Tracking Talk: Trump and the Emerging Legitimation Crisis of the “American Way of Life” (i.e., the Attempted Marriage of Capitalism and Democracy).
1. Let me simply begin by saying how difficult it has been for me to find a handle for organizing the confusing and disturbing array of stuff that has been happening since the election of Trump. To be sure in our competitive style of democracy, winning by confusing the issues and by pitting one interest group against another is not new. But it seems to be on steroids at this time. One commentator has described the world as being inflicted with vertigo. Another says that Trump has masterfully subverted the whole world into a “reality TV show” where the goal is never to resolve issues, but to multiply conflict and foment confusion to keep everyone off balance and to appeal to the apathetic, voyeuristic side of our TV consumer culture. While many people (especially cultural liberals and those on the cultural and economic margins of American life) are deeply fearful that a Trump administration will undo whatever precious-little safeguards they already have from further marginalization, others (especially, the conservative Evangelicals, represented by Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, Jr., and white working middle class) hail him as a Cyrus-like Godsend to save America from its captivity to cultural liberal and multicultural obscurantism.[i] (Never mind that “Godsends” come in two kinds, an Assyrian-styled rod of oppression and a Cyrus-styled cavalry of liberation.) Even so, I’m going to use the handle of “legitimation crisis” to get at what ails the American way of life at this time. For whether you are for or against Trumpism, it would seem that everyone sees the legitimacy of America’s institutions and the American way of life as being at stake, regardless of how they define them.
2. The concept as I will be using it was first coined by Juergen Habermas in 1973 in book by that title[ii], and it has proved to be a useful concept for many for understanding the discontents and contradictions that inevitably arise as America generally (along with Europe) has sought to make its “way of life” a global reality, namely, the uncritical synthesis of two contradictory systems: liberal (or neo-liberal) capitalism and liberal democracy. Herein lies the contradictions. Liberal capitalism is an ideological construct premised on the ideas of “total competition” and “winner takes all.” It is based on the idea that the pursuit of destroying one’s competition is the road to efficiency and prosperity. Liberal democracy is a concept based on the premise of “total cooperation” so that all might “share in the common good.” Not “winner take all” but “compromise for the sake of preserving the common good” is the prevailing strategy of democracy. In my view, democracy, then, actually serves an older and more “conservative” idea (the common good) than capitalism (individual conquest) because it has its eyes set on the idea of a “common wealth.” Capitalism has its roots in the Enlightenment, “liberal” — and I would actually call it naïve – idea that the free-reign of self-interests will actually serve the “common good” and create a “common wealth.” Truth be told, in my judgment, liberal capitalism leads only to the production of more “wealth” into the hands of few winners and not to a common wealth. That should not surprise us. It’s how the “titans of industry” fashioned it in the late nineteenth century.[iii]
3. The “Trump phenomenon,” then, is not the creation of something that is new or that has simply come out of the blue. In general, it is consistent with a historical development that has been brewing for a long time: ever since we as a nation were hoodwinked into thinking that the marriage of our 17th Century liberal democracy to 19th Century liberal capitalism was a good idea. But more specifically, it is an outgrowth of not heeding the warning President Eisenhower gave in his farewell address to the nation back in 1961 about the threat of the “military-industrial complex” to democracy. As a “progressive conservative,” still somewhat interested in the common good, his words shocked many as he stated bluntly his grave concern about “the acquisition of unwarranted influence…by the military-industrial complex” and that the American people need to guard against the “danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.”[iv] These threats to our democracy are more apparent than ever, yet we heard nothing about them from President Obama in his farewell address. The American way of life, the marriage of capitalism with democracy, is never questioned. On the contrary, this American way of life is the very thing around which we as Americans must rally and unite. Like a Norman Vincent Peal sermon and the spirit of 19th Century philosophy if progress, he urged all Americans to be positive about the power and potential in this America way of life. It’s not that the idea is flawed; it’s just that it needs more time to fulfill its promise.[v] As I listened to him my mind wondered, how can such an intelligent man with such deep humanitarian instincts be so Pollyanna? Then I remembered Chris Hedges explanation. [vi] Obama was schooled to believe this, and duly rewarded in his beliefs, by the elite institutions (Harvard, the media, the American two party system, the Congress, the presidency) that owe their existence to the capitalist system and the capitalist elite who no longer owe allegiance to any sovereign nation. Rather they compete with sovereign nations due to their recently acquired global wealth, power and status. In America, there are two parties that disagree on a lot of very important issues, liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans. Nevertheless, they possess the same esteem – or is it fear – for the American way of life that is the marriage of capitalism and democracy.
