Donald Trump: Between populist rhetoric and plutocratic rule

Hans Sluga

A talk delivered at a workshop of the Program in Critical Theory at UC Berkeley, March 2017

The empire of disorientation

Who is Donald Trump and what does he stand for? Do we know? Does he himself know? Or is he caught, like all of us, but perhaps even more deeply in that precarious state of disorientation that characterizes our current political situation? Uncertainty is a feature of all politics: we are constantly forced to think, speak, and act under non-ideal conditions, ignorant of essential facts, guided by an incomplete understanding.[1] But our uncertainty appears to have reached a new intensity for the complexity of our world has grown so inordinately: the size of the human population, unsurveyable yet still increasing; vast technological undertakings piled on top of each other; constant disruptions of both our cultural and our natural environment; chains of causality that reach far beyond what we can discern.

Conditions like these produce disorientation; they release opposing impulses and ideas both within and between us; they also provide a occasion for prophets of all sorts of dank and dangerous certainties.  Donald Trump is above all a product of these conditions: a man full of contradictory opinions that are easily swayed by the most unconfirmed reports in the least trustworthy media. He is a man fearful of contamination, of the danger that lurks in every handshake, terrified by stairs and inclines, preoccupied with losing his hair, wary of dark-skinned illegals, kept sleepless by terrorists traveling in the dark; a man always in need of approval and confirmation, unable to bear even slight words of criticism. A man full of bonhomie at one moment, snarling like a raccoon at the next; a playboy, a real estate tycoon, a book author, a casino operator, a TV personality, a golf club host, a constantly campaigning politician, an angry, obsessive tweeter, a businessman and president all at once. And, thus, with his insecure persona someone destined to fall for confidence men with apocalyptic visions.

I turn for a moment to Stephen Bannon as one of Trump’s spirit guides. An associate has recently described him as “the most well-read person in Washington” and someone who manages to devour works of history and political theory “in like an hour.”[2] The phrase may well give us pause for how much is Bannon likely to extract from his reading a book per hour? His notorious 2014 address in the Vatican supplies an answer.[3] It reveals a mind surprisingly similar to Trump’s: the same disorderly course of thinking, the same recycling of thoughts in no particular sequence; an indiscriminate employment of language as in his use of the term “radical Islam.” Like Trump, Bannon is not afraid of reversing opinions. In the Vatican speech he presents himself as the true and devout Christian, in other places he likens himself to Lenin, Satan, and Darth Vader.[4] He declares himself to be committed capitalist but also a destroyer of the entire economic order; he is a social conservative but also a libertarian; a defender of the nation state but also entirely hostile to its institutions; attached to the new right but also one of its hardest critics. Bannon is, in other words, Trump’s kindred spirit: just as disoriented as his master though gifted with more elaborate words and full of an extraordinary confidence in his own truths – itself a sign of inner disorientation. Disorientation disguised as certainty characterizes others in Trump’s circle. There is Peter Thiel, the man from PayPal, and his obsession with longevity and cryonics; there is Robert Mercer, the man behind Cambridge Analytica, with his faith in mass urine analysis, and there is Alex Jones, the producer of Infowars, with his belief that the Sandy Hook massacre was staged by actors. Trump’s lasting attachment to the birther myth and his belief that vaccinations cause autism are part of the same alarming syndrome. All these men are drawn to conspiracy theories, to alternative narratives, to a topsy-turvy take on reality. They are all creators, disseminators, consumers, and victims of fake news. Remarkable is not, however, that such men exist – for disorientation is a pervasive form of human consciousness – but that they have come to public attention and recognition and that they reflect so perfectly  our luxuriantly disoriented social reality.

These then are the foremost citizens of the empire of disorientation: Trump, his associates and acolytes, and a mass of his followers and supporters. The extensive disorientation of the voting public is, perhaps, most evident from its abrupt change from Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 to Donald Trump in 2016 – giving the former high marks for his term in office while opting at the same time for the latter’s radically different policies. This sort of disorientation is not unique to the United States public, it has surfaced also in Great Britain’s Brexit campaign and in the disintegration of long-established political parties in other European countries and the appearance of entirely new political fronts. And when we find it so difficult to place, describe, analyze, and categorize Trump and his administration or the broader world situation, when we discover that the usual terms of political theory do not help us to bring light into this matter, and when we find, in particular, that the traditional placing of people, positions, and movements on the linear scale from left to right no longer works, we are forced to realize that we, too, inhabit this realm of disorientation, if only as visiting aliens.


Are we fascists yet?

Two terms stand out as signals of our own disorientation. We ask: Is the Trump regime likely to be a fascist one? And is Trump himself, perhaps, a populist? The terms have, no doubt, their polemical uses but they have been over-used, I am afraid, by critical writers and left-wing activists. In the service of real analysis they prove, in any case, to be only very blunt instruments.

