Alienation and disenchantment are the twin elixirs of our political life. The majority of people in a capitalist society are alienated from their work and participation in political life as well as disenchanted from the values that their society purports to hold. Donald Trump’s degenerate presidency is the product of a degenerate political class that has festered in this alienation. With the bankruptcy of both political parties, Trump’s rise to the presidency acts as an unmasking of the decadence of the political and corporate culture taken root in the U.S.
This past week a slew of news from Trump and the democrats further highlights the unfitness of our political leaders to be in charge of anything resembling power. The first is the hysteria by the democrats surrounding an Oprah Winfrey “candidacy” for president. Further is the pearl clutching that has greeted Trump’s calling certain poor countries, “shitholes.”
Before Donald Trump it would have been safe dismiss Oprah as a serious candidate for any political office. But Trump’s presidency falls along the lines J. Robert Oppenheimer spoke of on seeing the first test of an atomic weapon, ” I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” Trump is death, the destroyer of worlds. So perhaps there is no longer any meaningful way to be a “serious” candidate in the sense of having reasonable knowledgeable on policy (or actually having policy positions) and having at least some resume of public service. Instead the democrats, like the republicans, will cow tow to any rich celebrity who will “win”. It is no surprise that the democratic elites would swoon to the thought of an Oprah presidency. Oprah is on the continuum of the cultural forces that lead to Trump. Both Trump and Oprah are the get quick merchants swimming in the swamp of capitalist culture. Each is selling snake oil, Trump in promising “celebrity” and Oprah with “spirituality”. At their most stripped down and vacuous, Trump and Oprah spell out the bottom line of their respective parties; Trump/republicans in vampire capitalism and Oprah/democrats in pussy hat capitalism.
Both forms of capitalism stem from what German sociologist Max Weber termed Entzauberung or “disenchantment”. In a lecture titled, “Science as Vocation” Weber states,
The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the ‘disenchantment of the world.’ Precisely the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations. It is not accidental that our greatest art is intimate and not monumental, nor is it accidental that today only within the smallest and intimate circles, in personal human situations, in pianissimo, that something is pulsating that corresponds to the prophetic pneuma, which in former times swept through the great communities like a firebrand, welding them together. If we attempt to force and to ‘invent’ a monumental style in art, such miserable monstrosities are produced as the many monuments of the last twenty years. If one tries intellectually to construe new religions without a new and genuine prophecy, then, in an inner sense, something similar will result, but with still worse effects. And academic prophecy, finally, will create only fanatical sects but never a genuine community.
No one would accuse Trump or Oprah of pianissimo, but perhaps they can be seen as performing a monumental form of performance art that certainly partakes of miserable monstrosities. Under rational capitalism, sublime values have retreated from public life into either the realm of religion or in direct human relationships. Faith and family is where most people find meaningful value, not in public life and politics. The absence of sublime public values explains how someone like Trump can succeed in politics and also how decent “god fearing” people can vote for such a monstrosity.
Alienation explains how the media can endlessly focus on Trump’s “shithole” comment but barely register far more consequential actions that effect real people in the world. The media gets worked up about Trump’s comment, but in the same week Trump issued orders to deport nearly a quarter million El Salvadorans, some U.S. citizens, back to a dangerous country and also attempt to apply work requirements to Medicaid recipients. Opening the U.S coastline to offshore drilling, the ubiquitous overseas wars are all met with a shrug. While Trump operates in what David Brooks calls a “Potemkin White House” of outrageous comments and extravagant Twitter broadsides, there is in fact a far more operational presidency that is fulfilling its promise to its donor base of conducting class warfare on the vast majority of working people. Trump is a monstrosity but he is also a standard issue republican who favors low taxes and deregulation. Over fifty percent of members of the U.S. Congress are millionaires while only four percent of U.S. households have assets over a million dollars. This fact explains the collusion and mealy mouth resistance at the heart of the Trump presidency more than any other. Trump does not represent the majority of the citizens but is loyal only to his own class. This explains his republican enablers and the tepid “resistance” of the democrats. These people live in a world of wealth and privilege and will do anything to protect their position, even work with a gargoyle like Trump. The rest of us just live in this shithole.
Donald Trump, Oprah Winfrey and Donald Trump, Jr, Chicago, Illinois, February 18, 2004