4. The problem with this marriage between liberal capitalism and liberal democracy is that capitalism becomes democracy’s abusive spouse and makes her bend – though not without lots of fighting — to capitalism’s wishes. This dynamic is seen in the dysfunction of our so-called democratic politics (which Hedges calls “anti-politics”[vii]) and the debate about how the influence of money in politics is usurping the good of the whole, that is, the “will of the people.” Add to this the fact that capitalism is now on the global prowl, entering into all kinds of polygamous national relationships, and we have infidelity galore. Indeed, it is this infidelity of the globalist capitalist elite that causes their spouses to get jealous and fight, giving rise to all the diversity-based, prejudicially-fueled “isms” that marked this election cycle: nativism, elitism, racism, classism, sexism, etc. As irritating as these fights among the spouses of abusive, polygamist capitalism might be, for the global capitalist system and its elites, it’s better than having the spot light turned on it. Therefore, managing the conflict, not resolving it, is the best scenario capitalism can have. Planting seeds of hope – false though they be – that your nation or your special interest group might become capitalism’s favorite “democratic spouse” is essential to keeping the marriage together. If those hopes are dashed (and they are being challenged, here and there, by sporadic local revolutionary movements and protests) then the “legitimation crisis” becomes a full blown social crisis.[viii]
5. The chaos candidacy, election, and lead-up to the Inauguration of Donald Trump, I think, can be seen as a case of the “chickens coming home to roost”[ix] in America. It is a manifestation of the lingering legitimation crisis in the American way of life, the marriage of capitalism and democracy. To use an image borrowed from Genesis 3: Capitalism is like the snake in the garden of democracy. It appears to be the wisest and most subtle of all the ideas to emerge in the garden, promising god-like power and prosperity to those who will bite. And who hasn’t? But beware. The snake cares not for the good of the garden or the communal wellbeing of its diverse inhabitants, the Adams and Eves who live therein. It cares only for itself, and creates devotees in its own image, only to use and discard them at will. This it does by getting them to focus on their differences as a basis for unfairness and exploiting the mini-legitimation crises that emerge because of those differences. Even when the constitution or democratic protocol (the highest law in the garden) calls into question the legitimacy of capitalism’s schemes, which it does do here and there, capitalism and its devotees (who reside in all the important institutions of democracy) are generally able to deflect attention away from themselves onto the various mini-legitimation crises being played out amongst the various constituencies in the garden, the Adams and Eves. While the Genesis story ends with attention finally being turned on the snake, that part of the story has not yet happened in our present day American story. But that day is coming, sooner or later. Of course, what the Genesis story also reveals is the need for Adam and Eve to have their own captivity to the promise of the snake broken and their own mini-legitimation crises resolved. God alone does this by making a new promise to squash the snake and to cover Adam and Eve’s “nakedness,” their culpability, with the “clothing,” the legitimacy, that God alone can supply. Though I am now getting ahead of myself, wrestling with how we, as legitimately clothed Adams and Eves through our baptisms into Christ, might participate in God’s work to bring that dynamic into the America story is why we gather here at this seminar.
6. So what do these “chickens,” the outward symptoms, that are now coming home to roost in America actually look like? In general, they are the growing discontent (expressed as fear, anxiety, anger, the big crowds, and the occasional breakout of open protest) seen in both the Burnie campaign on the “left” and the Trump campaign on the “right.” Ironically, both campaigns argued, but for opposite reasons, that the social contract underwriting the “American way of life” (what I call the unsustainable alliance between capitalism and democracy) is losing legitimacy, support, faith among many rank and file America citizens.