Our political language is always inclined to slip and slide; it is so burdened with our emotions. But there is no use in indulging this flaw when we try to understand what is going on now around us. The term “fascist” doesn’t just mean authoritarian, dictatorial, or undemocratic, or something generally unpleasant. It refers us very precisely to the Italian state created Benito Mussolini in 1923, to some of the military dictatorships of the 1920’s and 30’s and also (though with qualifications) to German National Socialism.[5] Fascist politics is committed to a strong, centralized state, ruled on the leadership principle; it desires a “total state,” to use familiar fascist language. Fascism also aims at constructing a corporatist society in which every individual is integrated into an organization run on the leadership principle. Finally, fascism, as a variety of totalitarianism, conceives of itself as an organized “movement” of the young, the Volk, the people and nation on march into another future.[6] None of these purposes and pursuits – neither the total state, nor the corporatist society – nor the idea of the organized march and movement are relevant to Trumpist politics.

Particularly misleading is the comparison of 21st century America with the state of Germany in the lead-up to Hitler’s grab for power. The Weimar republic was a tenuous construct, lasting all of 15 years and it resembles in no way the American Republic in 2017. It had come into existence after a devastating and humiliating military defeat and it suffered throughout from the unwillingness of substantial parts of its population to accept its legitimacy. There were those who believed that Germany had been dragged into this war and that it should by all rights, moral, political, and military, have been victorious. They were convinced that the war had been lost only through treachery committed by Social Democrats and Jews (the Dolchstosslegende). The proclamation of a German republic had, in addition, upset the old monarchist guard and their followers. An overly generous system of proportional representation left the Weimar Parliaments divided and ineffective and brought about governments so unstable that they could not even address the most pressing issues. Prominent politicians were assassinated. Extreme war reparations (the Versailles treaty) were forced upon the new republic and this led to further popular disaffection. Hyper-inflation came and left the middle-classes in tatters; the Wall street crash of 1929, in turn, produced working-class poverty and mass unemployment. At the end, a powerful Communist party battled the Nazis in the streets. By that time, Weimar Republic was politically, financially, and economically in tatters. The stage was set in Germany in 1933 for a revolutionary moment; in the America of 2017 it is surely not.

More plausible appears the characterization of Trump as a populist for throughout his election campaign he certainly mobilized a great deal of populist rhetoric. We need to look only at his inaugural address when he said:

“For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. … The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs; and while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.

That all changes — starting right here, and right now, because this moment is your   moment: it belongs to you. It belongs to everyone gathered here today and everyone watching all across America. This is your day. This is your celebration. And this, the United States of America, is your country. What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people. January 20th 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again. The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer. Everyone is listening to you now.”[7]

It is not easy to pin down the meaning of the term “populist.” Like much other political language it invites multiple uses. But if we mean by populism the doctrine of the virtue of ordinary the people versus the corruption of the elites, then we have here in Trump’s address a classical expression populism. It’s true that Trump’s formulations also alert us to the proximity of populism and democracy; but their cadence reveals them to be populist proclamations rather than the usual, bland democratic pablum.

But Trump populist words do not necessarily make him a populist politician. Already within days, the new president’s language had changed. He now said that he and his government were “ready to listen” to the American people and that their voices would from now be “heard.” But having the people in control of their government is one thing, having the government promise to listen to their voice is quite another. It is only on rare occasions now, when he returns to bathe in his crowd of supporters, that Trump dons his populist baseball cap. More often we see him now in his fine suit at the Mar al-Lago resort in Palm Beach and at his National Golf Club outside Washington D.C. And there he meets what he called “his special people” in November last year when he merrily invited his Golf Club members to participate in the selection of his cabinet members.[8] At his Mar al-Lago resort he has recently raised membership fees from $100,000 to $200,000, presumably to give the forgotten people easier access to the newly elected president. For this extra fee, members have been treated to a show of Trump conducting government business with the Japanese prime minister over the dinner table and when news of a North-Korean missile test disrupted the festive occasion, there were photo opportunities for everyone of the handling of the secret documents. Palm Beach has long been a favorite Trump hang-out where he socializes with his rich friends.[9] In December, he named one of them, the billionaire Stephen Schwarzman, to head an advisory panel of wealthy business leaders. And prospective ambassadorships were dangled before some of the others: Patrick Park, a multimillionaire and CEO of a marketing corporation, and “a dear friend of mine, as Trump has called him[10], was considered to become ambassador to Austria; Robin Bernstein, an investment adviser for Mml Investors Services that manages $776 million, to the Dominican Republic, and Brian Burns, chairman of BF Enterprises, Inc., a real estate holding and development company, to Ireland. We may wonder: Is this what a populist politics looks like or are we seeing a potentate in action?

I conclude then with some confidence that neither the label fascist nor that of populist fits Trump very well. That still leaves the question how we should then describe him. Our disorientation about him has only marginally decreased.


