Just announced that as many as 5000 ISIS fighters have infiltrated Europe. Also, many in U.S. I TOLD YOU SO! I alone can fix this problem!
(Tweet sent out by @realDonaldTrump on 24.03.2016. 23.3k likes. 9, 769 retweets)
“Playing to People’s Fantasies”
In his 1987 part memoir, part business manual, Trump: The Art of the Deal, Donald Trump sets out 11 guidelines for achieving money and success. One concerns the role of fantasies:
I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration—and a very effective form of promotion (58).
Nearly thirty years later, in the midst of his campaign to become the Republican Party Presidential nominee, Trump again played “to people’s fantasies.” He repeated his campaign slogan—”Make America Great Again”—at a rally in March 2016. To cheers of supporters wearing caps and T-Shirts featuring the slogan and against the backdrop of signs inviting and imploring people to “Make America Great Again,” he offered people a bellicose fantasy of return and renewal:
We have to knock the hell out of ISIS. They cut off heads. They’re drowning people. We have to knock them out. We have to knock them out bad. We have to get back to our country. We have to rebuild our country now. It’s time. It’s now time that we rebuild the United States. Our roads are falling apart. Our schools are a disgrace. You see it on television—rat-infested, walls falling down. We build schools over there, we build it again, they blow it up, we build it again they blow it up. This goes on four or five times. And if they need money for Brooklyn, if they need money for Boca, they need money for any place, we don’t have it to do anything. Our thinking is wrong. We’re going to have really smart thinking. We are going to think so good and here’s what’s going to happen: We’re going to start winning again.
Offering the hope of a “rebuilt” America, Trump combined the promise of “greatness” with another promise—that his supporters and America will start “winning’ again.” At another rally, he invoked what this future full of “winning” might feel like: “We’re going to win so much. You’re going to get tired of winning. You’re going to say, ‘Please Mr. President, I have a headache. Please, don’t win so much. This is getting terrible.’ And I’m going to say, ‘No, we have to make America great again.’ You’re gonna say, ‘Please.’ I said, ‘Nope, nope. We’re gonna keep winning’.” The crowd laughed as they cheered together. They enjoyed the show. Perhaps some enjoyed the misogynist performance as he mimicked the stringent voice of himself as a future “Mr President” and a whining, exhausted voice tired of winning so much. But perhaps they knew the fantasy was exaggerated. For in the midst of an atmosphere of anxiety about what the future might bring, who could ever really imagine winning so much that it becomes “terrible”?
In this piece I describe some elements of the affective style of Donald Trump’s campaign to be the Republican Party presidential nominee and speculate on how they might have resonated with some of the affective conditions of parts of post-Financial Crisis and post 9/11 America. But there are risks in doing so; the risk of reducing the event of Donald Trump’s emergence as a presidential candidate to a series of personal characteristics, and the risk of offering a consoling analysis that reduces a still unfolding event to a set of already named and known conditions. The event extended beyond Trump as mediated brand, TV personality, and politician into the expression of a range of political emotions by opponents that hint to both the disorientation of the event and its continuing openness. The event was constituted by: a kind of horrified fascination at his emergence that mixed with incredulity that people would support him and perhaps contempt for them for doing so; a continual investment in pointing out lies, distortions, and exaggerations that, even as it appears to be ineffective with some of his supporters, repeats a hope in a truth-based mode of political discourse and may be at least part of the reason for his negative approval ratings; alarm for the decaying of liberal values of tolerance and respect that reaffirms the fragile, broken promise of America as a “shining beacon on the hill”; political mobilization and rage at Trump’s racism and xenophobia, amongst other elements.
