Just a few weeks ago, Donald Trump was a crank and joke, living proof that making lots of money doesn’t mean you have the answers and further proof that being a capitalist doesn’t mean you necessarily like or understand capitalism. His dabbling in politics was widely regarded as a silly distraction.
This week, he leads the polls among the pack of Republican aspirants to the office of president of the United States. While all the other candidates are following the rules, playing the media, saying the right things, obeying the civic conventions, Trump is taking the opposite approach. He doesn’t care. He says whatever. Thousands gather at his rallies to thrill to the moment.
Suddenly he is serious, if only for a time, and hence it is time to take his political worldview seriously.
I just heard Trump speak live. The speech lasted an hour, and my jaw was on the floor most of the time. I’ve never before witnessed such a brazen display of nativistic jingoism, along with a complete disregard for economic reality. It was an awesome experience, a perfect repudiation of all good sense and intellectual sobriety.
Yes, he is against the establishment, against existing conventions. It also serves as an important reminder: As bad as the status quo is, things could be worse. Trump is dedicated to taking us there.
His speech was like an interwar séance of once-powerful dictators who inspired multitudes, drove countries into the ground and died grim deaths. I kept thinking of books like John T. Flynn’s As We Go Marching, especially Chapter Ten that so brilliantly chronicles a form of statism that swept Europe in the 1930s. It grew up in the firmament of failed economies, cultural upheaval and social instability, and it lives by stoking the fires of bourgeois resentment.
Since World War II, the ideology he represents has usually lived in dark corners, and we don’t even have a name for it anymore. The right name, the correct name, the historically accurate name, is fascism. I don’t use that word as an insult only. It is accurate.
Though hardly anyone talks about it today, we really should. It is still real. It exists. It is distinct. It is not going away. Trump has tapped into it, absorbing unto his own political ambitions every conceivable resentment (race, class, sex, religion, economic) and promising a new order of things under his mighty hand.
You would have to be hopelessly ignorant of modern history not to see the outlines and where they end up. I want to laugh about what he said, like reading a comic-book version of Franco, Mussolini or Hitler. And truly I did laugh as he denounced the existence of tech support in India that serves American companies (“how can it be cheaper to call people there than here?”—as if he still thinks that long-distance charges apply). But in politics, history shows that laughter can turn too quickly to tears.
So, what does Trump actually believe? He does have a philosophy, though it takes a bit of insight and historical understanding to discern it. Of course, race baiting is essential to the ideology, and there was plenty of that. When a Hispanic man asked a question, Trump interrupted him and asked if he had been sent by the Mexican government. He took it a step further, dividing blacks from Hispanics by inviting a black man to the microphone to tell how his own son was killed by an illegal immigrant.
Because Trump is the only one who speaks this way, he can count on support from the darkest elements of American life. He doesn’t need to actually advocate racial homogeneity, call for whites-only signs to be hung at immigration control or push for expulsion or extermination of undesirables. Because such views are verboten, he has the field alone, and he can count on the support of those who think that way by making the right noises.
Trump also tosses little bones to the religious right, enough to allow them to believe that he represents their interests. Yes, it’s implausible and hilarious. At the speech I heard, he pointed out that he is a Presbyterian, and thus he is personally affected every time ISIS beheads a Christian.
But as much as racial and religious resentment is part of his rhetorical apparatus, it is not his core. His core is about business, his own business and his acumen thereof. He is living proof that being a successful capitalist is no predictor of one’s appreciation for an actual free market (stealing not trading is more his style). It only implies a love of money and a longing for the power that comes with it. Trump has both.
What do capitalists on his level do? They beat the competition. What does he believe he should do as president? Beat the competition, which means other countries, which means wage a trade war. If you listen to him, you would suppose that the United States is in some sort of massive, epochal struggle for supremacy with China, India, Malaysia and pretty much everyone else in the world.
It takes a bit to figure out what this could mean. He speaks of the United States as if it were one thing, one single firm. A business. “We” are in competition with “them,” as if the country was IBM competing against Samsung, Apple or Dell. “We” are not 300 million people pursuing unique dreams and ideas, with special tastes or interests, cooperating with people around the world to build prosperity. “We” are doing one thing, and that is being part of one business.