The making of a plutocrat

It is wise in this situation to go by a few simple guidelines. The first is to set aside (at least for the time being) what Trump has said since we know that a politician is likely to adapt his words to the occasion and we can’t trust that he is telling us what he really thinks. A second guideline is to set aside (once again, for the time being) what the politician thinks, in so far as we can even make that out, because what he thinks and what really motivates him are not necessarily the same thing. In the empire of disorientation, conscious thoughts and the forces of motivation tend to go their own ways. The third guideline should be that we set aside those  easy speculations we ourselves are prone to about what might motivate Trump, what he might do, and what the consequences of his actions might be. Instead we should concentrate first of all on empirical facts that we can securely establish.

And here we can say immediately three things that will prove significant: the first is that Trump is a multi-billionaire, the second that, although he started by no means from nothing, he is in essence a self-made man, and the third that, whatever else he has done, he is above all a real-estate developer.

We will not understand the political Trump without paying attention to these three characteristics for they are linked to a fourth which is that Trump has for many years used his money to gain political influence. He has given money to politicians of various stripes, including the Clintons, saying blithely at one moment in his election campaign that he expects, of course, a return when he pays politicians. At the same time he has promoted himself with his money and he has sold himself as someone politically independent because of his money. In entering the political contest, his thoughts have never been far from his business. He believes, so he has also declared, that he will most likely be the first president to come away from the job substantially richer. And all the signs are, indeed, that he will be. He has distanced himself, admittedly, from his own business but only in the thinnest possible way, giving us in a press conference a view of the envelopes in which, he said, were contained the papers spelling out his disengagement from his business affairs. Meanwhile his family conducts their (and his) business all around him. Trump’s wealth, his status as a self-made and self-promoting man, and his real-estate business are, in fact inseparable from Trump’s politics. When challenged, Trump told the New York Times in a remark that revealed more than he meant to say: “For the president there can be no conflict of interests.”[11]

To return then to Trump’s wealth which at this moment is somewhere between $3 and $10 billion (the numbers are murky). But he has, certainly, moved for many years in the circles of the superrich.  Among his old Palm Beach buddies are Stephen Schwarzman with $ 11.5 billion, Thomas Peterffy with $ 16 billion, and two twin sons of Fred Koch, David and William, with $ 45 billion and $ 1 billion, respectively. In his cabinet Trump has also surrounded himself, as we know, with some of the superrich. I need to mention only Betty de Vos with her $5 billion and Wilbur Ross with his $2.5 billion. And let’s not forget Trumps’ financial supporters starting with Sheldon Adelson at $32 billion, followed by Charles Icahn with $18 billion, Harold Hamm with $ 13 billion, Richard LeFrak $ 6 billion, Diana Hendricks $4 billion, Woody Johnson $3.5 billion, Peter Thiel $2.7 billion; add to this Robert Mercer whose wealth is unknown but presumably in the billions of dollars, and so on to the folks in the hundreds of millions. Are we to say that all these good people have suddenly caught a populist fever? That they have come together in a single, united, noble project: which is to give power back to the to the ordinary folks around the corner? Some of those wealthy donors were honored guests at Donald Trump inaugural. One might wonder what they heard that day when he declared that from now on “the people” will once again be the rulers and that “the forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer?”

The life-styles and ambitions of the rich vary greatly; some rich people may even resent their wealth and may want to live as if it didn’t exist, while others revel in their riches or use it for all kinds of purposes: personal, financial, or political. A quick check on the internet will show that every rich person in America today has a “foundation” and calls himself or herself a “philanthropist” where that word refers, however, to many different enterprises: some religious, some humanitarian, some cultural, some political, and some completely fictitious or even fraudulent. [12] For all such differences, the rich have certain characteristics in common. Wealth provides, above all, security and this security, when experienced over a life-time, fosters the sense that one can usually get what one wants, and from this comes a readiness to demand, to command, and resentment in the face of obstacles to one’s wishes. While those without wealth have to accommodate themselves to their society, the rich have fewer reasons to do so. They can indulge in their foibles and eccentricities and they are, in this respect surprisingly like those on the outer margins of society: the poor, the artists, the bohemians who have equally less to gain from observing social constraints. Trump’s eccentricities and foibles are evident; they are distinctive marks of his own personal character; but that he can display them so openly and be accepted with them and even for them is surely a sign of his wealth.

