The Devil’s Comb Over

It is this author’s analysis that the effect of the Donald Trump presidency has been, somewhat paradoxically, to put wind in the sails of a kind of patriotic liberalism, reaffirming confidence in the forms and functions of US governance. Since Trump’s election, the calling words have been “not my president,” “not my country,” “this isn’t the America I know”–and the protagonists in the valiant anti-Trump struggle has been Robert Mueller, the FBI, Nancy Pelosi, the CIA, and NATO. With the theatrics of Trump’s supposed move to withdraw US forces from Syria, which of course never materialized (and, without going too afar of this piece, which was never the primary thrust of US policy in Syria), the Democrats raised a furor over this disastrous misstep that supposedly threatened US national security. In the realm of the media, liberals have re-affirmed the trustworthiness of the New York Times and the rest of the mainstream media against the foil of Trump’s “fake news.” In short, there has already been a substantial rightward swing in mainstream politics that has been achieved in the “resistance” against Trump–as if the ruling class aren’t all co-conspirators behind closed doors.
International Dispatch, December  30, 2019

If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. ‘When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot. Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect’.
— Confucius, The Analects -13 (Legge tr.)

In order to allow narcissistic identification, the leader has to appear himself as absolutely narcissistic…
— Theodor Adorno, Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda, 1951

The entrance of Michael Bloomberg into the race for the nomination of the Democratic Party for the presidency is giving more proof to George Carlin’s old saying “It’s big club, and you ain’t in it”. The ruling class, the billionaire class, now control the electoral process as never before. Or they control it with less subterfuge. The narrative that is being imposed on this race for the nomination is that of ‘socialist’ Bernie Sanders, aka outsider, vs the establishment. Now the most significant aspect of this narrative is the constant insistence on changing the meaning of key words. Sanders, for example, is not even remotely close to the conventional and accepted meaning of socialist. The dictionary definition for socialist reads “a person who advocates or practises socialism.” Miriam Webster defines socialism as
“any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.” And the second definition reads “a system of society or group living in which there is no private property.”

But we are at a place in the evolution of language in which dictionaries are hardly foolproof in terms of accuracy. The so called Urban Dictionary includes this in its definition: “A socialist will usually distance himself from communist dictators like Stalin, and instead claim loyalty to the original ideas of Marx and Lenin. Unlike a communist, a socialist need not to be an atheist.”

The mind reels. But the take-away here is that the disappearing of the actual meaning of socialism serves the interests of the ruling class. The system would never actually allow a real socialist to enter the debates or gain any visibility in media and certainly the DNC would make short work of shutting down any such idea. Of course, no socialist would be part of the Democratic Party.

One also hears a lot about ‘the left’. Usually this refers to either supporters of Sanders, or sometimes (often actually) Elizabeth Warren and very often Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Illhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib; aka The Squad. For a clear example of just how NOT socialist AOC is, read Jacob Levich’s February 14th article at Counterpunch.

On November 16, four days after the military coup that destroyed Bolivian democracy, Ocasio-Cortez met with a group of pro-Áñez, pro-Camacho activists led by one Ana Carola Traverso. Traverso’s connections to the Bolivian coup plotters have been extensively documented online.
— Jacob Levich, Ocasio-Cortez to Constituents on Bolivian Coup: Drop Dead

This is hardly surprising as the entirety of the Democratic Party stood and applauded the fascist interloper and flunky of the U.S. State Department Juan Guaido when introduced at the State of the Union address. The entirety of the Democratic Party has been supportive of the new fascist regime in Bolivia. Save for Bernie Sanders..but…while Sanders did manage to finally choke out the words “coup”, he has for the most part remained silent on the issue since he first called it a coup (a week after the coup actually took place). That said, he did meet with Gustavo Guzman, the legitimate ambassador of Bolivia, which is more than anyone else in his party did. On the other hand Sanders referred to Hugo Chavez as “that dead communist dictator”. So without belabouring the point, Sanders is a liberal democrat, a sort of new age FDR progressive. But he is not an anti imperialist, and was and remains a cheerleader for Bill Clinton’s illegal assault on the former Yugoslavia. And then there is this.

