Don’t come here for a neutral account. Donald Trump is a “paranoid, narcissist, racist, misogynist, xenophobe, nationalist, isolationist nepotist, anti-globalist, pro-global corporatist, ignorant, dissembling and incompetent billionaire” – although, to be fair, Lawrence Grossberg says that he is not sure about the last of these. What he does know is that the “combination of a bombastical, egotistical president, Republican control of Congress, and a Conservative majority Supreme Court promises devastating consequences for democracy, global stability and peace”. And that’s just in the preface!
Yet in a way, I’d say there’s good news and bad news here. The good news is that President Trump is not really a complete departure from American norms, but fits comfortably within a kind of evolutionary sequence that stretches from Ronald Reagan and George Bush 1 and comfortably includes Bill Clinton and even Barack Obama. It seems that “much of what Trump is doing simply continues…practices that have become the norm of U. S. politics”.
And the bad news? That all these presidents have been involved in the kind of capitalist, corporatist programme that stealthily and systematically has taken rights from ordinary people (let us not say “the workers”) and presented them to corporations (let us not say “capital”).
Overall, then, it’s pretty bad news. So what is to be done? Grossberg says that before working that out, we need to survey the background and understand – “theorize” – the underlying causes a bit better. Hence this book. Now, surveys of complex societies, economic forces and social trends are ambitious projects, and there’s a hint of arrogance here. Yet Grossberg has the kind of authority that allows him to carry the project off.
He is a shrewd and pithy observer. For Trump, “incivility is a political statement”, while US politics is less about “two warring tribes” than shifting coalitions of interests. The Republican states are “often the ones not only taking the most in government benefits and subsidies, but giving back the least in taxes”. In the US, identity politics has “fragmented progressive forces” and, by discounting economic issues, weakened their appeal. The one thing we can be sure of, he notes ruefully, is that “the working class is never as simple, never as homogeneous” as political stories suggest. Although Trump’s election does correspond to America’s racial divide, and Hillary Clinton won non-white voters “regardless of income and education”, Grossberg still doesn’t see race as decisive, although he allows it is a factor. Rather, he sees Trump as attracting those whose only politics is to “send in a wrecking ball” – the same motivation that so many Leave voters described in the UK referendum on European Union membership. For such as these, cosmopolitanism is an alien world filled with people who claim to be citizens of everywhere but to them are citizens of nowhere. And certainly, the US has a “long history of not trusting, even hating, government”.
It is tempting to imagine how Trump might tweet about this book, in the unlikely event that it was brought to him on a tray along with the pile of newspaper cuttings mentioning him that he devours each morning. “Commie Professor says I’m part of a capitalist conspiracy? Fake News!”
Martin Cohen is visiting research fellow in philosophy at the University of Hertfordshire. His latest book, I Think, Therefore I Eat (forthcoming), is a sociological study of food and culture.
Under the Cover of Chaos: Trump and the Battle for the American Right
By Lawrence Grossberg
Pluto, 192pp, £75.00 and £14.99
ISBN 9780745337920 and 7913
Published 20 January 2018