Trump’s character is shaped also by the fact that he is a largely self-made man and he exhibits characteristics of that social group. His assertiveness, his stubbornness in the face of contrary evidence, his inability to listen to others, his reliance, instead, on his own intuition and judgment are all signs of the self-made man. Self-made men are socially disadvantaged. They are trying to enter a social space already occupied by others who will resent the intruder and l see him as an unwelcome competitor in their pursuit of wealth. The self-made man is despised for his lack of finesse, for his inevitable crudeness, for his ambition, and for the dubious means he will likely have used to attain his new status. And he will, in turn, come to despise this “elite” that despises him, by which he means the possessors of older money; he will, instead, associate with others like himself and revel with them in vulgarity. Not for him the operas, the art exhibits, the refinements of high culture, the cocktail parties but the deliberate display of faux-Versailles marble and gold, the football trophies, the beauty-pageants and beauty-queens, the pictures of himself on every wall. His ressentiment ties him, inevitably, to those lower down, to the ones from whom he is trying to escape with his new-found riches and whom he will inevitably also despise. He will be far from a populist in his ambitions and labors, but he will always remain a populist in thought and emotion. In his struggle against “the elite” he will see himself at one with the ordinary people, but he will be far from seeking the company of such “losers.”

A third important fact is that Trump’s wealth comes from real estate. Real estate has become a major source of wealth both in the US and across the world and that is, no doubt, a function also of constantly growing populations. Like the stock market, real estate is very much an object of speculation. Its value can easily be manipulated. Continuing population growth promises corresponding increases in future profit margins. In a tight but unregulated market, consumers who are necessitated to enter it (either as buyers or as renters) can be bilked without hesitation. Real estate is in addition a domain in which hyperbole flourishes. Trump’s language of excess is and remains the language of real estate. He is selling his policies with the same hyperbole he has always found successful in selling his penthouses.

But the most important point is that real estate differs significantly from other forms of business. It generates wealth not primarily through production but through various forms of rent-seeking either from consumers or from the government. It is for this reason less hostile to government than other businesses. While it shares with hem a dislike of restrictive regulations, it always seek positive contact with government. Real estate needs permits and easements; it is dependent on city planning, traffic planning, on the availability of power and sewage lines, of schools and parks. real estate typically depends also on various kinds of subsidy and tax relief. Dealing and wheeling with government, bribery and corruption, the passing of favors and money are part of the real-estate business. Even when it becomes international real-estate business differs from other forms of international business. It is not concerned with tariffs and trade-agreements. It needs, instead, to be on good terms with both the government at home and foreign governments since its business will once again depend on permits, loan guarantee, regulatory and financial support. For real-estate there is no sharp division between business and politics; it doesn’t need and doesn’t want a completely unregulated market on the neoliberal model. It can live well with a completely integration of political and economic power.

It is this integration of politics and business that Trump represents and its name is plutocracy. But while it is useful to think of Trump as representing a particular social type, that of the self-made real estate superrich, we must recognize that he fills that type with a strong and somewhat unhinged individual character of his own whose genealogy is not so easy to trace. We can be sure then that Trump’s form of plutocracy will have its own individual character. Another plutocrat in his place would most likely be ruling in different ways. The presidency is not, of course, meant to be a form of personal rule that gives the office hold unconstrained autocratic power. It is designed as a public office and the expectation is, surely, that the personal foibles of the officeholder will be restrained by the constitutional structure. We will have to see whether that structure is sufficiently strong to contain the psychological peculiarities of the present office holder. Trump who surrounds himself with a small clique of advisers, who regularly bypasses the departments of government in his decision making, and who is, in fact, set to dismantle parts of the administrative structure is steering his office, in fact, in the direction of personal rule. In doing so, he may well be inclined to seek the support of “the people” against the governing “elites.” If he succeeds in this, we might, indeed, come to call him a populist; but it may also turn out that this populist impetus fails, that it will remain at the merely rhetorical level, and that class interests that Trump represents combined with the staying power of the institutions will prove more powerful than his personal inclinations and foibles with their populist flavor.

Triumphant plutocracy

In looking at Trump’s deeds rather than his words, we can see, in any case, a sharp turn away from the populist rhetoric of the election campaign towards the pursuit of recognizable class interests. Trump’s budget speech has struck a positive chord among commentators because the tone of his speech was more statesman-like and “presidential; he was, in other words, not a venting only his personal spleen; but the more point is that his actual budget proposals conformed very closely to long-established and well-known conservative Republican preferences. The building up of the military, the promise of tax cuts for the well-to-do (what he piously called “the middle class”), the abolition of an affordable health care system (a “socialist” thorn in the eyes of the Republicans), the promise of the appointment of an anti-abortion supreme court justice inclined to give money  even more influence in politics, the anti-immigrant stance (now delivered in more “humane” terms) all fitted well into the conservative Republican agenda.