So, okay, Bernie is a Democratic Socialist (like in Norway and Denmark). Except he’s not even that. Would that he were. Bernie has been too often fully on board with defense spending (that helps his home state of Vermont) and with U.S. military coercion and threats abroad. His criticism, such as it is, of American militarism sounds much like Obama’s before he was elected (and even like Trump’s before he was elected). Sanders is an economic nationalist with barely suppressed racism that crops up in fears about Mexican workers stealing jobs.

The take-away here is that Presidents are not Czars or Kings, they are simply the brand of the moment — and while they exert style and emphasis, they never really change U.S. foreign policy for that foreign policy has not changed in sixty years. One cannot support wars abroad, fought on behalf of the U.S. ruling elite, and then claim to battle them at home.

The rest of the field …

In a statement issued January 29, Senator Elizabeth Warren, a leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, called for a massive effort to impose internet censorship during the 2020 presidential election. Elizabeth Warren, proponent of economic nationalism, campaigning in Las Vegas She also pledged that a President Warren would push for “tough civil and criminal penalties” on social media platforms and web sites that publish misleading information about when, where and how to vote, or that engage in any conduct to suppress or discourage voter participation.{ } Warren called on Facebook, Google, Twitter and other social media platforms to step up their efforts against “disinformation” and “fake” or “manipulated” content. Who decides what is false content, however, she did not specify—but obviously, that would be the corporate-controlled media monopolies and the US intelligence agencies.
— Patrick Martin, WSWS, 2020

So what is the electoral theatre, really ? In the end it serves the system by changing the meaning of language, by normalizing ruling class rights and interests, and by normalizing a hierarchical class system. And this bleeds into the climate discourse as well, where Cory Morningstar has so thoroughly catalogued the billionaire and corporate designs for purchasing what is left for sale of the planet. The electoral circus is more about its secondary effects than about who is going to win.

A quick look at Pete Buttigieg reveals youth (he is 37), openly gay (which has not seemed to impact his numbers in either direction, somewhat surprisingly) and a history in Navel Intelligence (where he worked targeting for drone assassinations in Afghanistan). He is the mayor of a smallish midwestern city where most of his accomplishments were to assist gentrifiers (South Bend has among the highest eviction rates in the country). The rest of his platform is generic and opaque, at best. It should be noted that his early career rather mirrors that of Obama. Buttigieg worked for Cohen Associates, run by former Secretary of Defense William Cohen. Then worked for McKinsey & Company, a billion dollar a year consulting firm. His background is that of an overachieving (Oxford and Harvard) and driven company man.

Amy Klobucher has failed to gain even a tiny bump from her split New York Times endorsement. Which in and of itself is something of an accomplishment (negative though it may be). But Klobucher is a perfect laboratory created *centrist* candidate (normalizing the change in the meaning of words, again). Former prosecutor (like Kamala Harris, with just as an intense law and order record), comparatively young, worked for corporate law firm, and dutifully signed off on all Party policy.

As county attorney, Klobuchar oversaw the systematic cover-up of police murders and violence. During her approximate tenure as county attorney, the city of Minneapolis paid out $4.8 million in legal settlement fees for 122 police misconduct incidents. Meanwhile, during this same period, local police and Hennepin County sheriffs killed 29 people. Klobuchar did not once file criminal charges against police for misconduct, even when they killed people. Instead, she put such cases for decision by a grand jury, a process which was heavily criticized for its secrecy and for having the reputation of allowing testimonies in favor of police.
— George Gallanis, WSWS,  2019

Centrist means, today, right wing Democrat, or not quite full blown Nazi Republican, a law and order racist, and reflexive Imperialist. Klobucher also had her own Willie Horton in the person of Myon Burrell. This is all without even touching on the massive defense industry donations to her campaign or her rabid (even by DNC standards) support for Israeli crimes.

I don’t think anyone needs a rundown on Joe Biden at this point. He seems to be peacefully sailing off into the mental and literal sunset of his public life.

