Trump is not only an outsider to the political class (rather than an outsider within it, as per Sanders). He’s also, more importantly, a chaos principle in regard to it, taking advantage of breakdown within the political class to advance his own agenda. Hence, the power of his populism resides in three key elements:
in one part, being haute bourgeois enough to convey a credible sense of “being in charge of things”, of occupying the “commanding heights” of global capitalism to be able to manage its realities in office while pushing for transformations in its workings;
in another part, being right-political enough to (1) appeal centrally to the “promise of the nation” as that which puts its citizens first (and, importantly, not only large swathes of its white workers and lumpens, as well as elements of its downwardly spiralling pb – although as with any appeal to nationality or citizenship in “white” countries, this is inferred and normed as primary – but also its legal immigrants, who he positions as among the most adversely affected by his (racist) picture of the “criminality” of illegal immigrants) as well as to (2) draw on desire for preservation of the “good” elements of the status quo to oppose any form of left radicalism as bad for the country’s prosperity and security (cf. this being the content which marks Trump’s gravity as right-of-centre, that defines why he is running as a Republican, especially in relation to race and gender, even when he’s floating stuff, like critiques of the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, which are substantially the ground of the left);
and, finally, in a third part, being anti-political enough to engage a key section of a growing general “negative real movement” in core-capitalist societies that sees the practice of politics in and of itself as the problem. This last is the radical content in Trumpism – the rational kernel – that the left should be paying close attention to. As it stands right now, however, next to none of its representatives seem able to even conceptualise (let alone organise) this radicalism which asserts itself as the rejection of politics as such, despite the fact that it is the most crucial plank of Trump’s success. For it is not, ultimately, the political program Trump stands for which has suddenly ruptured the GOP’s political field, but the kinetics of his destructive orientation toward the entire political field, Republican and Democrat, altogether.
Trump engages this through three primary mechanisms.
First, his presentation of himself as outside all the informal and formal pathways of the establishment through his very ability, in cross-wiring the ideological fixities of clearly right-wing stances – like an aggressively “vetted” and absolutely enforced citizenship racism considered impossible by orthodoxies about how contemporary capitalist labour supply has to work – with clearly left-wing stances – like approval of state-driven growth stimulus spending declared unaffordable by orthodoxies about the way contemporary capitalist economics has to work – to unify the current wings of the political class against him (and who do so, in cultural terms, mostly on grounds which express clear disdain of his gaucheness as a bourgeois, exposing their shared elitism).
Second, his hammering home again and again of the generalised self-enriching and self-advancing two-faced cupidity which is indispensable to the political class and which makes politicians constitutively corrupt (while, far from being a sign of complicity, his bourgeois status, in its apparent independence of the political (not the economic) process, only makes his own history of purchasing influence a virtue for him (at least for now), in the sense he’s one of the buyers, not one of the bought; and, indeed, this is also part of what makes his narcissism and bombast “refreshing” for many people – there’s no (apparent) two-facedness, just plain outright admission this is about “winning”, i.e. self-advancement, and an invitation (to citizen-Americans, if mainly white) to be part of the winners, not the losers).
Third, and last but certainly not least, his canny approach to “culture war” battles, one of the most bedevilling parts of contemporary political power. This has three main prongs:
(1) “force a solution” to culture war battles – such as propelling Obama to release his birth certificate, which, even though it only confirmed the obvious fact of Obama’s American citizenship, demonstrated Trump’s ability not merely to run forever on insoluble cultural intractables but to “get to the bottom of them”, to “sort things out”. He has further shown a willingness to apply these standards “equally” (albeit with vasty differentiated impacts due to distinctions in social history of the targets) to the Right as well as the Left through airing a new set of “Birther” accusations against Ted Cruz;
(2) deliver a stark rebuke of culture war battles, with an emphasis on exposure of their divisive cynicism – as in the slapping down of Cruz’s attack from the right on his “New York values”, or the marking of Clinton’s “feminism” as a ploy through pointing out the outright sexists she not only “rubs shoulders with” but ideologically concurs with in the DNC effort to attack Trump’s sexism from the left;
(3) engage in a deliberate side-stepping of their terms – such as by opposing PC not so much because it’s a cultural Marxist conspiracy aimed at suborning the capitalist and/or conservative order, or the invidious class warfare of liberal elites seeking ways to terrorise workers or whatever – although all anti-PCism has the flavour of this insofar as it thinks of PC as an actual coherent “entity” – but because, on both right and left, he claims it over-regulates political life, enervates it, and thus, in the name of having to say or do things purely out of formalistic respect for authority, power and institutions or else formalistic inclusion, recognition, and equality of representation, it empowers a political mandarin class, of both the left and the right. As such, his denunciation of the political class and media for not being able to speak plainly about the Bush administration’s failures in the intelligence alerts it had before 9/11, his refusing to be “nice” and abide by ritualistic genuflection codes that hold bourgeois collegialism together, and his denigrating Sanders for his weakness (i.e. his susceptibility to being corralled by left-wing activists) in his response to the BLM takeover of his Seattle event (with the subtext not only that all left radicalism is bad for the power of the nation and requires strength to be stared down – although this right-wing nostrum is certainly there – but also that the real impasse and stagnation for left-wing politics induced by “recognition politics” is a part of the swamp of the political field, and something that someone like Sanders will only bounce haphazardly back and forth between ignoring and aggravating) are all of them interrelated.
