Trumps Postmodern Truth
American political theorist Jodi Dean has analyzed Trump’s appeal in terms of his willingness to cut through ideology and state the truth. Trump is forthright that money buys power, and he demonstrates that. Trump insults women and displays a casual racism that he doesn’t apologize for. These three examples are things that the left has criticized the right for, while the right has long denied that they are actually racist, sexist, and using money to subvert democracy.
Dean argues that Trump is unique because he cuts through traditional right wing ideology and proudly owns these facts. He doesn’t care about trying to hide what the right is really about, much to the dismay of traditional Republicans, and this is what makes him popular among regular right wing voters. They enjoy the fact that he is saying what they think, but aren’t supposed to say in polite society. The left also enjoys Trump because he proves everything they have been saying about Republicans being racist and sexist true.
What’s interesting, however, is that despite Trump’s willingness to display his true beliefs publicly without the cover of ideology is his propensity to lie about everything else. In the traditional analysis of ideology, ideology is positioned as a series of lies that are told to people to make them accept their subordination.
Trump, however, does not bother with these big lies, but instead is constantly pushing small lies. He openly states that the job of capital is to screw over the workers, he openly states that he distrusts non-whites, he openly insults women. But then he lies about predicting the 2008 financial crisis, lies about what he said about climate change, and lies about his past positions on the war in Iraq.
In Dean’s 2009 book Democracy and other Neoliberal Fantasies she argues that the right, under George W. Bush’s presidency, fully adopted the lessons of left-wing postmodernism. The right realized that the idea that all reality is socially constructed was not a very good critique by the left and could actually become a way for the right to manufacture reality.
Bush paid people to pose as reporters to promote his No Child Left Behind policy. His repeated lies about WMD in Iraq were parroted by the media and the entire country became convinced of the reality of Iraq’s threat to America, even though it was a totally manufactured idea.
Trump is taking this postmodern approach to constructing your own reality through small lies and combining it with a refusal to engage in the big lies of ideology. This is why a lot of big names on the right are upset with Trump: he’s too focused on the small lies to make the big lies.
The crazy part is that Trump doesn’t even need the big lies. Evangelical Christians in the US South, traditionally a relatively poor demographic, have voted Republican even though their economic policies are a direct attack on their interests because of the big lie of Christian ideology. Trump has their support even though he doesn’t bother pretending to be someone endorsing fundamentalist Christianity. This is why Ted Cruz found Trump so frustrating, the evangelicals still voted for him, even though he didn’t play the religion card.
In some ways Trump’s blatant statements which reveal the ugly truth of American capitalism are refreshing. The fact that people still support him though, underscores that there is a significant longing in America for an authoritarian strongman who will unrepentantly rule and exploit them. If America elects Trump, it might be time to start analyzing the American public as one fundamentally driven by sadomasochistic impulses.