We can locate Trump precisely in the history of American plutocracy. In his remarkable book Triumphant Plutocracy Richard Pettigrew, a one-time US Senator from South Dakota, many years ago described the rise to prominence of America plutocracy from 1870 to 1920. “When I entered the arena of public affairs in 1870,” Pettigrew writes, “the United States …. was just recovering from the effects of the Civil War… The transformation from that day to this is complete… I saw the government of the United States enter into a struggle with the trusts, the railroads and the banks, and I watched while the business forces won the contest … I saw the empire of business, with its innumerable ramifications, grow up around and above the structure of government. I watched the power over public affairs shift from the weakened structure of the republican political machinery to the vigorous new business empire.”[13] Pettigrew had by then left the US Senate in disillusionment. In his book he concluded that the rise of the American plutocracy had already been mapped out in the US constitution. “When I entered the Senate,” he writes, “I did not understand what it was I was facing. When I left the Senate … I knew that the forms of our government and the machinery of its administration were established and maintained for the benefit of the class that held the economic and political power…. Documents like the Constitution, which I, as a child, had been taught to regard as almost divine in their origin, stood before me for what they were – plans prepared by business men to stabilize business interests.”[14] Pettigrew was writing in a polemical spirit, but he rightly identified the rise of American plutocracy from the 1870’s onwards.

Similarly disaffected voices can be heard today. In 2015, the historian Ronald Formisano wrote: “The United States was never a pure democracy, but not too long ago Americans could confidently describe its political culture or its character as democratic; no longer. Now Congress and a reactionary Supreme Court majority cater to a hydra-headed plutocracy that enjoys government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich.”[15] Formisano added: “While gap has always existed, too often as a broad chasm, between our ideals and our practice, this is one of those times – a New Gilded Age – when the gulf between them has grown to undermine our very sense of who we are.”[16]

The first Gilded Age, that of the late 19th  and early twentieth century had suffered a serious set-back shortly after Pettigrew had published his book. Roosevelt’s New Deal and the war and post-war period brought about a slew of policies that controlled and reversed the plutocratic course of the country. But the plutocrats have disappeared, have never ceased to fight back, and have never given up their struggle to regain what they had lost. With Ronald Reagan they saw daylight coming. But then came more setbacks and finally the financial crash of 2008. It was under the specific condition that an outsider like Obama could be elected. But his government could not stem the tide of the rising plutocracy. Obama’s health care initiative proved the last gasp in the anti-plutocratic movement. Now with Trump and the entire government system in Washington under Republican control plutocracy is set to bloom once again. In this way, Trump’s ascendancy, far from being a break with the past, means in fact, a return to something previously tried.

But this analysis, right as it may be, does still not go far enough. Left by itself it creates the danger of underestimating the new that is happening all around us. For we must see the history of American plutocracy on the backdrop of a larger historical narrative and we must see the resurgence of American plutocracy against the background of a global accumulation of wealth.

The standard narrative today of the changing relations between political and economic powers is the following: The modern state arose, we are told, with a claim to the monopoly of power; it sought to be sovereign in all respects and thus also sought to control economic forces. That dominance of the state over the economy was initially easy since economic power was as yet dispersed. But as the owners of the agricultural means of production and the traders of their product became more powerful, the state was forced to abdicate some of its functions. Mercantilist policies in the name of state gave way to physiocratic ones. As economic and financial power became more concentrated in business and banking, the demand for a liberal economic regime became familiar. Twentieth century neo-liberalism continued along this trajectory. Large-scale economic operations, vast corporations, operating on both local and a global level, and an international banking system insisted on a maximum of freedom from state and government intervention. This standard narrative has admirably developed in Michel Foucault’s lectures at the Collège de France in the 1970’s. But Foucault would have done better, if in his story he had recalled his proposition that where there is power, there is resistance. The changing relation of politics and economics in the modern period has, in fact, not taken a linear course in a single direction. It is tempting, at first sight, to think of plutocracy, in line with Foucault’s account, as the completion of the neo-liberal project in which in the course of modern history the relations of state and economy have reversed so that instead of the sovereignty of the state we now have the sovereignty of business. But plutocracy points in another direction not in that of a struggle over what is sovereign, but in the direction of an integration and unity of the political and the economic realm. It is true that neo-liberalism and plutocracy have some comment interests. Both rail against regulation. But they do so for different and, in fact, opposed reasons. In the first case, the removal of state enforced regulations is meant to free markets to pursue their own goals; in the second, the purpose is to adjust state and the economy to each other to make possible their full integration.