Who is left? Well, Michael Bloomberg. A man who is on record (for decades, literally) making openly racist comments, proves that extreme 1% wealth can buy you almost anything. An interesting foot note to all this is the overlap with Trump on the Central Park 5 case and how both Trump (who took out an ad at the time in the New York Times calling for the execution of the five young men) and Bloomberg who was mayor and zealously encouraged the prosecution, stood stoutly for white supremacism. In fact, Mayor Bloomberg and the City spent ten years and over 6 million dollars fighting against the civil rights lawsuit brought by the five men before finally giving up. He recently said, when questioned about the case…“I just don’t remember”.

But Bloomberg has always been openly contemptuous of the lower classes, and of blacks and latinos in particular.

His history of slamming public workers and of taxing the middle class instead of the rich make that clear. So too did his cracking down severely on dissent (his NYPD’s violent night-time rousting of the Wall Street Occupation provided the model for similar violent crushing of Occupy encampments across the country), and his making Wall Street and Lower Manhattan the most video-surveilled jurisdiction in America.
— Dave Lindorff, Counterpunch, 2020

Bloomberg has authorized his 2,000-strong field staff — the best that money can buy — to double their spending in post-Iowa arenas. He has spent almost twice that much – around $200 million – on advertising, and tens of millions more in building a campaign infrastructure and buying endorsements from a host of Black political prostitutes, including Chicago Rep. Bobby Rush, Washington DC mayor Muriel Bowser and San Francisco mayor London Breed. Indeed, Bloomberg’s billions have bought him more mayoral endorsements in top 100 cities than any other candidate. This is how you buy the Democrats, who are actually much more of a brand name than a political party.
— Glen Ford, Black Agenda Report, 2020

Ralph Nadar recently complained that the Democrats don’t go after Trump the way he goes after them. But the problem is that Trump … mentored by Roy Cohn… knows how to create a teflon image. He admits to be immoral, to being a gangster essentially, he brags about it. You can’t call him anything he hasn’t already called himself, and bragged about himself. For this returns us to the real effects of the electoral circus. The Trump presidency has accelerated the erosion of literacy and meaning in language. And Americans have long been imbued with the inclination to just accept winners AS winners, to view winning as an achievement free of other factors. Couple that to the destruction of public education, the effects of screen habituated voters distracted from most everything of an historical nature, and you get a public indifferent to global politics. How many Americans know who the Yellow Vests are? How many know there is a general strike in France? How many know about the destruction of Yemen (begun under Obama) and how many know the real story of Syria? Stories surface about faked gas attacks blamed on Assad and nobody cares. Stories about the DPRK surface, lurid propaganda demonizing that small country and the truth is now utterly irrelevant to most Americans. How many care in the least about the rise of far right parties in Europe? How many know the hyper nationalism of Modi’s regime in India? The answer is very very few.

We see that the object is being treated in the same way as our own ego, so that when we are in love a considerable amount of narcissistic libido overflows on the object. It is even obvious, in many forms of love choice, that the object serves as a substitute for some unattained ego ideal of our own. We love it on account of the perfections which we have striven to reach for our own ego, and which we should now like to procure in this roundabout way as a means of satisfying our narcissism.
— Freud, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, 1921

Americans want to see themselves as winners. Nobody in America is working class, they are *middle class*. Adorno wrote of the psychology of the fascist leader in a paper from 1951. It is hugely relevant for today.

The fascist leader must be both Superman and everyman, or as Adorno noted with Hitler, part King Kong and part suburban barber. And this is Trump and a good part of his appeal. He is both a clear *winner*, wealthy, rich, and powerful — but also a slouch, paunchy, with a ridiculous comb over and tanning salon face. He is like you or me or Joe the mechanic. But he is also PRESIDENT, rich and surrounded by beautiful trophy women.

Even the fascist leader’s startling symptoms of inferiority , his resemblance to ham actors and asocial psychopaths, is thus anticipated in Freud’s theory. For the sake of those parts of the follower’s narcissistic libido which have not been thrown into the leader image but remain attached to the follower’s own ego, the superman must still resemble the follower and appear as his “enlargement .” Accordingly , one of the basic devices of personalized fascist propaganda is the concept of the “great little man,” a person who suggests both omnipotence and the idea that he is just one of the folks, a plain, redblooded American, untainted by material or spiritual wealth. Psychological ambivalence helps to work a social miracle. The leader image gratifies the follower’s twofold wish to submit to authority and to be the authority himself.
— Adorno (Ibid.)

