In my article in the New York Times today I devote some lines to a new concept that in my view deserves the central place in contemporary political thought:
The argument is an attempt to make sense of the Trump years in a way that markedly deviates from the consensus on what Trump stood for. Commentators such as Jeet Heer have argued that Trump promised his followers the return to an earlier and simpler era. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Trump was not a traditionalist politician. On the contrary, he took existing trends in modern American society and took them to a kind of natural but nonetheless extreme conclusion.
Nor was Trump a symbol of perennial possibilities in democratic politics: the demagogue, the tyrant, the “Face in the Crowd.” No, he represented something new: the moment when, drunk with the possibilities of technology, we start to dream that human beings can actually live a fantasy life. We used to have fantasies. Now we live them out. The effect is intoxicating, like chocolate or candy for creatures whose biology prepared them for life in the savannah.
In his interview with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, Barack Obama has some fascinating reflections on this question. Perhaps influenced by the media consensus on Trump, he initially tries to see him as an authority figure - the prototypical protofascist - only to confess his puzzlement: “I think about the classic male hero in American culture when you and I were growing up: the John Waynes, the Gary Coopers, the Jimmy Stewarts, the Clint Eastwoods, for that matter.” But is that Trump? No, rather the opposite: “And so even if you are someone who is annoyed by wokeness and political correctness and wants men to be men again and is tired about everyone complaining about the patriarchy, I thought that the model wouldn’t be Richie Rich—the complaining, lying, doesn’t-take-responsibility-for-anything type of figure.” How did Trump succeed then? Later in the interview Obama comes close to the truth, although predictably he still recoils from accepting it. Trump is not a figure of authority but a figure of freedom - freedom understood as the realization of every desire, no matter how extreme, in the here and now - and therefore someone representing powerful and growing forces in contemporary American society. Perhaps Trump pointed towards the future rather than the past. As Obama puts it: “It’s interesting—people are writing about the fact that Trump increased his support among Black men, and the occasional rapper who supported Trump. I have to remind myself that if you listen to rap music, it’s all about the bling, the women, the money. A lot of rap videos are using the same measures of what it means to be successful as Donald Trump is. Everything is gold-plated. That insinuates itself and seeps into the culture.”
Read this good essay by Evan Osnos. It shows how Trumpism had a powerful appeal for Greenwich financiers, sophisticated creatures in many respects but addicted - more than most - to the pleasures of fantasy. And that is why I conclude my article today arguing that “sooner rather than later, Trumpism is bound to return.”