The changing face of plutocracy

Plutocracy is not the worst form of government, as Plato and Aristotle have argued, though we know its dangers: corruption, exploitation, and dynastic ambition. We see it flourish in the Italian republics of the Renaissance and more clearly still in the Dutch republic of the 17th century. The latter was a merchant republic “geared to the commercial interests of its sponsors.” The directors of the powerful Dutch East India Company were without exception at also holders of political office – in town councils, provincial estates and the States-General. Some were in addition directors of the bank of Amsterdam, the dominant financial institution of the time which “pumped the wealth of four continents through the body politic.” The East India Company, though in name a private business, at the same time signed made treaties and made alliances, appointed military officials, and set up a judiciary all in the name of the republic. Its employees swore two oaths of loyalty: one to the Company and one to the States-General.[17] The tie between political and economic was, indeed, so close that in 1645, French traders complained of being always at a disadvantage in conflicts with their Dutch counterparts since the Dutch could always appeal immediately to their own ambassadors and these were  “themselves all merchants and make the least quarrel into matters of state.”[18] And in 1702, the Dutchman Pieter de la Court could write: “All the rulers of Holland are derived of parents that have lived by the fisheries, manufactories, traffic or navigation and so their children after them; and … the said rulers do still daily, in order to maintain their families, find it proper to marry their children to rich merchants or their children. So that such rulers, whether considered in themselves or by their consanguinity or affinity, are in all respects interested in the welfare or illfare of the fisheries, manufactures, traffic and navigation of this country.”[19] This was, of course, also the period that we know as the golden age of the Netherlands with its extraordinary flourishing of philosophy, science, culture, and art – though at the same time an age also that, for the same plutocratic reasons, engaged in a brutal slave trade and ruthless colonial exploitation.

The history of the Netherlands of the Dutch plutocracy of the 17th century illuminates how incomplete Foucault’s narrative of the development of the relations of the state and economics is. There is certainly no linear path from mercantilism to neo-liberalism. And it is also not sufficient to think of current plutocracy as a derivative from and development out of neo-liberal policies. Plutocracy is an older, more powerful, and more persistent phenomenon that neo-liberal politics or economics could ever be. We need to adjust and expand Foucault’s historical insights.

The plutocracies of Renaissance Italy and of the Netherlands of the 17th century flourished, however, under conditions different from our own. In them, the plutocratic rulers shared significant interests with their subjects. Rulers and ruled were united by a sense of community; they were pulled together by the need to stand up against outside oppressors, and they felt committed, at least in the Dutch case, to a shared faith in the Calvinist religion. Our plutocrats live apart from the general population in their enclaves of luxury high-rises, golf clubs, resorts, and gated communities. It is difficult to imagine Donald Trump to be genuinely intermingling with ordinary people in the way Lorenzo the Magnificent or the Stadtholders of the Dutch republic naturally did. Our plutocrats are not afraid of being overthrown by foreign invaders. And religious faith has ceased to be a force to hold a community together.

We, all of us, find ourselves moved today by a diversity of concerns and interests and the rich are in this respect just like the rest of us. They are motivated by religious or humanitarian beliefs, by images and phantasies of national greatness, by the fear of others, and even by the populist myth of the virtue of the ordinary people and the corruption of the elites.  Religious plutocrats may see their wealth as a gift from God, as an obligation to do good and spread the word. Betty de Vos, Trump’s education secretary, comes to mind in this connection and her husband Dick de Vos, adherents of a strict Dutch Calvinism convinced that only Christians are entitled to rule and do in order to instill Christian values.[20] Nationalist plutocrats, on the other, may feel called upon to maintain and expand the power of the nation. A ready example comes to mind in the figure of Eric Prince, an Ex- US Navy Seal who fought in the Middle East and the Balkans and who was also the founder and chief executive of the notorious security company Blackwater deeply embroiled in the Iraqi war. Prince has now rebuilt his business as a private military force under the name of “Frontier Services Group” variously located in Hong Kong and the Bermudas said to be bombing today in Libya on behalf of US interests but also engaged with Chinese interests in other parts of Africa.[21] Eric Prince is also, by the way, the brother of Betty de Vos and this evokes the question to what extent these different commitments are intertwined. I not finally, in passing, a few other types of plutocrats: the conservative plutocrat who is preoccupied with preserving the social, political, and economic status quo; the hedonistic plutocrats who is eager to extract pleasure from the pursuit of money and the exercise of power; and finally the simple- and single-minded capitalist plutocrat, who is focused only on making more money.

We should then not dismiss the thought out of hand that Donald Trump, the plutocrat, might also be genuinely motivated by populist concerns. But we must keep in mind that the plutocrats who identify with one cause or other, will generally keep an eye also on their wealth. And where a cause conflicts with the security of their wealth they will generally see to that first. The wealth-sacrificing plutocrat will always be an exception. The goal of plutocratic rule is, indeed, to remove obstacles in the way of pursuing both the preservation and accumulation of wealth and the promotion of this or that ideal. We can distinguish between subjective and objective interests. Subjectively, the plutocrat may be a Christian, and nationalist, a conservative, or a populist (among other possibilities), but objectively he or she is always a plutocrat. And the question is only which of these interests will prevail when it comes to action. The objective interests will, no doubt, always assert a powerful claim to the plutocrat’s practical attention. But this should not make us doubt that the plutocrat will also be genuinely attached to sometimes quite powerful subjective interests.