Given that the left is unable to find any way to deal with the oppressions except in culture war terms, is often the most “politically obsessed” grouping in the spectrum of politics (due to its dismal view of the majority of society as a cesspool of reaction as well as its incapacity to deal with its very real, ubiquitous impure contradictoriness in terms of its class consciousness and oppression consciousness), and its incapacity to work out a left wing stance on “right wing issues” (cf. security, individualism, economic “liberty”, so forth) that doesn’t just amount to a collapse into Third Wayism, these last – absolutely crucial – elements of Trumpism have had to be screened out completely. They’re too destabilising to the left’s own basic operating premises on the need for politics to lead society, and for the social to express itself in terms of what Marx criticised as “political reason”. That is, for the social to seek its own freedom in the very terms of its own alienation, in a political realm set apart from itself, standing over and against it. The division between the political and the social marks the practice of politics as the embodiment of an upside-down social relationship in which freedom is supposed to be realised in distinction from the practice of social life, not in a merger with its real activity but in a regulation over and against that activity which will “reform (or “revolutionise”) its ways” (yet, insofar as it achieves anything in this regard, only reorganises, not solves or emancipates from, social want). And so, because of just this, paradoxically, the social becomes both the realm of pure unfreedom due to the very lack of “polity” in the social – with all left to the rule of egoistic interests and various forms of cartellism (ranging from the illegal – in criminal syndicates – to the legal – in “community organising” – to the para-legal – in joint fronts of sections of capital jostling to attain petty sovereignties) – but also seems to act as the realm of real freedom, so far as that exists in real life under capitalism, in its partial and fragmentary freedom from politics.
Thus, despite opportunistic (and not a little desperate) Neo-Nazis attempting to assuage their political marginality by riding the coat tails of Trump’s strongman performatives and ramped-up border chauvinism, Trump finds himself roundly denounced by the “sensible” parlour intellectuals of the GOP Right for his lack of bona fides in failing to adopt a properly conservative view on the race-sapping dimensions of legal immigration. To reiterate: even as the far Right denounces Trump as indicative of a crypto-liberal interloper taking the conservative movement apart at the seams with faux conservative gestures, the very lack of a right-wing surge by all conservative accounts has been transformed by the Left into signs of incipient fascism. In both directions – whether it be the idea that Trump is somehow a far Right political actor or the notion that he is engaged in a great undoing of the conservative capture of the GOP – what stands out is the shared priority for both left and right analyses to try and force the intrusion of signs of social radicality into politics back to the fixities of politically determinate assessments of the innately right-wing or left-wing political investments of the populace, rather than the distance between them and such investments. As it stands, for both Right and Left, the distance of their own political visions from the social has them convinced not of the flaws in their political visions but, rather, of the social in failing to bear those out. This is exemplary of political reason. It is also indicative of a loss of orientation of the Left (in all its ambitious and world-changing revolutionariness of end goals) in relation to social activity – not merely in the sense of the old bromide of a failure to meet “the people where the people are at”, but, rather in even being able to see, what, in their real lives, people are already doing which is the basis upon which they can begin to be brought to practice social freedom together, to overcome the material bases of exploitation, oppressive domination and person to person alienation which silo them away from one another and render them dependent on a state-bound political process they rightly loathe. The hatred of politics is actually the basis upon which the Left today has to begin thinking anew of its own ability to “conquer the political” – not in the sense of eliminating politics for the sake of some “pure sociality” but in the sense of abolishing the very gap, ultimately upheld by property, the state, and wage labour, between political power and social right.