So the event of Donald J Trump’s emergence and success extends beyond, and cannot be reduced to, the affective style of Trump as an individual. It resonates with and becomes part of the affective conditions of a post-Financial crisis world in which spreading economic precarity is being met by the irruption of populisms of the left and right across Western Europe and North-America, and in which an anti-politics mood intensifies as it is expressed in forms of cynicism, contempt, and apathy. Trump’s emergence as presumptive nominee also relied on bellicose tendencies that have long been part of the Republican Party (Connolly, 2008; Grossberg, 1997). Hostility to non-white immigrants and anti-Muslim feeling, for example, has been inflamed by the (neo)conservative right in the midst of a “war on terror” that exists as a permanent condition periodically intensified in response to scenes of terror that become attached to anxious stories of national vulnerability. Nevertheless, Trump is not reducible to these or other mediating conditions, even as it is necessary to identify them. We might think of Trump as a “persona” who acts as both a “shimmering point” and “catalyzing agent” (Connolly, 2005: 877) for a set of political feelings and conditions that extend beyond him. A “persona” is best thought of as the effect of mediated presentational strategies that expresses and amplifies one or more characteristic affective styles. An affective style (or styles) is an orientation to self and world that will repeat across, link, and blur the speech and bodily acts, images, stories, and pseudo-events that make up a campaign. How, then, to characterize the affective style or styles that are felt in the persona of Donald Trump; a persona that is inseparable from the promise of a future full of “winning” as America is “rebuilt” and “Made Great Again”?
“Losing at Everything”
The fantasy of a restored greatness to come only makes sense within the never ending rumble of “crisis ordinariness” (Berlant, 2011) in which a feeling of not winning is pervasive, in which submerged anxieties about decline have intensified into a sense, linked to a crisis of the hegemonic status of whiteness, of a better but now lost past and a “broken” present in which America is on the “wrong track.” Across the televised debates, television appearances, and at rallies, Trump repeatedly offered a melodramatic story of America “losing” in general, in geopolitical conflict with other global powers, and especially in relation to job losses and the economy (often refracted through the specter of China and Mexico as rivals who are “winning” because they are “smarter”). In speeches, he raised the imminent threat of future economic losses dramatized through stories of broken lives in the present after jobs have moved abroad and people and communities have been left behind. Losing is not only confined to the economy though, and far from only a matter of people’s individual lives. For Trump, it’s a generalized condition of the United States today. At a rally in Boca Raton, he asked his audience to: “Think about it: When was the last time the United States won at everything? We’re losing at war, we’re losing at trade, we’re losing at everything.” The result of this generalized, all pervasive, losing is, to quote the title of Trump’s 2015 book/manifesto, a “crippled” America. Time and again the Trump campaign dramatized this condition of being “crippled” through images of broken everyday infrastructure. Campaign videos featured clips of unidentified roads and bridges falling down in spectacular scenes that root ruin and destruction in ordinary American life. His unfocused, rambling comments during a Q&A after a victory speech on Super Tuesday were typical:
Our infrastructure is going to hell, our roads, our highways, our schools, our hospitals, our airports. I go throughout the world. I mean, you go to Qatar, you go to—some people say Qatar, but you go to Qatar, you go to any of—so many places. You go to different places in China, different places in Asia, different places in the Middle East, you look at some of the airports they have. You look at the roadways they have. You look at the transportation systems they have and the trains they have. We’re like a third world country.
So Trump made another partially connected promise in the context of a present and future in which America is and will “lose at everything.” At his victory speech after a win in Nevada, he put it in the following strident terms: “We’re going to be the smart people. We’re not going to be the people that get pushed around all over the place. We’re going to be the smart people. You’re going to be proud of your president, and you’re going to be even prouder of your country, OK?” Trump addressed his supporters as people who have in common the feeling that they have been “pushed around” by multiple, external forces. Across speeches, he named those forces in a populist manner that cut across divisions between the political left and right. Offering supporters a list of identifiable villains to be booed and jeered, he attempted to tap into the ordinary frustrations of some segments of post-Financial crisis America. The preface to his 2015 book Crippled America names the “naysayers of the status quo” who bear responsibility for America’s “crippled” status:
The politicians who talk a great game in campaigns—and play like total losers when they try to actually govern because they can’t govern; they don’t know how to govern.
The lobbyists and special interests with their hands in our pockets on behalf of their clients or others.
The members of the media who are so far lost when it comes to being fair that they have no concept of the difference between “fact” and “opinion.”