7. To be sure, these rank and file citizens are not of one mind, except that they think the system is illegitimate or, to use the words of the Sanders and Trump campaigns: “Rigged” – rigged by the corporate/media/political elite, rigged by corporate money, media bias, and party rules. Apart from that general assessment, they have very different takes on how the system is rigged, what measures needed to be taken to fix it, and, thus, appealed to very different constituencies. In spite of their attempts to woo each other’s constituencies, Sanders “socialistic” message tended to appeal to Millennials, cultural progressives, minimum wage workers and welfare recipients; Trump’s “strong man” message tended to appeal to white, rural, middle, American males, conservative Evangelicals, and cultural conservatives. In my judgment, no matter who won the election, both these constituencies were likely to be disappointed. However, for Sanders supporters that is a moot point, since he did not get nominated or elected. For Trump supporters, it is not. This is evidenced already in his cabinet appointments. They may see a wall erected, immigrants ousted, Muslim’s blacklisted, Obama care eliminated, environmental regulations gutted, military spending rise, and trade deals renegotiated. But it’s doubtful that Trump supporters will see the kind of job opportunities and income possibilities that they wanted and he promised. Why? Those items do not fit the plans of the global corporate elite.[x] Their vision of a manufacturing industry is not based on high income jobs, but automation; and their vision of economics is not local, but global, based not on creating thriving local “main streets,” but on creating a wealthy, global “wall street.” The global corporate elites are not interested in job creation and wealth distribution, but “profit taking” and wealth accumulation. In spite of Trump’s campaign rhetoric against the global corporate, military and billionaire-class elites, they are the ones he is now bringing in to run the show. It used to be that the corporate elites bought off the politicians, as Trump himself said he did in the name of good business. Now the corporate elites are the politicians. What did you think Trump meant when he said that he could easily run his business and be the president too? Why do you think Trump delegitimizes the intelligent services warnings about Putin? Both are in government to benefit their own businesses. The titans — or should we say tyrants — of Wall Street are now also the titans of Pennsylvania Ave. Government will now be run like a business. And there is nothing more undemocratic than the capitalist approach to business. With Trump, we see that the marriage between capitalism and democracy is leading to the subjugation of democracy. The marriage that is the American way of life isn’t working.
8. So, where does Hilary Clinton’s campaign stand as part of the chickens coming home to roost? She, unlike both Sanders and Trump, I think, did her best to try to pretend the chickens weren’t there. As such, she was really the “conservative candidate” in this campaign. Her calls for unity were really calls to continue the status quo, an evangelistic-like call to faith in the American way of life, the synthesis of capitalism and democracy. All that is needed is a little tweaking here and there. Unlike Trump, I do not doubt her sincerity in what she stood for, even though she did have to temper her views on the Trans Pacific Trade Agreement, the minimum wage, the retention of old-style manufacturing jobs, and student debt. As accused by both Sanders and Trump, she has a deep seated faith in the American Way of Life; the synthesis of capitalism and democracy is not in her mind an inherently flawed social contract. What is good for business is good for America. In this regard, she resembled not only the attitudes and policy prescriptions of her husband Bill Clinton, (also exhibited in his post-presidential efforts to create the Clinton Global Initiative Foundation) but of President Barack Obama. In spite of her inability to shake off the image of “crooked Hilary,” she much more than Trump stood up not only for decency, decorum, inclusiveness, civil rights, and moderation (the values of liberal democracy) but also for tough-mindedness in matters of foreign policy, military defense, global expansion of markets, and the march of technological and scientific progress (the agenda of global capitalism) – thus, staying the course set by President Obama. Therefore, the single most important piece of evidence, I think, that the American Way of life is in a legitimation crisis, though amorphously ill-defined, is her loss. For large numbers of people, who had supported President Obama, and were presumed to be her natural constituency, seemed to have made President Obama their last great hope for the legitimacy of that line of reasoning and found it wanting. The political and ruling strategy of Obama and his would-be successor Hilary, may have sounded out the right words, but they proved to be hollow because they did not seem to yield the right results. They created a great economic environment for the global corporate elites, but not for the working Joes who feel exploited, cheated, tricked by that elite. The legitimation crisis has to do with the fact that the whole economic-political system, the American way of life and it expanding global reach, was judged as rigged to favor political and corporate elites. The point that unemployment is at an all-time low meant nothing in light of the reality that working did not make a living. The “rigged” character of the system focused on the fact of the loss of good paying jobs which were either being sent away overseas or lost to illegal workers only to benefit corporate elites. Little attention was paid to the fact that the vast majority of these jobs were being lost because of robotics, the system’s technological way of eliminating altogether the need of dealing with labor issues. Although the rhetoric praised corporate America as “job-creators,” nothing was farther from the truth. Corporations don’t exist to create jobs, but profits. They delight in opportunities when they can eliminate labor to increase profits.
