Monday, November 7, 2016

Trump as Capitalist Folk Hero - Updated

Trump as Capitalist Folk Hero,

or the Rise of the White Entrepreneur as Political Bully and Strongman

A short, updated version that I read at the new issue release party for
Black Renaissance Noire 16. 2 (Fall 2016)

Roddey Reid

What will we be after Election Day? Discarded employees or disenfranchised voters? Donald Trump may have the answer.
            One fallout of the release of the tape of Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women is to re-direct debate back to the workplace and its abusive power relations from which Trump first came. After all, the workplace is where gropers still thrive today and where they enjoy the greatest immunity. Yet, except for a passing nod to his TV franchise “The Apprentice,” at this late stage of the election, pundits and editors have still paid little or no attention to the extent to which CEO Donald Trump’s tactics of intimidation first achieved public legitimacy by virtue of changes in US corporate management culture dating from the 1980s and how Trump has parlayed them into a potent political campaign. Now that Trump has smashed all remaining boundaries of acceptable political discourse and commentators continue to focus obsessively on his dysfunctional personality, it is important to remember that while Trump may be a violent narcissist, not all narcissists can become Trump, the capitalist folk hero and Republican presidential nominee. And if Trump represents the unvarnished expression of the Republicans’ decades-long “Southern strategy” of stoking white voters’ fears in the face of economic uncertainty and shifting demographics, the white nationalist content of his campaign has been amplified by a mesmerizing, free-wheeling entrepreneurial style that respects no social or ethical limits as its relentlessly seeks political advantage and opportunities against all-comers. Trump’s powerful melding of racist and misogynistic content with his aggressive entrepreneurialism has formed the basis of much of his broad appeal that took the Republican establishment and U.S. commentariat by surprise. Whatever the outcome of the presidential race, Trump’s campaign has unleashed frightening public dynamics, and the overtly violent, almost fascist political culture that he has mainstreamed risks shaping U.S. elections for years to come.

Trump the Entrepreneur

In all respects Trump’s successful strategy to become the nominee of the Republican Party was a textbook hostile takeover bid of a corporation--memorably dramatized by Michael Douglas as corporate raider Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s 1987 film Wall Street--that appealed to the shareholders (the party base) to revolt against a smug and inept management (the Republican establishment) by promising a price that could not be beat: unalloyed expression of their voter outrage at the status quo in a bid “to make [white] America great again.” 
            Trump is the proud graduate of the Wharton School of Business that in the late twentieth century spawned some of the most destructive businessmen and Wall Street operators (Lewis Ranieri’s notorious Salomon Brothers gang) who created mortgage-backed securities (bonds), those weapons of mass destruction of “shadow finance.” Yet he is also an independent businessman—real estate mogul--who affects none of the smooth talk of corporate communications but all the rough street speech of under-socialized Wall Street bond traders and the outsized personality of free-wheeling entrepreneurs for whom  everyday is a new day and what you lose today you can win back tomorrow.[1] Each day represents an opportunity in which anything is negotiable. Action and movement are everything; like Gordon Gekko he radiates the pure macho energy of risk and success: if you stand still, you die.
            To boot, Trump enjoys the clout of a CEO without any accountability to a board of directors or aggressive mutual fund shareholders. Unlike George W. Bush, touted by Republicans as the first “CEO president,” he is his own man and beholden to no one (clan, party, or donors). He possesses the magical freedom and irresponsibility of celebrities while embodying the savvy worldliness of the makers and shakers of capitalist America.

The Rise of the Tyrannical Boss

Long before Trump’s candidacy burst upon the national political stage, the U.S. business press and workplace had been teeming with intimidating and bullying CEOs since the early 1980s.[2]
            For two decades running, Fortune and Business Week featured awe-struck, admiring articles such as “America’s Toughest Bosses” or “Tough Times, Tough Bosses” that promoted this new figure christening him the “bullying boss”: one who was aloof yet mercurial, manipulative, abusive, arbitrary, and vindictive, and, to the delight of the press, often colorful and quirky. Media exposés followed with admiring nicknames such as “Chainsaw,” “Old Blood and Guts,” “Rambo in pinstripes,” “Jack the Ripper,” and “Prince of Darkness.[3] (Less impressed by this male personality type, female employees offered one of their own, “BSD” or “Big Swinging Dick.”). Thus a new American folk hero was born who has been afforded every indulgence and every reprieve.

From Cold War Smearing to Entrepreneurial Bullying

Educated in the Cold War art of the political smear by his mentor and lawyer Roy Cohn, Trump expertly engages in stigmatizing the identity of opponents. But overlooked by pundits and reporters is the peculiarly entrepreneurial twist Trump lends to the older bullying enterprise: he introduces an aggressive timeline in which the future is everything and the present and past exist only to be overcome. Trump successfully combines as perhaps no other before him the entrepreneur’s and the politician’s respective obsessions with the short-term in which the future is pure promise of change and transformation of which he, Trump, is the sole broker. This is the sales pitch of most every U.S. politician, businessman, and confidence man.
            Trump speaks as a free man from the future: in truth, ever ready for the latest deal or next primary, he has no identity, only a future-oriented readiness to negotiate anything (real estate, the constitution, the, elections) and with anyone (Putin, Kim Jong-un).
            The real identity he embodies needs no naming: the great, mythical free-born white American male. It is the re-assertion of voters’ violent personal sovereignty over threatening others through identification with a charismatic and sadistic leader. In free-market economies like the U.S., this most likely means a businessman.