The illegal immigrants who have taken jobs that should go to people here legally, while over 20 percent of Americans are currently unemployed or underemployed. Believe me, they’re all over the place. I see them. I talk to them. I hug them. I hold them. They are all over the place.
Congress, which has been deadlocked for years and virtually unable to deal with any of our most pressing domestic problems, or even the most basic ones, such as passing a budget. Think of it: a little thing like passing the budget. They don’t even have a clue (xi).
Trump addressed his supporters as people with grievances and resentments that coalesce in what, for him and them, is a justifiable anger that the wrong people always win. What he offered, perhaps, is a form of affective solidarity based on the affirmation of the validity and truth of those grievances and resentments—the affirmation that you are right, that you have been sold out by, lied to, abandoned by, and conspired against by “the establishment.” The affirmation that the system is rigged against the people—rigged by corporations, rigged by the media, rigged by the political elite, rigged by special issues, rigged by donors—and that your anger is legitimate, that there is a truth to it. And, importantly, the affirmation that you are not alone in that anger—other people feel it. Here’s how Trump responded to calls to condemn violence at his rallies during a Republican presidential debate. As well as using racialized images decrying protestors as “big strong powerful guys” and “bad dudes” who are “really dangerous,” he affirmed the validity of his supporters’ anger and violent fury whilst simultaneously claiming to not condone violence:
People come [to Trump campaign events] with tremendous passion and love for their country in some cases, you know, you’re mentioning one case, I haven’t seen, I heard about it, which I don’t like… When they see what’s going on in this country, they have anger that’s unbelievable. They have anger. They love this country. They don’t like seeing bad trade deals. They don’t like seeing higher taxes. They don’t like seeing a loss of their jobs … And I see it. There’s some anger. There’s also great love for the country. It’s a beautiful thing in many respects. But I certainty do not condone that at all.
Reminding us of Sara Ahmed’s (2003) point that right wing nationalisms frequently claim to be acting out of love, Trump valorized and legitimized anger, and by implication violence, as born from and standing in for love. As Ahmed shows, by renaming hate as love a political project that is based on violent othering, it is presented as a redemptive one of saving loved ones (in this case a “crippled” nation and people).
So the emergence of Trump as an event is inseperable from a felt story of the decline of a wounded nation and the continual holding on to the promise of greatness to come despite the “crippled” status of America now. Connected to the naming and othering of those forces that have “pushed around” America and a people united in anger, was a depiction by Trump’s campaign of America as suffering from a crisis of practical, economic, and geopolitical sovereignty. Everywhere there are impediments to people’s action and America’s action as a nation that produce frustrations, disappointments, and other affects of thwarted agency. Being crippled means not being able to act because of some limiting force; illegal immigrants can’t be kept out, congress can’t pass a budget, jobs can’t be brought back to where they belong, suspected terrorists can’t be water-boarded, families of ISIS members can’t be killed because the U.S. military has to stay within the boundaries of laws. It also means that others have outmanevoured or outwitted America’s “stupid” politicians who bear the most responsibility for the crippling of America and the pain and sense of decline his supporters supposedly feel. Russia, China, Iran, Mexico, Middle Eastern countries and a range of other nations are depicted as rivals in a competition who are currently winning because they are “smarter.” Whilst other countries are positioned as rivals to be defeated and at times admired for their cunning, US politicians are treated with contempt. Weak, ineffectual, stupid, politicians across both parties are decried by Trump as “total losers” because they don’t act. His rivals for Republican nominee were repeatedly branded as losers as they were reduced to endlessly repeated nicknames (or negative brands): “Lyin’ Ted” and “Little Marco” (and for the Democrats—”Corrupt Hilary” and “Mad Bernie”). In comparison to this cast of “total losers,” what Trump promised was a resurgence of sovereignty that sheds all impediments to action and restores the currently absent feeling of the freedom to act. Consider his comments about the “naysayers” who say he/America can’t build a wall:
So when you think of it— and then they say you’ll never be able to build a wall. Well, it’s 2,000 miles but we really need 1,000 miles. The Great Wall of China, built 2,000 years ago, is 13,000 miles, folks, and they didn’t have Caterpillar tractors, because I only want to use Caterpillar, if you want to know the truth, or John Deere. I buy a lot of equipment from John Deere. I love John Deere, too. But they didn’t have tractors. They didn’t have cranes. They didn’t have excavation equipment. The wall is 13,000 miles long. We need 1,000 miles and we have all of the materials. We can do that so beautifully. And this is going to be a serious wall. This is going to be high wall. This is going to be a very serious wall.