9. Finally, it is important to remember that this legitimation crisis is not something that Trump’s election initiated, but he has certainly exploited it and intensified it. In general, the crisis has been simmering off and on, publically, at least, since the assassination of JFK – and it consists of the slow, but steady erosion of confidence in the trustworthiness of our democratic institutions to promote the common good of all the people and not just particular interests of a corporate/political/moneyed elite. Some of the incidents that formed the historic contours of this legitimation crisis include, the Kennedy assassination and the various conspiracy theories that flurry around it, the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War protests, the 60s counter cultural movement, the Water Gate Scandal of Nixon, the Iran-Contra Scandal of Reagan, the WMD lie behind the Iraq War, the rise of the surveillance society in the name of security, the Snowden leaks, the Wiki leaks, and the intelligence debacle of late.[xi] But this legitimation crisis is something that Trump exploited in order to get elected and that has intensified with his election. Therefore, what is presenting itself to us at this moment in American history is not simply a debate about policies, but anxiety over the very legitimacy of the American way of life, the marriage of capitalism and democracy. That troubled marriage existed over the past 100 years as what social theorist Sheldon Wolin termed “inverted totalitarianism.” Classical totalitarianism has a personality and face readily seen; inverted totalitarians exists in the faceless anonymity of the corporate state.[xii] When inverted totalitarianism, masquerading as democracy, loses legitimacy the tendency of a society is not to reinvigorate democracy, but to move in the direction of classical totalitarianism, ceding power to a real face who promises “strong armed” (fascist) methods to right the wrongs felt by the people who voted for him. That, I am suggesting, is the situation we find ourselves in as Trump is inaugurated into the presidency. I’m also suggesting that Trump will no more be able to fix the discontents of those who voted for him than could Hilary Clinton. But he can certainly make matters worse. Of course, the country is divided on how to receive him. Some cheer; others protest. Fear and anxiety, however, is the dominate mood of the country, as Trump has only a 40% approval rate and a 52% disapproval rate at this time.[xiii] Of co
[ii] Juergen Habermas, Legitimation Crisis [in late Capitalism], Introduction and English Translation by Thomas McCarthy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1975). Habermas is a renowned German critical social theorist who has affinity with Marx’ critique of Capitalism, but not necessarily Marx’ communist alternative. His affinity with Marx rests in the fact that he sees inherent seeds of contradiction in the capitalist-democratic synthesis that has been propagated by Western economic, media, academic, and political elites that will eventually lead to great economic inequality and mass discontent. His departure from Marx rests in his prescription of subjecting economics to democratic processes rather than a political party elite. In effect, capitalism, he argues, operates by premises that are inherently “totalitarian” in nature because it privileges the capitalist elite over the democratic will of the people in the name of the “free market.” While the alleged capitalist-democratic synthesis begins under the ideological premise that all spheres of life can be compartmentalized and operate independently of and compatibly with one another, in the end, because that premise is false, slowly but surely capitalism will come to dominate and exploit all aspects of life, a development that Habermas calls “the colonization of the life world.” Since capitalism needs the cover of democracy for its legitimacy – that it exists ultimately to advance the public good and not primarily the good of corporate elites — the threat of having that cover blown is dubbed a legitimation crisis.
My thought is also influenced by Chris Hedges. Here is a video and an article, respectively, on his response to the Trump election (https://stopmakingsense.org/2016/11/12/chris-hedges-on-the-election-of-donald-trump/) and http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/defying_donald_trumps_kleptocracy_20170101 . See also his recent book Unspeakable: Chris Hedges Talks with David Talbot about the Most Forbidden topics in America.