Now, of course, the reality here is that Trump is not doing much that Obama did not already do (or Bush or Clinton). The significance is in how he is doing it. The way he is doing it. That Trump will almost certainly win a second term suggests a good many Americans see themselves in Trump. And hierarchical structures are compatible with the sado/masochistic personality — hence the need to constantly punish those beneath you, the weakest and most vulnerable, as well as any ‘hated outside’ group. This need to find others to blame is tied to what Rene Girard wrote of scapegoats, but also to all religions finally, and is not (risking a digression here) unrelated to the insistence of the overpopulation alarmists and neo-eugenicists, who see threat in the poorest and desperate peoples of the planet.

The narcissistic gain provided by fascist propaganda is obvious.It suggests continuously and sometimes in rather devious ways, that the follower. simply through belonging to the in-group , is better, higher and purer than those who are excluded. At the same time, any kind of critique or self-awareness is resented as a narcissistic loss and elicits rage .
— Adorno (Ibid.)

Trump is the delivery system for fascist aesthetics. Obama was the inverse, in a sense. His was the last expression of the button downed repressed white male — a not insignificant irony (or not) given his fame as the first black President. But just as Hillary would have been the first woman president who gave expression to the quintessential militarist authoritarian male, Obama was paradoxically the liberal ideal of a white leader — and I quote here Molly Klein from a short piece on Laurence Lessig’s fawning video promo on Obama.

We can confirm this by listening to and reading the best and brightest – this guy, Lawrence Lessig, is imagined to be not only a grown up, an actual adult, but an expert of some kind, savvy and slightly dissident, a bright guy and a sincere one – advising us on how to cast the role of Prez for the next hundred episodes in the four year series pre-order of Leader of The Free World. Lawrence Lessig easily explains that Barack Obama would be better television. So. That’s that. But he doesn’t even seem to comprehend that this is what he is saying. That he is speaking of a spectacle as if it were all there is. It sounds just like he is spitballing for a season of The West Wing – the policies yeah yeah, who cares, they’re fine, they’re the norm, there’s no choice anyway, there is no alternative. But this doesn’t matter for our nationwide casting session because the policies are not part of the drama anyway – they’re not featured in the Free World storyline. You don’t cast a lead role like The Prez in a hit show like New Free World Order according to some trivia like policies. What matters is the Prez should be compelling and likeable. And a good actor. He should embody. He should symbolise. He should convince. He should have a certain charisma and image.

For this is electoral theatre. It is the Spectacle and it exists as a form of reality TV. That Trump is a former reality TV star is hardly beside the point.

Trump is additionally the accumulative embodiment of the loss of taste and decorum — the end of the gentry or aristocracy in some sense. His is the vulgar stamped ‘authenticated’.

Allow me a final quote from Adorno here…

The leader can guess the psychological wants and needs of those susceptible to his propaganda because he resembles them psychologically, and is distinguished from them by a capacity to express without inhibitions what is latent in them, rather than by any intrinsic superiority. The leaders are generally oral character types, with a compulsion to speak incessantly and to befool the others. The famous spell they exercise over their followers seems largely to depend on their orality: language itself, devoid of its rational significance, functions in a magical way and furthers those archaic regressions which reduce individuals to members of crowds. Since this very quality of uninhibited but largely associative speech presupposes at least a temporary lack of ego control, it may well indicate weakness rather than strength.
— Adorno (Ibid.)

This is another reason Trump won’t lose. You can’t parody him, can’t out talk him, or out shout him.

Sanders cannot win the nomination. Bloomberg is there to see to that if for no other reason. And even if he weren’t the popularity of Sanders in the youth demographic hardly matters. Bernie is not Eugene Debs. He isn’t going to fight for you. Bernie feels like a guy who has already lost once (and didn’t fight it). Even in the recent Iowa caucuses Bernie got stitched up, and said nothing.

Nadar points out, rightly, regarding the Democrats, in an interview with Jeremy Scahill..

