What Trump may not realise, however, is that he is in fact dealing the deadliest blow so far to the neoliberal order that he feeds on.
In electing Donald Trump the forty-fifth president of the United States on 8 November 2016, the American people have in fact voted against Trump and the predatory system he embodies. He may have masterfully exploited the despair of the precariat to his own advantage, yet it is the precariat, the working class struggling with chronic and manifold precarity, that is using him as a weapon against the invisible oppressive hand of neoliberalism that has ravaged the middle class since the late 1970s. Seeing this momentous vote as a motley mix of racism, ignorance and fascist instincts is to ignore the conditions that make Trump possible.
For there is no contradiction between Trump as master-manipulator and embodiment of the kind of structural violence that his voters suffer from, and his popularity and support among the precariat. It is exactly his ghastly and bewildering reputation, and his access to the neoliberal system that make him an effective spokesman for their grievances and a powerful tool to assault the system from within. As surveys show, his voters know that he is untrustworthy and unqualified to be commander-in-chief, despite his claims to be an outsider and the only person capable of restoring faith in politics. His election is not a tragedy, but a dramatic stage in the struggle of the oppressed for dignity, recognition and social justice.
For there is no contradiction between Trump as master-manipulator and embodiment of the kind of structural violence that his voters suffer from, and his popularity and support among the precariat.
Shocking as it may be, there is nothing surprising or ingenious about the way in which Trump has seized power. He has flourished by faithfully following the rulebook of demagogues, who thrive on exposing the thinly veiled imperfections of social institutions. They do so by unmasking the hypocrisy of the political system they intend to lay their hands on and by channelling the wrath that this process unleashes to that end.
Demagogues arouse people by exposing the duplicity of political institutions, that is, by ‘telling it like it is’. They portray them as morally bankrupt and as serving the private interests of the ruling elite, against the interests of ordinary people. Demagogues know that liberal democracies are exceptionally vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy, as their legitimacy depends on their capacity to match word with deed, principle with action. They also know that people abhor the duplicity of their political leaders and public institutions as well as the power of ‘invisible forces’ that oppress them. And they have the solution: a strong, authentic leader who can reclaim public institutions by ensuring total transparency and thus demolishing boundaries between the public and private spheres.
There can be no doubt that this is an extremely dangerous operation that can unleash uncontrollable and destructive forces, as Hannah Arendt warns us in her masterly work on revolution and the origins of totalitarianism. Demagogues of all stripes will not shy away from nihilist adventurism even at the price of self-destruction in order to rouse the mob to upend the status quo, and establish a new order. The ostentatious and indiscriminate attacks by Trump on liberal values are therefore completely predictable and necessary for his strategy to work. He knows that the more sacred established values are, the more attention he attracts by unashamedly violating them, whether it concerns the normalisation of misogyny, xenophobia or incitement to violence. His attack on political correctness is presented as a liberating, emancipatory force — a powerful moral critique in the hands of the downtrodden.
The unholy alliance of Trump with the precariat-now-turned-mob represents one of the most startling challenges to liberalism, not just the neoliberal economic order. His chutzpah is so mesmerising that he can brag about gaming the system and bribing politicians of all stripes, only to serve the noble purpose of unmasking the corruption of the system. He exemplifies the collusion between predatory capitalism and captured public institutions. Yet he offers himself as a unique opportunity to expose corruption, indirectly revealing that powerful capitalists like him are at the root of the system that his voters ultimately reject.
What Trump may not realise, however, is that he is in fact dealing the deadliest blow so far to the neoliberal order he feeds on and which is already in a stage of entropy. His compulsive narcissism may render him oblivious of the fact that he may very well be that world-historical individual enslaved by Hegel’s Cunning of Reason. Self-serving individuals who are driven by a passion for self-aggrandisement may lead them to unconsciously serve, and ultimately sacrifice themselves for, the conscious design of universal history and reason; despite their base motives, and without them being aware, they become servants of reason.
Trump as a servant of reason — it may appear inconceivable. But it would be the same as saying that Bismarck did not lay the foundations of the modern welfare state in Germany, just because he did it to stay in power. The history of moral progress is replete with examples of people doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. Even cataclysmic events and personalities may produce unintended achievements and contribute towards the common good. In fact, Trump’s chutzpah makes him particularly suitable a voice for the deep grievances of the precariat, which he despises and humiliates, even as his proposed solutions of unregulated capitalism and chaotic protectionism are more likely to impoverish rather than improve their lot.
What Donald Trump does do well is that he inadvertently gives a face to the neoliberal system. The violence he epitomises and boasts about is matched only by the latent structural violence of this system that so far we have experienced only through the trail of devastation it has left behind, as the invisible hand has worked its magic, without ever revealing its face.
With Trump as president, the mask is off, and the system, he now so fittingly embodies, is naked
In electing Trump, the American precariat has manifested perhaps an unconscious collective desire to make the economic elite – the untouchable 0.1 percent that has ravaged their lives – politically accountable. The virtually total overlap between political authority and the economic rule is now official. Trump has become the face of the faceless predatory system that has supplanted politics with indirect global rule by private and corporate interests. He has stripped off the foundational moral pretensions of the existing system. With Trump as president, the mask is off, and the system, he now so fittingly embodies, is naked. And politics is back.
Trump supplies an incredible degree of consistency to the brutality of the neoliberal model that rules social, political and economic life. Yet it is this consistency that places him apart from the precariat that brought him to power; and there is no reason to think that they will not hunt him down in the same way they brought him to power. It also offers an unmatched opportunity for the victims and opponents of the neoliberal model to reorganise and mobilise for an alternative social and economic model. Trump may have just fired the starting shot of the political struggle to come, by inadvertently personifying the common foe for those struggling for dignity and social justice. He may be surprised to learn that he is willingly but unwittingly sacrificing himself on the altar of the greater good. And for this alone he deserves our gratitude.
An earlier version of this article was first published at openDemocracy.