But politicians will always have to think about what they declare in public and what they truly believe and this holds even more for the plutocrat. Plutocrats have good reason for obscuring their objective interests since those tend to be so specifically ego-related. They will, always be a minority, since otherwise their wealth would cease to supply them with status, and their rule will therefore always be oligarchic. But they still need popular support in order to rule effectively and this forces them to hide the gap between their own objective interest and that of their followers and supporters. They may also have reason to hide their subjective interests since even those may not win them acclamation. The religious plutocrat may thus want to hide away his subjective interests when he seeks to rule in a secular society. To gain popular support the plutocrat may then identify with some wide-spread sentiments and beliefs and declare those to express his own subjective interest. He may want to stir he plutocrat must find and, in fact, stir up some popular passion be it the fear of communism, or of the counter-culture of the 1960’s and 70’s, or more generally of moral decline, of racial anxieties, of foreign people and powers, of elites, and of other religions may all serve that purpose. Populism and nationalisms are among the rhetorical devices the plutocrat will use to achieve his ends. But he needs to find causes that reverberate in popular culture. We must then get clearer about the conditions of this, our own present culture, if we are to understand what plutocracy can and will mean today and what the plutocracy advanced by Trump and his followers will come to – speculative as such an endeavor will no doubt have to be.

Nihilism stands at the door

If Nietzsche is right, and I see no reason to depart from him here, we are living today in an age of an as yet incomplete, as yet evolving nihilism. “Nihilism stands at the door,” Nietzsche wrote in the late 1880’s. “What I relate is the history of the next two centuries. I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism.”[22] Nietzsche’s 200 years are not yet up. We still face the full realization of what nihilism will bring about.

There are, however, two ways to speak of nihilism. Nietzsche himself describes it as a situation in which “the highest values devaluate themselves.”[23] That situation is not one in which there are no values at all; nihilism is not a condition of anomie; it is rather a state in which the values we possess have become unanchored. This will show itself in a multiplication of values, in the production of ever new values but also in their ever-continuing devaluation, in their constant being discarded and replaced. Values themselves have thus lost their value; and there are, consequence, no higher or lower values; all values are equal; they have become fashions that come and go all equally trivial. In this condition, no greatness is possible anymore; triviality itself becomes one of our values. One sign of this form of nihilism is the dissolution of the distinction between true and false, the moment when we can no longer discriminate between real and fake news. This certainly describes features of the reality that envelopes us today, both ordinary people and the rich alike. Neither can truly believe in anything anymore. We have recently heard that the superrich now build themselves shelters far away from the centers of civilization because they no believe in the culture they have helped to bring about, which they rule, and from which they profit.[24]

A second relevant way to characterize nihilism is to describe it as a “desublimation of the will to power.”[25] This description emphasizes that on Nietzsche’s view values themselves are products of the will to power since the world itself is will to power and nothing else. In creating culture, the arts, morality, and a political order we have, in fact, refined and sublimated the will to power. But there is always the possibility and the danger of a relapse into the exercise of a brutal, unconstrained will to power. Nihilism is then a falling back and collapse of the will to power into its own elementary form. This is the moment when all aspects of culture are reduced to tools for the will to power. When even religion and the appeal to religious values become cynical instruments for the unrestrained use of power, when we find it quite natural that politician drape itself themselves into the flag or profess a faith when we all know and understand their hypocrisy. What goes by the way in this unrestrained will to power is any concern for others. By the way goes, in particular, the compact between generations on which our entire social order has rested so far. It is this compact that made the welfare state possible, that made, for instance, the social security system possible in this country and that is now in danger; it is this compact that suggested the possibility of a comprehensive health insurance system and that created a sense of obligation to care for the poor and deprived. That, too, dissolves with desublimation of the will to power

We don’t know whether to what extent Trump is a nihilist and thinks in nihilistic terms. But that is not the point. Essential is only that he operates in a nihilistic environment, that there are others around him and among us who more clearly motivated than he may be, and that the only form that plutocracy can now take is itself a nihilistic one

Coda: the globalization of plutocracy

The new sort of nihilistic plutocracy emerging so clearly in the US is casting its shadow all over the globe.  Across the globe, we witness wealth accumulating rapidly in the hands of a very few. This is evident in Europe just as much as the non-Western countries. In Hong Kong, for instance, both wealth and political power are held firmly in the hands of a few real estate magnates. And the same development is visible also in mainland China with its increasing number of newly minted billionaires; some of these are now also members of the Communist Party and representatives even in the National People’s Congress. The old Communist elite has also turned more and more into a select group holding both power and economic wealth.[26] It is inconceivable that the new global superrich will not use their wealth to shape political decision making, that they will not seek to secure and expand their wealth by political means, that they will not seek to gain from political power, that they will not endeavor to unite money, business, and politics into their own hand, and that they will not strive to take power eventually under their own name. This global development certainly undermines the identity and definition of the modern state. What we see emerging is a new political order beyond the state as we have known it, an order which is both local and global at once, which may use some of the old institutions, keep some of the familiar facades but erects behind them an altogether new structure. If we can’t see this very clearly and feel disoriented, it is because we lack as yet words to describe what is happening. We might say that the state is now giving way to an amalgamation of corporate and political power and that we might therefore speak of the dawning of the corporāte as the successor of the old order of the. But this is as yet only a word and possibly an inadequate one since the real trajectory on which we find is not that of an ever expanding corporate power but that of a growing personal power in the hands of a newly emerging oligarchic class.[27]