Clearly an expression of bellicosity and fear of the racialized other, and maybe a collective infrastructural project that people can attach to that, counters the image of broken infrastructure, the wall is also an enactment of the promise to not accept diminished expectations (if China can do it thousands of years ago … ) and an expression of a renewed possibility of action (including the “smart” action of getting someone else—Mexico—to pay for it). We find the renewed promise and possibility of sovereign action throughout Trump’s campaign; in how he decried political correctness, saying that he “doesn’t have time for it”; in how he advocated waterboarding and “much worse” in the treatment of “terrorists”; in his proposals to ban Muslims from traveling to America, in the promise to cut through the bureaucracy and “red tape.” Consider his frequently repeated example of how Carrier, an air-refrigeration company, closed a factory in Indiana and moved 1400 jobs to Mexico. His solution to a story that stood in for America “losing” and perhaps resonated with people’s economic anxieties was a simple one—to phone up the CEO on day one of his presidency and threaten to impose a 35% tariff on every unit sold in the United States. It doesn’t matter whether this or any other solution are within the capacity of the President. What they all have in common is the promise that Trump/America can and will act again and an image and feeling of action without constraint. We can understand his frequent descriptions of himself as “high energy” and rivals as “low energy” in these terms as a performance of vitality. Perhaps we can also understand his nostalgia for violence—including his rueful fantasies of wanting but not being able to punch protestors—in these terms as fantasies of action without impediment. As a protestor was ejected from a Trump rally in Fayetteville, N.C, for example, he tied their disruption to a story of decline and the weakness of a “crippled” America that can no longer act: “See, in the good old days this didn’t use to happen, because they [presumably the police] used to treat them very rough, we’ve become very weak.”
“Now we’re going to get greedy for the United States”
What is the basis for legitimacy of Trump as sovereign actor? And what is the basis for a form of authority that appears immune to reason based critique? “Fact checking” Trump’s statements and policies, pointing to his lies, distortions and omissions or to how impossible or undesirable his solutions are, is necessary but appeared to have little purchase with his supporters (although given his negative approval ratings it may move other constituencies still attached to truth based modes of political discourse). Highlighting his ignorance or idiocy or incoherence, just as was done with George W. Bush, is again necessary but also appears to do little with supporters, save for performing superiority (which isn’t to discount tactics that use parody, the absurd, and mockery to discredit). This is unsurprising. In part, it’s because the legitimacy of those who critique Trump has long frayed, met by suspicion and cynicism if not outright contempt by some publics as part of an anti-politics mood that is intensifying, and perhaps spreading, to also condition how non-political actors invoked by politicians are related to and become affectively present in people’s everyday lives. Again, Trump intensifies trajectories that have been central to the political right in America for at least the past two decades (on which see Connolly, 2008). It’s not just that the “liberal media” is biased; for Trump, all media is biased. It’s not just that politicians from the Democratic Party are incompetent, stupid, or corrupt; it’s that all politicians are. It’s not just this or that part of the system that needs reforming; the whole system is irredeemably broken. So critique of Trump by those actors boomerangs to become conformation of media bias, confirmation that politicians are captured by special interests, confirmation that the system is mobilizing to defend itself.
