Perhaps it is not surprising that the Age of Celebrity, having produced a celebrity president, should focus discussion of the political situation thus created on the personality quirks and attention-seeking antics of the TV Personality-in-Chief himself. Even a serious writer from whom I often learn much, Mark Danner, seems to have been so affected by the experience of Trump rallies that he finds it “clear, a month into Trump’s ascension, that we are all his prisoners, held fast in the projected drama of his mind.”1 Leftists join in this focus on the public individual in debates as to the extent to which Trump incarnates a resurgence of fascism, entirely on the basis of his stylistic traits, such as the readiness to denounce foreigners for causing America’s ills; this takes the place of discussion of deeper social, economic, and political realities, which have hardly undergone radical change from the day before the election to the day after. “[I]t remains to be seen,” Danner writes, quoting an excited pronouncement by Steve Bannon, “whether we are truly ‘witnessing […] the birth of a new political order.’” Could it happen here? Danner himself imagines a potential scenario in which domestic surveillance is revved up, black sites are reestablished and torture reintroduced; military action is unleashed abroad—“and, perhaps, at home.”
Only the blinding light of celebrity culture obscures the fact that such developments would represent not a “new political order,” but the one we have been living in for a long, long time. Domestic surveillance has been doing quite well since the 1920s (although with dubious results in more recent years, perhaps because of the vastness of the data pile amassed); the black sites and torture used in all wars were legitimized by Bush, whose minions Obama was careful not to punish in any way for activities of which he voiced genteel disproval. With respect to military affairs, the generals with whom Trump likes to surround himself are, after all, the same generals who have been running things Pentagonal for a while. So it is not surprising that, as the New York Times put it on March 19, “[t]he steps the Trump administration has taken so far […] generally reflect the Obama administration’s approach of providing firepower and advisors so local forces can do the main fighting on the ground.”2 And we hardly need the military at home, with well-outfitted cops so apt for mayhem—though if and when they are needed, there’s a long history of military strike-breaking and riot suppression for inspiration.
Of course, the Republicans aim to use the long-awaited moment brought to them by an oddball outsider to speed up the state’s dedication to supporting big business. So the feeble gestures in the direction of environmental protection will be undone, regulations will be loosened, social welfare measures will be cut as much as possible. But none of this is peculiar to Trump (or has anything to do with fascism); in fact, here the U.S. is just performing its version of a long-term international shift of governmental attention away from social welfare to a firm concentration on corporate need, forced on the world’s governments by the continuing depression set off by the end of the postwar boom in the mid-1970s and given a big kick forward by the 2008 financial crash. More locally, Trump has to be understood in the long line of leaders, as they are called, from, say, Reagan, through the Bushes, Clinton, and Obama, who have been busy weakening unions, ending welfare as we knew it, and ignoring infrastructural collapse, declining living standards, and growing unemployment—while the 0.1 percent at the top of the economic heap have grabbed increasing shares of an ever more slowly growing economic product. The Mexican border wall, to take a nearly purely symbolic element of political continuity, got its start under Bill Clinton as Operation Gatekeeper around the time NAFTA was passed, while Senators Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton voted for its accelerated building in the 2006 Secure Fence Act.
The great thing about capitalism is that conspiracies aren’t needed (though no doubt there are plenty of them, as this or that cabal competes for power and cash). The system itself, as it evolves, shapes the broad outlines of policy. If Obama could come to the presidency as the anti-Bush, his deep-dyed neoliberalism offset by liberal-pleasing skin color, Trump could take his place thanks to his willingness to be the first recent politician to acknowledge the devastation wrought on the working class by the continuing depression. Neither could restore prosperity, undo climate change, solve the problem of labor forces pushed out of national boundaries by global business, or do anything but join in the violence unleashed around the world by a stagnating economy. It’s the decline of trade accompanying the slowdown of worldwide growth that stimulates nationalism, not the reverse. The permeation of both administrations by Goldman Sachs executives testifies to the underlying continuity that is the real problem we face—a social system so vast and complex that it is easier to focus on the quirks of its puppet-representatives than to try to comprehend the forces driving towards disaster.
- Mark Danner, “What He Could Do,” New York Review of Books, March 23, 2017, 4.
- Michael R. Gordon, “Trump Shifting Authority Over Military Operations Back to Pentagon,” New York Times, March 19, 2017.
- Stephen J. Rose, Social Stratification in the United States: The American Profile Poster (New York: The New Press, 2007).
Call to Designers and Graphic Artists
The present age has long been called a “visual” one, and we are certainly at home with pictures, floating, as we do, in a sea of them. It’s worth remembering that pictures can serve knowledge as well as celebrity. It occurred to some people already in the early 20th century—American historian W.E.B. Du Bois and the Austrian economist Otto Neurath are two notable examples—that pictures could give access to the structure and dynamics of a complex social reality, one that many find hard to read and think about. A more recent example is the justly famous “Social Stratification in the United States” poster, which tells you all you need to know about the distribution of wealth and income in one information-rich diagram.3 In the interest of stimulating awareness of the nature and prospects of the present time, Field Notes would like to revive and develop this practice. Designers and graphic artists—please get in touch with me (write firstname.lastname@example.org) to propose projects for publication in the Rail.