They want to continue dialing for corporate dollars. They want to continue Obama’s record setting fundraising from Wall Street which exceeded his Republican opponents. Imagine, he got more money from Wall Street than John McCain in 2008. He even got more money from Romney’s venture capital firm. So, that’s the internal struggle. This business about socialism, that’s just a cover but they’re willing to immolate themselves this year, and let Trump win by basically stereotyping any kind of progressive legislation as socialism.
The Intercept,  February, 2020

Calling it socialism, which it isn’t, means that actual socialism isn’t even in the discussion. Turning fake socialism into a pejorative means real socialism is rendered the ‘unspeakable’ crime.

Warren wants the intelligence community to censor dissent. This is a so-called liberal democrat. Remember it was Obama who invented the whole ‘fake news’ meme. Trump did not invent ICE raids, either, or detention centers for children of immigrants. Nor did he invent targeted drone hits. That’s all Obama. No, Trump is the bringer of golden curtains in the oval office, the golden fake tan (increasingly scary) and the golden comb over. He is the tribute to both orality and anality. That Boris Johnson so reflects Trump is startling. A third generation dupe of Trump on one level, but BoJo is also the death rattle of the British ruling class made manifest. Corbyn was Britain’s Bernie. And Bernie will suffer a similar fate. For this is a new fascist age.

The persistently anal character of the Devil has not been emphasized enough…equally persistent is the association of the Devil with a sulphurous or other evil smell…the origin of which is plainly revealed in the article Di Crepitu an 18th century compendium of folklore.
— Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death, 1959

Brown also notes the magical origins of the feces/money connection in terms of usury and interest. But that’s too large a digression for here. Suffice it to say that Trump is a shiny golden walking talking piece of shit, rather literally. And he is the mouth that spews forth abusive diarrhoea, a racist Imperialist scapegoating orality — in short, fascism. And this will mark an age of acute ambivalence, too, as Adorno took note of in passing. The fascist, the leader, will always betray himself by his weakness. And no leader in American history is so obviously weak as Trump. But that is where we are.

Adorno also noted at the end of the essay…”It may well be the secret of fascist propaganda that it simply takes men for what they are: the true children of today’s standardized mass culture, largely robbed of autonomy and spontaneity…”

In terms of instinctual economy, the irrationality of Trump feels rational. For a while anyway. Obama, Bush Jr, and Clinton (Bill) were all figures that sold a certain aspect of the irrational. But it has come all come together in Trump. But it is worth reminding one, again, this is style. Of course, style is important. The way of Trump, that matters. Aesthetics matter. Maybe more now than ever, in fact.

The decisions belong to guys like Mike Pompeo — and I personally find Dominionist Pompeo the scariest man in Washington. And the global billionaires. To the think tank wonks and defense industry insiders. But it now goes through Trump via those golden curtains.

My personal prediction is for a brokered convention in which Hillary Clinton emerges with the nomination. And Bernie will tell his followers to get on board, to do the right thing. And Hillary will lose badly, maybe the worst loss ever. And she will have a massive mental breakdown. And with growing homelessness and precarity, with fewer and fewer jobs, the implementation of martial law will be upon us, and FEMA camps and debtors prison and a new Victorianism of savagely enforced social hierarchies.

I hope I am proved wrong.

John Steppling is an original founding member of the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival, a two-time NEA recipient, Rockefeller Fellow in theatre, and PEN-West winner for playwrighting. He's had plays produced in LA, NYC, SF, Louisville, and at universities across the US, as well in Warsaw, Lodz, Paris, London and Krakow. He has taught screenwriting and curated the cinematheque for five years at the Polish National Film School in Lodz, Poland. Plays include The Shaper, Dream Coast, Standard of the Breed, The Thrill, Wheel of Fortune, Dogmouth, and Phantom Luck, which won the 2010 LA Award for best play. Film credits include 52 Pick-up (directed by John Frankenheimer, 1985) and Animal Factory (directed by Steve Buscemi, 1999). A collection of his plays was published in 1999 by Sun & Moon Press as Sea of Cortez and Other Plays. He lives with wife Gunnhild Skrodal Steppling; they divide their time between Norway and the high desert of southern California. He is artistic director of the theatre collective Gunfighter Nation. Read other articles by John, or visit John's website.