But, in part, the inadequacy of truth based modes of political critique is because Trump’s authority rests on other sources. Much recent work has tracked the emergence of affective modes of political legitimization, tying them loosely to a series of changes in democratic practices and arrangements and the weakening of prior forms of collective life and identification (see Berlant, 2007 and Massumi, 2015). Trump intensifies various affective styles that have been central to the right in America. The violence that imbues so many of his solutions repeats the bellicosity that Connolly (2008) and others have shown has animated the post 9/11 Republican Party. Echoing the tone of the “war on terror,” a core part of Trump’s campaign was the threat of Muslim terror and the necessity and simplicity of violence as a means of offering protection to a nation dramatized as vulnerable (expressed in the frequent associations between “open” immigration and letting in practitioners of “radical Islam”). Closely connected, the anti-Mexican immigrant rhetoric at the heart of the campaign resonated with other efforts by the right to harness people’s anger and anxiety at the threat to the hegemonic position of whiteness (and the hope that whiteness equaled social status even in times of national decline and loss). Tellingly, Trump launched his campaign with stories about Mexico having “sent” rapists and murderers in a manner that attempted to resonate with forms of white cultural and economic anxiety and tie those anxieties to crime related insecurity. Whiteness under threat in times of economic decline is, then, central to the event of Trump’s emergence as candidate. But his affective style is more than an expression of racism and xenophobia tied to an image of a man who acts without impediment; if it was only that it would be much easier to counter and offer an alternative to. It’s also more than a melodramatic story of hope that contrasts a better future with a broken present, given that all political campaigns express and offer more or less specific hopes, albeit in a range of different tones. Trump’s status as brand and reality TV personality add other elements that fold us back into the contemporary post 9/11 and post Financial Crisis situation.
As well as the empathy that is performed in affirming the truth of anger and recognizing the presence of economic and other insecurities and pain, central to Trump’s legitimacy was his performance of a particular kind of emotional authenticity at a time in which politicians must be “affectively intelligible” to voters (Berlant, 2007) in a manner that involves, but extends beyond and is not reducible to, charisma. Let’s return to the Wall he promised to build. Partly an expression of an anxiety imbued reassertion of boundaries in a world in which whiteness is under threat, the Wall is inseparable from a xenophobic bellicosity and the resurgence of nationalism as faith in globalization’s promises where frays, ends, or was never present (his main foreign policy speech was entitled “America First”). But Trump’s use of the wall in his speeches was also imbued with something else, something that has traditionally been policed and disciplined by the non-libertarian political right—fun. Take a typical scene of Trump talking about the wall. After doing impressions in a whining voice of unnamed politicians saying “you can’t build a wall” and joking to audience laughter that China “never stopped” as they took 500 years to build their wall, he boasted:
I’m a great builder. What do I best in life, in all fairness, is I build. Which is good as your infrastructure in this country is crumbling. Isn’t it nice to have a builder? A real builder. So you take precast plank. It comes 30 feet long, 40 feet long, 50 feet long. You see the highways where they can span 50, 60 feet, even longer than that, right? And do you a beautiful nice precast plank with beautiful everything. Just perfect. I want it to be so beautiful because maybe someday they’ll call it The Trump Wall. Maybe. So I have to make sure it’s beautiful, right? I’ll be very proud of that wall. If they call it the The Trump Wall, it has to be beautiful.
Amid the cheers and applause, people laughed at the idea of naming it The Trump Wall. Trump made his question and answer sessions, speeches, and rallies fun; they were entertaining. People laughed at the exaggeration and perhaps at his outrageousness, but they also laughed at his insults, at his verbal and gestural impressions, at his name calling. Sometimes, it was the fun of not being serious in a world of responsibilities, the fun of being with other people in a shared situation, the fun of not being weighed down, for a time, by all the impediments to action that block, thwart, and frustrate. It was the fun of feeling liberated as finally someone other than you was publicly saying everything you were told you couldn’t or shouldn’t. The fun of not conforming to norms of action and thought that you never fully believed in or felt like you consented to. Often, it was a terrifying fun inseparable from violence. It was the fun of being on the side of the bully. Perhaps Trump gives people permission to have fun again in a mood and situation of a too serious crisis ordinariness, permission to enjoy their resentments and grievances, permission to enjoy hate (and fun became part of the wider event of Trump as candidate as Trump’s opponents laughed at his hair, listened to comedians mock his verbal incoherence, smiled distractedly at memes circulated through social media that collate his “stupidest statements”).
