Donald Trump is not the cause of racism and xenophobia. Progressives and liberals who want to overcome racism and xenophobia must be careful not deceive themselves by symbolically loading up Trump with the enduring problems of US society and then boasting that they made these problems go away by casting a vote against Trump or pushing for his impeachment. Without fundamental change, those who flocked to Trump because of their white nationalism will remain, their ranks will multiply, and the sentiments that moved them will continue to metastasize.
Every generation confronts the legacy of the past. How each new generation confronts this past shapes the future. Figures like Trump can appear because too few people who claim to stand against racism and xenophobia practice a politics that addresses the undying dynamics generating these cancers, a politics grounded in the struggle for social justice and economic security. Indeed, most Americans across the ideological spectrum practice a politics that unwittingly perpetuates injustice and insecurity by reproducing the prevailing ideological hegemony and elite power structure.
This politics, rooted in fear, personality, and identity, and often reinforced by an almost reflexive impulse, is not merely an inadequate substitute for a politics based on scientific understanding of shared material interests and common humanity; a politics based on these things – defensive, irrational, reactive, superficial, unfocused – fragments consciousness and derails the collective struggle for equality, security, and well-being.
Walter Benjamin, in his 1936 essay, “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” writes that
Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life. The violation of the masses, whom Fascism, with its Führer cult, forces to their knees, has its counterpart in the violation of an apparatus which is pressed into the production of ritual values.
Fascism is not the only politics that can fulfill the need of the capitalist class to manage the population. Providing personalities over whom the masses can fawn, preselecting the means through which masses can find personally satisfying expression, conditioning the masses to act habitually by sensitizing them to symbolic cues – all these things are features of mainstream corporate party programming. In inverted totalitarianism (see Sheldon Wolin), the strategy of fascism is superseded by dissimulated and efficient versions of parallel techniques of manipulation, techniques that even come with a progressive veneer. The corporate elite deftly produces highly sellable political commodities. Fascism is old school in comparison.
It is becoming increasingly obvious that the partisan political means Americans have for decades found comforting to use and convenient to engage are designed to perpetuate the corporate status quo (exploitation, war, and environmental devastation) and that they function to prepare the ground for divisive and reactionary politics. The strongly unfavorable assessment of the leading corporate candidate in the 2016 presidential election (Hillary Clinton) is one indication of the rapidly eroding legitimacy of the hegemonic order of things.
Donald Trump should be an entirely unsympathetic figure to those who care about justice and equality; one should feel hard pressed to stow the revulsion that can function to diminish the capacity to reason. He is meant to produce a visceral response in persons with sufficient levels of empathy. Nonetheless, obsessive focusing on Trump is an act of scapegoating that serves to reproduce the conditions of human misery he is said to represent – not just at home, but across the planet. These conditions of misery are capitalism and imperialism.
Remarkable bluster and egoism aside, Trump is a rather ordinary liberal New York business man cast in the role of the obvious fascist by a corporate order desperately trying to distract the public from the neoliberal devolution of republic institutions and rollback of the democratic gains that our predecessors fought to bring into existence. This observation is not intended to convey an opinion that Trump is a neutral figure or blank canvas. He holds repugnant views. I am making a point about function.