall Street, Texas and Florida boomed, while the metropolitan north-east reverted to rust belt or even, like Detroit, ghost towns. Meanwhile, Lasch had identified a key to the newly “liberated” personality type that had emerged since the 1960s to inherit the earth: narcissism.

For Lasch, the new clinical concept of narcissism “appears realistically to represent the best way of coping with the tensions and anxieties of modern life, and the prevailing social conditions therefore tend to bring out narcissistic traits that are present, in varying degrees, in everyone.” For a generation disillusioned by Vietnam and Watergate, redemption could only be found within: “The ideology of personal growth, superficially optimistic, radiates a profound despair and resignation. It is the faith of those without faith.” One of these young men was Donald Trump.

In this society of narcissists suspended between a triumph and despair that are both equally subjective, there is a special place for the combination of superficiality, nonsense and deception that is Trumpery. Lasch lamented a “paternalism without father”, run by a managerial and professional elite that was creating new patterns of dependence, ameliorated by fantasies of total gratification. “The new paternalism preaches not self-denial but self-fulfillment,” he writes. “It sides with narcissistic impulses and discourages their modification by the pleasure of becoming self-reliant, even in a limited domain, which under favourable conditions accompanies maturity.”

In such a climate, Lasch argues, not only do narcissistic personalities rise to prominence but they also elicit narcissistic traits in others. “Thriving on the adulation of the masses, these celebrities set the tone of public life and of private life as well, since the machinery of celebrity recognises no boundaries between the public and the private realm. The beautiful people . . . live out the fantasy of narcissistic success, which consists of nothing more substantial than a wish to be vastly admired, not for one’s accomplishments but simply for oneself, uncritically and without reservation.” Such a person might very well imagine that he was qualified to run for President, even though he had achieved little or nothing of substance despite inheriting wealth and opportunity. He would be perfectly suited to the fantasy world of “reality” TV, in which the boss can solve every problem with the simple words “You’re fired!”

Christopher Lasch died in 1994, long before Trump began his political ascent. But a posthumous work isolates a final element in the combustible compound that has now produced the explosion of Trumpery. The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (1995), as its title suggests, pays homage to Ortega, but is also an inversion of his thesis. For Lasch, the new elites had turned the tables on the masses and thereby fatally undermined democracy in America. The “spoiled child of human history” was no longer, as Ortega had thought, a plebeian, but a patrician. It was not the mainly conservative working and lower middle classes who had abandoned limits, duties and obligations, but the wealthy, cultivated upper-middle-class liberals. The narcissists had taken over.

Lasch noticed, too, a growing divergence in expectations and opportunities, in way of life as well as politics, between the classes. In “The soul of man under secularism”, Lasch painted a bleak portrait of a disillusioned society that had fallen back on nostalgia as a substitute for hope. Not only had the new elites betrayed democracy: they had also substituted “the religion of culture” for the genuine article, while sneering at the plebs for “clinging to guns or religion”.

It is time to sum up. Trumpery is the answer to a question that modern America has tried to evade for many years. How did the land of liberty and democracy come to be dominated by a self-satisfied yet censorious oligarchy, while the masses sank into a slough of despondent resentment? The sudden emergence of Trumpery has the character of an American mutiny. One aim of the uprising is vicarious gratification at the spectacle of the apotheosis of narcissism presented by Trump himself. Another is revenge on the Establishment, whose evident discomfiture and even panic evokes a schadenfreude among the “rednecks” that is all the more exquisite because it is so rare. But the underlying motive behind the embrace of Trumpery is sheer bloody-mindedness. That phrase, too, comes from Shakespeare: in Henry VI Part 3, King Edward IV speaks of the “bloody-minded” French Queen Margaret. In 2016, ordinary Americans, too, are feeling bloody-minded: towards immigrants and Muslims, towards Washington and Wall Street, towards all who do not share their values. In such a mood, they are turning — perhaps only temporarily, but certainly enthusiastically — to a megalomaniac whose contempt for his fellow men is naked. This is a man who aspires to leadership, but who knows no restraint. He threatens to build a great wall across America, but he disdains all boundaries in his behaviour. His morality, his mentality and his oratory are all infantile, yet his appeal is all the wider for that. He seems just what T.W. Adorno meant by “the authoritarian personality”; yet he could only have arisen in a society that has long since abolished all authority. Once, Americans lived in fear of divine retribution. Now that they have abandoned such fear, they seem ready to adore an idol with feet of clay. They also seem eager to help him to build his grandiose projects. Have they forgotten their Bible stories?

In chapter 2 of the Book of Daniel, the prophet interprets King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream: “This great image, whose brightness was excellent, stood before thee, and the form thereof was terrible.” But his feet were partly of miry clay, and a stone smote them and smashed the image to pieces. In chapter 11 of the Book of Genesis, the story is told of how the children of men built a tower called Babel, intended to reach unto heaven. “And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.” We know what happened next.