Perhaps, though, there is a type of emotional authenticity to being fun given its connotations of spontaneity and unpredictability. Fun contrasts with the scripted performance of other “out of touch” politicians and the stifling impersonality conjured up by images of and experiences of bureaucracy and bureaucrats (witness the importance of fun to some right-wing male politicians in the UK, including Boris Johnson or Nigel Farage). Being fun was part of the meaning of Trump being “unpresidential.” To be “presidential,” for Trump, is to be calculating, to be cool (especially given the extent to which Obama functions in the campaign as a figure of hate). It is to use a teleprompter. It is to be careful and weigh the effects of words. It is too invoke complexity and risk as becoming boring by knowing the details of policy. To be “unpresidential” is to never be boring, to always be able to capture and hold attention, to say what shouldn’t be said and do what shouldn’t be done. It’s to talk about the size of your penis in comparison to a candidate you only ever refer to as “little Marco.” It’s to boast of success. It’s to call opponents “pussies” and laugh when people at his rallies do. It’s to call women “disgusting pigs.” It’s to reject any critique as political correctness. And this fun that is always-already violent folds back into an event based attention economy that amplifies and extends every disruption to the norms of political discourse. In so doing it circulated Trump’s performances of a specific type of masculine emotional authenticity (including as it amplifies disruption with mixtures of disbelief, fascination, anxiety, worry, and horror). As the 7th strategy for success in Trump’s Art of the Deal reminds us, the media need and co-create events: “One thing I’ve learned about the press is that they’re always hungry for a good story, and the more sensational the better…The point is that if you are a little different, a little outrageous, or if you do things that are bold or controversial, the press is going to write about you.”
“Being fun” is inseperable from another aspect of Trump’s style that I think was central to his legitimacy as a subject who promises action without impediment—his self-comfort, or ease with himself. In a fantastic piece on John Kerry’s failed presidential bid, Lauren Berlant (2007) points to the relation between emotional authenticity and the “performance of self-comfort.” On her reading, Kerry could never display the “fealty to oneself” that George W. Bush did and, she argued, was necessary in a post-ideological space in which “gut feelings” and proximity to fantasies matter. Utterly at ease with himself and without hesitation or ambivalence, Trump displayed a confidence during his campaign that never wavered. He performed belief in himself, and that belief was mediated through speeches at rallies, campaign videos that featured close ups of him talking, and frequent talk show appearances. He expressed something of the “capturable life potential” that Massumi (2002: 41) argues Ronald Reagan did. Trump projected a sense of confidence that is inseparable from arrogance by never holding back, by being outrageous, by being predictably unpredictable. Consistency is performed through the absence of any interruptions to the continuity of his belief in himself and his solutions. His policy positions may regularly change or never really exist, as critics rightly point out even if it is too little effect, but he never apologized or compromised (likewise he never apologized when criticized for violence at rallies or for sexist or racist remarks and behavior). Unlike Kerry and in common with Bush, and before him, Reagan (Berlant, 2007), Trump never disavowed any aspect of himself. He combined being barely coherent at the level of ideas or even verbal expression, beyond the promise of action that occasionally attaches to vague policy specifics such as the wall or bringing back waterboarding, with complete coherence at the level of his self-performance as a man who believes absolutely that he is the smartest and most successful and most entertaining.
The basis for Trump’s self-comfort is his self-identification as a “winner” in the one source of legitimacy that remains once all other sources of value have been discredited—business as an expression of competition. As he regularly reminded his supporters of his success in business and the material wealth that follows, Trump often compared being in politics to being in business. Being in politics is “disgusting.” It’s full of “horrible people” who lie and cheat and scheme. To be in business is to be in a competition driven by the only transparent motive: greed. For Trump, there’s a truth to competition as motivated by greed: everyone wants to win, but only some can. Business differentiates between winners and losers. America is currently losing as its rivals are “smarter” and its own leaders are “incompetent” and “losers.” By comparison, Trump is a “winner” in the competition that is business and this confers upon him a capacity to solve all problems (or to hire and pay others to do so). A passage from Crippled America (2015) is typical of the boasting and defiance that works alongside the fun and self-comfort to perform a particular type of masculinity:
A lot of times when I speak, people say I don’t provide specific policies that some pollster has determined are what people want to hear. I know that’s not the way the professional politicians do it—they seem to poll and focus-group every word. But there’s nobody like me.
I ask people to look at what I’ve done throughout my whole career. Look at how successful I’ve been doing things my way. So they have a choice: They can pretend some impossible solution is actually going to happen, or they can listen to the person who has proved that he can solve problems.
I started in a relatively small real estate company based in Brooklyn and made more than $10 billion. I now live on what is considered the best block of real estate anywhere in the world—Fifth Avenue between 56th Street and 57th Street, right next to Tiffany’s in the heart of New York City (74).
And at a time in which faith in the practices and institutions of the democratic system has, for some people, waned, being a “winner” in business confers legitimacy (and this expands beyond the persona of Trump to other figures from business). Business as an expression of competition was invoked by Trump’s campaign as the only effective and legitimate counter to the ineffectual political system with its compromise. In keeping with his story of people left behind as jobs move, Trump also criticized business practices—in particular monopolies in health care and outsourcing of jobs outside of America—that, for him, do not express competition in its purist form. Trump has a double position in relation to the truth and value that is competition. In his campaigns, he constantly reminded supporters of his success, of his wealth, of where he lives, of everything he possesses. He’s not only a winner in the game of business, though. Through his role in the reality TV show The Apprentice, he has been mediated as a winner who judges and decides who should win and whose authority is never challenged. In comparison to politicians with their backstage negotiations and compromises that publics are always distanced from, on The Apprentice Trump decided and every week viewers had a proximity to the event of decision (the speech act “You’re fired,” but also the experience of waiting for decision). Working for him and learning from his experience was also the symbolic prize that people compete for and are prepared to fail publicly, and perhaps humiliatingly, in pursuit of. Adapting Massumi’s (2015: 32-34) observation that Reagan was the first figure to fuse the functions of head of state and commander-in-chief with television personality, we might say that Trump was the first to fuse and subsume the position of prospective US Presidential candidate to the styles of commercial brand and reality TV star. Across 12 seasons of The Apprentice and built on the prior establishment of Trump as brand, viewers were entertained as Trump performed authority and the persona of a winner in line with the conventions of a genre of reality TV that values being decisive and combative. It’s also a genre that (re)enacts the cultural-political status of competition as the best means of accessing and exposing the hidden truth of character and ability. When affective investments in or attachments to other sources of legitimacy and authority are fraying or have been lost this is what is left: the truth of competition and a belief in “winners” who “play to people’s fantasies”:
I’ll tell you what we’re going to do, right? We get greedy, right? Now we’re going to get greedy for the United States. We’re going to grab and grab and grab. We’re going to bring in so much money and so much everything. We’re going to make America great again, folks, I’m telling you folks, we’re going to make America great again.
I completed a draft of this paper on June 20th, 2016 as Trump secured the Republican nomination. I finished it, sent it around some friends and a journal, but decided not to do anything else with it, chiefly because I became concerned about the attention economy that surrounded Trump and worried that the paper, in only the smallest of ways, was part of both that economy and one example of an emerging genre of horrified fascination with Trump (which was and is part of the composition of the mediatized event of Trump’s emergence). In returning to it two weeks or so after Trump’s inauguration I’ve only changed the tense. I don’t think the event of Trump’s emergence as Republican presidential nominee, and now President, is symptomatic of a generalized shift in the culture and politics of Western democracies towards a wholly affect based post-truth mode of political discourse. Not only would that kind of totalizing account struggle to offer an explanation for Trump’s deep unpopularity, it would also ignore people’s continued attachment to truth based modes of political discourse, and the ways in which various contemporary political figures of the left and right embody and perform reasonableness, mixing it with tones of empathy, controlled anger, charisma, kindness, concern and so on (most obviously Barak Obama in the US, but also in quite different ways Jeremy Corbyn, Theresa May, and Nicola Sturgeon in the UK). Instead of an epochal shift, I think a set of conditions that are at once affective and material coalesced to enable some people to attach to and invest in the Trump campaign’s story of loss in a broken present and fantasies of a better future based on a resurgence of action without impediment. I’ve speculated on some of those conditions; anti-immigrant feeling, an endless, dispersed “war on terror,” new forms of entertainment programming, felt threats to the hegemonic position of whiteness, spreading precarity amid a mood and situation of crisis ordinariness, waning faith in democratic institutions. There were others. Without presuming that all Trump supporters enthusiastically endorsed him or were without doubt and ambivalence, we can say that it is from within these conditions that Trump’s story of America and his masculine performance of fun and self-comfort based on the truth and value of “winning” in competition resonated.
I originally finished the piece with a series of hopes for how Trump would be forgotten, for how his promises would be greeted with mockery and derision, for how the event of Trump’s emergence might serve as an occasion for affirming other ways of being in relation. Despite Trump’s victories, I’m not sure whether those hopes have or have not been disappointed and lost or whether they live on or whether, perhaps, some have been realized in the intensity of critical and creative response to Trump’s initial actions as President. Watching and participating in scenes of protest in the weeks since his inauguration, I’m struck by how the contemporary condition is irreducible to Trump and support for Trump. Take the response to the Trump administration’s flurry of media staged executive orders, in particular the ban on travel to the U.S.A from seven majority Muslim countries. Likely designed to circulate the affects of decisiveness and of action in the initial weeks, the executive order is one manifestation of Trump’s combination of resentments and fears directed towards racialized others with the promise of action without impediment. A promise that whether expressed in the bellicosity of “building a wall” or the misogyny of “grabbing women by the pussies” was central to his victories. Yet, it is precisely the promise of action that has become an intense site of contestation. Decisive action has been reframed and felt as capricious, as discriminatory, as counterproductive, as un-American. And it is has been reframed through a combination of online mockery, direct action, forensic legal scrutiny, compelling stories of lives impacted, and fierce assertions of other values. And perhaps that is where hope continues to lie and why it is too soon to say hopes have been disappointed—in actions that, by affirming and practicing solidarities and belongings across differences, reverse every aspect of Trump’s promise that the solution to the ills of the present are to be found in masculinist fantasies of bellicose action without limit.
But there is something too comforting about this story of hope kept alive, even as I’m concerned about the oscillation between tones of melancholia and catastrophe that delimit and foreclose left-liberal affective responses in emergency times. It risks moving too quickly from the present pain of hate speech, intensified immigration checks and raids, and other racialized and gendered violences enabled by the event of Trump’s emergence. And by attempting to name what is possible it risks presuming the stability and legibility of the present. It risks passing over the disorientation that is one amongst many contemporary structures of feeling. Terms such as “post-truth” or “fake news” are, for example, for me symptoms of and responses to that disorientation as elements of a liberal order that never resembled the fantasies now invested in it fray and end and as resentments towards liberalism intensify and “liberal elites” becomes another enemy. So rather than tell a single story I finish with some questions that stay with the uncertainty of what the event of Trump’s presidency is and will become; how to understand the felt resonance of stories of decline and the political force of clusters of resentments and promises?; how might affective attachments to truth or facts be cultivated and intensified as part of populisms that don’t violently other?; what kind of crisis of legitimacy would interrupt an authority grounded in the masculinist performance of action without limit, self-comfort and the “truth” of winning in competition; what becomes of promises that are never realized and how might promises and hopes for progressive change be felt by and resonate with more people?
My thanks to Lauren Martin for encouraging me to return to this piece and her supportive comments, and to Helen Wilson, Adam Holden, Harriett Bulkeley, Colin McFarlane, Oliver Belcher, Noam Leshem, Paul Harrison, and the students in my Level 3 Neoliberal Life module at Durham for discussions around the event of Trump and/or comments on this piece.
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