[iii] For an interesting account of this development see the History Channel series, “The Men Who Built America,” which is described as the story of “How five self-made men transformed the U.S into a global superpower.” http://www.history.com/shows/men-who-built-america/about .
[v] I say this in spite of how John Meacham, the renowned presidential historian, described Obama as standing in the intellectual legacy of Reinhold Niebuhr. (MSNBC, January 18, 2017) Meacham says Obama’s complex nuanced approach to the world is rooted in a “tragic view of history,” where “the sad duty of politics is to establish justice in a sinful world.” While Obama certainly sees the world as complex — and that within it the forces of darkness and light vie with one another — I think President Obama is ultimately optimistic about the human capacity to prevail in this contest in a way that Niebuhr was not.
[vi] Hedges, Unspeakable. See Chapter V, “Beyond Electoral Politics,” pp. 55-64, and Chapter VII, “The Bankruptcy of the Literal Elites, pp. 77-83.
[vii] Ibid., p. 62. His short-hand definition of “anti-politics” this is the replacement of politics (a serious discussion about the common good) with “culture wars.”
[viii] Ibid., Chapter 8, “How the Pillars of Power Fall,” pp. 85-102. See also the article by Nick Hanauer, “The Pitchforks are coming… for us Plutocrats,” that was referenced by Jerry Burce in his Crossings Blog post of November 16, 2016. He is a self-ascribed .01%er and “a proud and unapologetic capitalist,” who sees on the horizon great danger given the exorbitant level of economic inequality that exists today.
[ix] http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-chi4.htm. If you know the older fuller form of that phrase, it actually goes like this: “curses are like chickens; they always come home to roost.” The meaning is clear. Offensive and hypocritical words and actions are likely at some point to come back and bit you. “As you sow, so shall you reap,” “garbage in garbage out,” are also popular ways of saying this. It means that he world is so organized that sooner or later “people get what they deserve.”
[x] In spite of President Trump’s populist-styled rhetoric in his inaugural speech that his presidency means “the transfer of power from Washington D.C and giving it back to you, the people,” he fails to that the reins of power are held by the capitalist corporate elite whom he has ushered into the halls of power. 1) When Trump criticizes the politician only, it is equivalent to criticizing the foot soldier to spare the generals. The politicians are guilty of all kinds of things, but what they are guilty of is taking their marching orders from the capitalist corporate elites. That part of the narrative is dropped. 2) The second theme in Trump’s Inaugural Address is classic nativism under the mantra of “America First.” He has essentially blamed the decline of middle class incomes and wellbeing on foreign countries as though they have simply come in and stolen our jobs, our wealth, our lifestyle. Again, he completely overlooks the role that the global capitalist elite play in pitting workers from one country against another to its monetary benefit. 3) The third theme is that America is a righteous nation among unrighteous forces (Islamic Terrorists) that would destroy us. In this regard he assures us that our military and God will “protect us.” 4) A fourth theme is that America is a place in shambles right now, with the implication that congress and the present political system is responsible for that and he is the one who will fix it. There was no reaching out to the congress — or anyone for that matter — to work together. Implied in this, I think, is the idea that he is the owner and CEO of America, Inc. and that he expects to give orders and to have those “under him,” which is everyone, to follow them. There was nothing democratic in his approach to problem solving. It is very totalitarian in conception of leadership. 5) Related to this is a fifth them or absence of a theme. He gave no positive description of American democratic values or of the role America might play in the world to advance such values. His message was simply one of American economic nationalism.
[xi] I find Noam Chomsky’s new book very helpful for laying bare the historical narrative that ties these events together as a way of seeing the various motivations and factors that define and contribute to the present day legitimation crisis of the American Way of Life. See Noam Chomsky, Who Rules the World? (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2016).
[xii] Hedges, p. 60. “Unlike classic totalitarianism, [this] system does not find its expression in a demagogue or a charismatic leader but in the faceless anonymity of the corporate state. These corporate forces purport to pay fealty to electoral politics and the iconography and language of American patriotism, the Constitution, but internally have seized all of the levers of power to render the citizen impotent. Even if Sanders had somehow become president, his hands would be completely tied. The centers of power lie outside the system of electoral politics.”