Finding ourselves in the empire of disorientation we need better and new maps to guide us. We need a new language, new concepts, and new theoretical understanding. At the beginning of the modern age, we had to wait for Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Spinoza to explain to us the reality of the new state. We are still looking for such guides to help us through the labyrinth of our own new reality. Meanwhile I can only repeat to myself what Ludwig Wittgenstein once said of his own understanding of physics. “I have some evidence, but it does not go very far and is of a very scattered kind. I have heard, seen and read various things.”[28]





[1] Hans Sluga, Politics and the Search for the Common Good, Cambridge U. P., Cambridge 2014, chapter 9.

[2] Eliana Johnson and Eli Stokols, “What Steve Bannon Wants You to Read,” POLITICO, February 7, 2017.

[3] J. Lester Feder, “This Is How Steve Bannon Sees The Entire World,” BuzzFeed, Nov. 16, 2016.

[4] Ronald Radosh, “Steve Bannon, Trump’s Top Guy, Told Me He Was ‘A Leninist’ Who Wants To ‘Destroy the State’,” The Daily Beast, August 21, 2016.

[5] On the concept of the fascist state see, for instance, Carl Schmitt, “Wesen und Werden des fschistischen Staates,” (1929) reprinted in Positionen und Begriffe im Kampf um Weimar-Genf-Versailles 1923-1939, Duncker & Humblot, Berlin 1940 (Third edition 1994).

[6] See Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, passim. Also Carl Schmitt, Staat, Bewegung, Volk. Die Dreigliederung der politischen Einheit, Hamburgische Verlagsanstalt, Hamburg 1935.

[7] Donald Trump, Inaugural Address,, January 20, 2017

[8] Darren Samuelsohn and Annie Karni,  “Leaked Trump tape: ‘You are the special people’,” POLITICO, February 18, 2017.

[9] Richard Luscombe, “Palm Beach confidential: inside Trump’s super-rich south Florida social set,” The Guardian,  February, 19, 2017.

[10] See the website of “Black Tie. Empowering People Worldwide to be active philanthropists. Society- Celebrity-Enterprise-Philanthropy.”

[11] Interview with The New York Times, November 22, 2016.

[12] See Vance Packard, The Ultra Rich. How Much is Too Much?, Little Brown and Co., Boston 1989; Stewart Lansley, Rich Britain. The rise and rise of the new super-wealthy, Politico’s, London 2006; Peter W. Bernstein and Annalyn Swan, All the Money in the World. How the Forbes 400 Make – and Spend – Their Fortunes, Alfred A. Knopf, New York 2007; Jim Taylor, Doug Harrison, & Stephen Kraus, The New Elite. Insides the Minds of the Truly Rich, American Management Association, New York, etc., 2009.

[13] R. F. Pettigrew, Triumphant Plutocracy. The Story of American Public Life 1870 to 1920, The Academy Press New York 1921, p. 8.

[14] Ibid., pp. 132-133

[15] Ronald P. Formisano, Plutocracy in America. How Increasing Inequality Destroys the Middle Class and Exploits he Poor, John Hopkins U.P., Baltimore 2015, p. 3.

[16] Ibid., p. 8.

[17] J. H. Shennan, The Origins of the Modern European State 1450-1725, Hutchinson University, p. 85.

[18] Quoted, ibid., p. 94

[19] Quoted, ibid, p. 92; grammar slightly corrected.

[20] Kristina Rizga, “Betsy DeVos Wants to Use America’s Schools to Build ‘God’s Kingdom’,” Mother Jones, March/April 2017.

[21] James Poulos, “We Created A Monster: Ex-Blackwater CEO Erik Prince Is Going Neocolonial With China,” Forbes, Jan 25, 2014.

[22] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, 1 and preface.

[23] Ibid. 2.

[24] Evan Osnos, “Doomsday Prep for the Super-Rich,” The New Yorker, Jan. 30, 2017.
[25] I owe this notion to Ci Jiwei whose Dialectic of the Chinese Revolution (Stanford U.P., Stanford 2009) has been a major inspiration for this essay.

[26] “Crony Tigers, Divided Dragons,” The Economist, October 13, 2012.

[27] Sluga, Loc. Cit., p. 219.

[28] Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty, 600.

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