In effect, he believes that he is running to be the CEO of the country—not just of the government. He is often compared with Ross Perot, another wealthy businessman who made an independent run. But Perot only promised to bring business standards to government. Trump wants to run the entire nation as if it were Trump Tower.
In this capacity, he believes that he will make deals with other countries that cause the United States to come out on top, whatever that could mean. He conjures up visions of himself or one of his associates sitting across the table from some Indian or Chinese leader and making wild demands that they will buy such and such amount of product, or else “we” won’t buy “their” product. He fantasizes about placing phone calls to “Saudi Arabia,” the country, and telling “it” what he thinks about oil prices.
Trade theory developed over hundreds of years plays no role in his thinking at all. To him, America is a homogenous unit, no different from his own business enterprise. With his run for president, he is really making a takeover bid, not just for another company to own but for an entire country to manage from the top down, under his proven and brilliant record of business negotiation and acquisition.
You see why the whole speech came across as bizarre? It was. And yet, maybe it was not. In the 18th century, there is a trade theory called mercantilism that posited something similar: Ship the goods out and keep the money in. It builds up industrial cartels that live at the expense of the consumer.
In the 19th century, this penchant for industrial protectionism and mercantilism became guild socialism, which mutated later into fascism and then into Nazism. You can read Mises to find out more on how this works.
What’s distinct about Trumpism, and the tradition of thought it represents, is that it is not leftist in its cultural and political outlook (see how he is praised for rejecting “political correctness”), and yet it is still totalitarian in the sense that it seeks total control of society and economy and demands no limits on state power.
Whereas the left has long attacked bourgeois institutions like family, church and property, fascism has made its peace with all three. It (very wisely) seeks political strategies that call on the organic matter of the social structure and inspire masses of people to rally around the nation as a personified ideal in history, under the leadership of a great and highly accomplished man.
Trump believes himself to be that man. He sounds fresh, exciting, even thrilling, like a man with a plan and a complete disregard for the existing establishment and all its weakness and corruption.
This is how strongmen take over countries. They say some true things, boldly, and conjure up visions of national greatness under their leadership. They’ve got the flags, the music, the hype, the hysteria, the resources, and they work to extract that thing in many people that seeks heroes and momentous struggles in which they can prove their greatness.
Think of Commodus (161-192 A.D.) in his war against the corrupt Roman senate. His ascension to power came with the promise of renewed Rome. What he brought was inflation, stagnation and suffering. Historians have usually dated the fall of Rome from his leadership.
Or, if you prefer pop culture, think of Bane, the would-be dictator of Gotham in Batman, who promises an end to democratic corruption, weakness and loss of civic pride. He sought a revolution against the prevailing elites in order to gain total power unto himself.
These people are all the same. They purport to be populists, while loathing the decisions people actually make in the marketplace (such as buying Chinese goods or hiring Mexican employees).
Oh, how they love the people, and how they hate the establishment. They defy all civic conventions. Their ideology is somehow organic to the nation, not a wacky import like socialism. They promise a new era based on pride, strength, heroism, triumph. They have an obsession with the problem of trade and mercantilist belligerence at the only solution. They have zero conception of the social order as a complex and extended ordering of individual plans, one that functions through freedom.
This is a dark history, and I seriously doubt that Trump himself is aware of it. Instead, he just makes it up as he goes along, speaking from his gut, just like Uncle Harry at Thanksgiving dinner, just like two guys at the bar during last call.
This penchant has always served him well. It cannot serve a whole nation well. Indeed, the very prospect is terrifying and not just for the immigrant groups and foreign peoples he has chosen to scapegoat for all the country’s problems. It’s a disaster in waiting for everyone.
My own prediction is that the political exotica he represents will not last. It’s a moment in time. The thousands who attend his rallies and scream their heads off will head home and return to enjoying movies, smartphones and mobile apps from all over the world, partaking in the highest standard of living experienced in the whole of human history, granted courtesy of the global market economy in which no one rules. We will not go back.