The Method

So what may seem hysterical or out of control is actually a method. And one that has often worked. In this world, no holds are barred and nothing is sacred. Bullying strives to impress upon both actual and potential victims its literally boundless character that exceeds all possible imaginings and logic. Trump’s nihilistic, entrepreneurial aggressiveness matches the limitlessly intrusive character of unregulated capitalism itself in daily life. Relentlessly expansive and seeking out new targets, bullies like him are extremist and arbitrary by necessity: public bullying intimidates in part because it makes violently clear to one and all that it is supremely indifferent to any type of social, psychological or ethical boundary.
            Like the relentlessly opportunist populist leaders of far-right movements described by Robert O. Paxton in his essay, “The Five Stages Fascism,”[4] Trump’s behavior follows no coherent program or ideology—nor apparently does it need to--other than the expression of the pure free energy and forward movement of his entitled self in defense of a declining America and its embattled middle and working classes.[5] And as the campaign has progressed, Trump’s violent, arbitrary personal style has become the very content of his campaign.
            Trump treats political issues--and politics generally--like his business holdings, employees, clients, and family members as an asset to be manipulated—and abused. This is the force and freedom of a fully entrepreneurial politician, one that repels but also fascinates many voters. 
            By March 2016 Trump had taken the next step: he graduated from verbal bullying to frequent calls to physical violence towards protestors at his rallies; far from slowing his relentless rise in the polls, Trump seemed to legitimatize a vein of violence in the public sphere that has begun to feed on itself: he and his supporters appear to revel in it, glory in it, and find each other and bond through it. By late summer he was even calling for violent opposition to Hillary Clinton should she be elected. He has adopted a truly pre-fascist political style that is aggrieved, xenophobic, nostalgic, paranoid, and physically violent. Beyond the law and its routine protections. And remarkably successful up to the first Presidential debate with Hillary Clinton.

Beyond Trump

Trump’s populist genius is to at once personify all that unfettered capitalism promises and lead a revolt against all its disappointments in the name of those very same promises. However, whether after Election Day we find ourselves to be discarded employees or disenfranchised voters, and even if Trump loses the election (an increasingly likely possibility), the enabling social and economic conditions of his rise will remain in place awaiting the emergence of another defiant capitalist folk hero who displays all the aggressive liberty in word and deed of the free-born white man that many voters admire and identify with. Like Trump he—not she--will be granted every indulgence, every reprieve—and will be most likely not from New York and discredited Wall Street but from Silicon Valley in the form of a charismatic, libertarian but younger and perhaps less brazenly self-interested and contemptuous CEO, venture capitalist, or hedge-fund manager.[6] With or without The Donald, Trumpism’s legitimization of violent white nationalist politics and its authoritarian culture of public intimidation and terror will continue to convulse not only the Republican Party but the entire body politic. To be clear: his pre-emptive questioning of the election results is meant to guarantee that.

[1] Michael Barbaro, “What Drives Donald Trump? Fear of Losing Status, Tapes Show,” New York Times, 25 Oct. 2016.

[2] Stanley Bing, Crazy Bosses: Spotting Them, Serving Them, Surviving Them, 1st ed., New York: William Morrow, 1992, 72.
[3] John A. Byrne, “Chainsaw,” Business Week, 18 Oct. 1999, 128-38.
[4] Robert O. Paxton, “The Five Stages of Fascism,” Journal of Modern History, vol. 70, no. 1 (March 1998): 1-23.
[5] Paxton, “Five Stages of Fascism,” 15-16.
[6] “total corporate despotism….. a little Steve Jobs here, a little Ayn Rand there, and some Ray Kurzweil for color”: Corey Pein, “Mouthbreathing Machiavelli’s Dream of a Silicon Reich,” The Baffler, 19 May 2014. Menciius Moldbug (Curtis Guy Yarvin), “How to Reboot the US Government”: “a national CEO [or] what’s called a dictator.” Decries “chronic kinglessness.” See also Nick Land, “Revenge of the Nerds”: Right-wing Lawrence Auster’s proposal to deport Muslims praised by Yarvin: Praise of S. African colonial rule: & Sympathy for Joe McCarthy: Moldburg as guest speaker at engineering conference: MrAnon of DailyKos on Trump & these neo-reactionaries: David Brin on these neo-reactionaries: Silicon Valley successionist call: & video of Balaji Srivasan’s speech: . Thiel (former René Girard student) speech on incompatibility between freedom and democracy: “A startup is basically structured as a monarchy”. George Packer on Thiel: See Pein’s Baffle art: & podcast: