The astonishing political rise of Donald Trump sent seasoned observers scurrying for clues and explanations. How did Trump happen? Of course no one guide will suffice, but a surprisingly helpful one, suggests Sidney Plotkin, is the early twentieth-century American radical, Thorstein Veblen. In remarkably vivid ways, Veblen understood the enduring American allure of figures such as Trump. [NP] As Plotkin shows in "Veblen's America," Trump's booming persona springs noisily out the country-town hucksterism that Veblen sardonically depicted, its fabulist habits fitting Trump's "truthful hyperbole" to a tee. But Veblen saw darker, more ominous forces in American life too--habits of barbaric violence, misogyny and xenophobia--forces that foreshadowed Trump's appeal to what Veblen called a deep "sclerosis of the American soul." New Deal liberalism helped mute the strains, but economic crisis and the neoliberal response aggravated them. Donald Trump's appeal to hate made their revival unmistakable.
To shape the study, Plotkin introduces readers to Veblen's critical institutional theory and its application to both the American case generally and to the Trump family story in particular. With Veblen as foundation, he examines three generations of Trumps as they engage the forces of American development: Friedrich Trump, the hard-scrabble immigrant grandfather, on the make in the gold mining towns of the Pacific Northwest; Fred Trump, the father, who showed the way in using the loose rules of American housing policy to become a captain of local industry; and Donald J. Trump himself, who, having first burst onto the New York City scene as a burgeoning celebrity entrepreneur of the neoliberal era, then turned against neoliberal globalism, proclaiming himself the one and only savior of working-class America. As Plotkin shows, Trump's poisonous ascendancy exposed a barbaric malevolence that has long torn at the fabric of American democracy and its aspirations for equality.
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About the Author
Sidney Plotkin is professor of political science on the Margaret Stiles Halleck Chair of Social Sciences, Vassar College, USA, where he teaches courses in American politics, political economy, power and political theory. Plotkin has written numerous articles and is the author of Keep Out: The Struggle for Land Use Control (1987), co-author of Private Interest, Public Spending (1994) and The Political Ideas of Thorstein Veblen (2011) and editor of The Anthem Companion to Thorstein Veblen (2017).
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INTRODUCTION: DONALD TRUMP THROUGH VEBLEN'S LOOKING GLASS
In order to gain and hold the esteem of men it is not sufficient merely to possess wealth or power. The wealth or power must be put in evidence, for esteem is awarded only on evidence.
He boasted of sexual assault. His first wife charged that he raped her. More than a dozen women have come forward to complain that he forcibly kissed or groped them. A porn star claims that he paid her off to keep their extramarital affair secret. A Senate candidate accused of sexual involvements with high school girls won his eager support. He repeatedly threatened nuclear attack on North Korea, then warmly greeted its murderous leader and called him an "honorable man." When a neo-Nazi and white supremacist march resulted in the death of a protester, he equivocated; there are "very fine people" on both sides, he said. After becoming president, he refused to divest his private holdings or to divulge his tax returns. He continues to profit from his private properties, including a hotel near the White House that regularly hosts gatherings of party officials, lobbyists and foreign diplomats. Members of his immediate family hold key positions in his government. His idea of "sacrifice" is to work hard on his own behalf. Promising to "Make America Great Again" for the nation's workers, he appointed the wealthiest and perhaps least competent cabinet in American history. And he accelerated redistribution of income upward through a massive business tax cut. He has repeatedly lied and dissembled, insulted and harangued, obliterating truth and fact with cavalier disdain. According to the fact-checking website, Politifact, he dissembles 75 percent of the time. Despite all evidence to the contrary, he claims that, but for massive fraud, he won the popular vote for president. He has declared the US media the "enemy of the people," and its jounalism "fake news." He has questioned the legitimacy of his predecessor's citizenship and urged the jailing of his campaign opponent. He has tried to ban Muslims from the United States, labeled Mexican immigrants rapists and African nations "shithole countries"; his immigration policy has torn children from their parents and would deny asylum to refugees. He has fractured US trade relations and political alliances, insulted allies, questioned the value of NATO and regularly sung the praises of tyrants, including Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, and the Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte. He terminated US participation in a global climate accord and has dramatically weakened environmental and financial regulation. He ended a deal with Iran that factually limited its nuclear weapons capacity, while boasting of ending North Korea's nuclear threat, this without any evidence of the latter's "denuclearization." He regularly impugns the US intelligence community, the FBI and federal judges. He consistently resists claims by his own intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. He has considered formation of an alternative private intelligence service responsible to himself alone. He urges police to treat the accused roughly. He fired a respected director of the FBI and has threatened to terminate the special counsel appointed to investigate whether his campaign joined in a conspiracy with Russia to win the presidency for him. Multiple members of his staff, including his former national security director and campaign manager have pled guilty to federal criminal charges resulting from that investigation. His personal lawyer's residences and offices were raided by a US attorney in New York City and he too has pled guilty to federal charges ranging from tax fraud to campaign finance violations.
The list — and it is but a partial compilation — reads like a catalogue of impossibilities, something beyond the nightmare scenarios dreamed up by Hollywood screenwriters or dystopian novelists. But, of course, these are not impossibilities. They are among the many conspicuous features of the first year and a half of Donald Trump's tenure as president of the United States. Future scholars, journalists, biographers, historians and artists will plumb the depths of the Trump presidency and personality. How and when his administration may end is, at this writing, an open question. But for now, the political ascendancy of Trump is a disruptive, shattering reality. Efforts to understand it reflect a gnawing sense that American politics has broached a major discontinuity in its development, a brutal rupture of its long-established norms, habits, expectations and limits. The Republican Party he leads seems to have disintegrated morally beneath his twisted leadership, broken into warring factions, unable to resist his entreaties to break with conventional politics. Rejecting Trump's vicious rhetorical assaults during the 2018 mid-term election campaign, voters repudiated Republican control of the US House of Representatives. Respected Republican senators suggest that the party has made itself into a cult of Trump. Conservative commentator David Brooks expresses the characteristic despair of many traditional conservatives:
Donald Trump never stops asking. First, he asked the party to swallow the idea of a narcissistic sexual harasser and a routine liar as its party leader. Then he asked the party to accept his comprehensive ignorance and his politics of racial division. Now he asks the party to give up its reputation for fiscal conservatism. At the same time, he asks the party to become the party of Roy Moore, the party of bigotry, alleged sexual harassment and child assault [ ...] There is no end to what Trump will ask of his party. He is defined by shamelessness, and so there is no bottom. And apparently there is no end to what regular Republicans are willing to give him. Trump may soon ask them to accept his firing of Robert Mueller, and yes, after some sighing, they will accept that, too.
There will be many efforts to explain the Trump phenomenon. No singular account will suffice. Some will look to the deep strata of economic and social discontent that uplifted his candidacy. Others will follow the trail of the Republican party's internal fissures, linking Trump to developments reaching as far back as Richard Nixon and earlier extremist forces, such as the John Birch Society. Still others will likely see Trump in terms of his rise as a business celebrity and trace his story through the prism of changes in America's media and pop culture. Scholars will likewise trace Trump's rise in relation to the rising arc of authoritarian trends in Europe and Asia. These and many other accounts will add needed detail and insight into what will forever remain a complicated, many-layered and troubling phenomenon. But much has already happened, and the urge for scholars to understand it is compelling. As a political scientist who has taught and written about American politics for nearly four decades, I have felt an unusual urgency to explain Trump to myself. The need was personal as well as professional. Trump's capture of the White House seemed as mysterious, bizarre and ominous to me as it was improbable. To help my students understand it, I had to make sense of it to myself first. In this struggle, I benefited greatly by my recent exploration of the work of the early twentieth-century American sociologist and economist Thorstein Veblen.
On the surface, it may be hard to conjure an odder coupling than Donald Trump and Thorstein Veblen. Though each was the offspring of North European immigrants to the United States, as American types they could not be more different. Trump took the American values of monetary success, power and fame as the natural lodestars of his fantastic journey from Queens, New York, to the White House. Thorstein Veblen, born almost a century before Trump, in rural Wisconsin, went on to become the most original radical voice America ever produced. Far from accepting the values of money, power and fame, Veblen offered a thoroughgoing critique of their barbaric origins and transformations. More than any other American critic of America, Veblen's evolutionary approach to institutional change forces an encounter with the fact that the nation's liberalism is deeply tainted by poisonous illiberal legacies of racism, xenophobia and misogyny. These are legacies, he contends, that Americans inherited from a predatory and violent human past.
Of course, we see their repressive like in other places than America: Putin's Russia, Viktor Orbán's Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Turkey, to name just a few. But the point here is that hateful traditions unmistakably stamped American development too. There is nothing exceptional about the United States as a case of spilled blood. Its record of slavery and genocide producing "on the white population" what Veblen diagnosed as a cold, hardened "sclerosis of the American soul." In this sense, Trump and his following are far from uniquely American phenomena. They harken back to an ugly primitivism that antedates America and from which its culture and politics were never immune. And just as the barbaric authoritarianism of a Putin, an Orban or an Erdogan is wrapped in distinctive national garb, Trump's is clothed in the finery of America's huckster tradition, replete with its characteristic smile and boast. But Trump's link to today's autocrats transcends his distinctively American roots. Deeper, pervasive phenomena are at work. His contemporary version of barbarism is, after all, but one face of an ominous global reversion to political repression, a strikingly powerful movement against democracy, encouraged by deformities common to twenty-first-century civilization, though its specific forms and embodiments vary by national setting and context. While my focus here will be on Trump's peculiarly American sources, this emphasis should by no means be understood to segregate his dictatorial bent from the twenty-first-century sweep of authoritarianism globally.
In many important ways the authoritarian demiurge of our time is a twisted visceral reaction to consequences and strains resulting from late twentieth-century international neoliberalism, whose guiding force was America's capitalist state. I will have more to say about this later, but the fuller depths and dangers of this reaction will likely take decades to play out and it will not play out the same way everywhere. Latter-day historians and political scientists will have much to say about its sources, its dynamic and its consequences, "assuming" of course that "people are still allowed to write books about (the subject) in the future." Useful contemporary analyses by John Judis, Timothy Snyder and others point the way. Still, while the "sclerosis" of which he wrote has become ominously contagious, nothing in Veblen suggests that such "sclerosis" is beyond healing or repair. However — and this qualification is imperative — everything in his work suggests that cultural remediation of this kind is agonizingly slow, imperfect and uneven at best. It is bound to affect some quarters of the society more deeply and more rapidly than others. Such observations have led me to believe that Veblen's account of what Stjepan Metrovic has called enlightenment amid barbarism furnishes an illuminating and remarkably prescient conceptual framework for understanding the conspicuous case of Donald Trump.
The American Case
Veblen helps us see what he calls "the American Plan" in its own historical terms, but he also insists that these terms did not arise anew on the North American continent. They borrowed from seventeenth-century England an emergent liberal faith in popular government, law and commerce, but also from more ancient Euro-Asian traditions of irresponsible predation, seizure and coercion. America's culture is a composite of closely entwined features, modern and archaic, peaceable and coercive, liberal and irresponsible. In this sense, the comparative dimension of my analysis of Trump and Veblen's analysis of barbarism is among its most essential implicit features. Much of American development in the twentieth century involved episodic struggles to temper and pacify its illiberal strains, to introduce measures of equality, social welfare and justice, democracy, responsibility and enlightenment. Recent assertions of women to demand male accountability for sexual attack are powerful expressions of this episodic sequence. Even before the stimulus of 9/ 11, however, the illiberal strains reasserted themselves. Patrick Buchanan's 1992 presidential campaign offers one example; recent American ventures in imperial war and torture suggest more; Sarah Palin's appearance in 2008 another; and Supreme Court efforts to turn back the clock on voting rights are an especially consequential one. But the nation's reversion to illiberalism, to its barbaric past, has no more glaring or compelling illumination than the instance of Donald Trump. Trump's recurrent chant to "Make America Great Again" is a call to revive the nation's most barbaric habits. Trump makes Veblen's emphasis all too contemporary, too tangibly real, frightening and immediate. For these reasons, this study is every bit as much a reflection on the applicability of Veblen's general theory of enduring barbarism as it is an exploration of Trump. The two are interlocked; they go hand in hand. But before delving deeper into these connections, one possible confusion needs to be addressed.
Donald Trump's supporters often complain, not without some justice, that critics unfairly label them barbarians for their backing of Trump; or as Hillary Clinton had it, they form a "basket of deplorables." Trump loyalists correctly understand the terms "deplorable" or "barbarian" as social slurs. These are accusatory words, the vocabulary of insult and derogation. They impute ignorance and backwardness to Trump voters, as often as not joined to charges of racism, sexism and misogyny. Veblen's usage of the term "barbarism" is fundamentally different. It is not a social slur; rather, it is a social category. His reference point is not a claim about rustic, racist, misogynistic boors. It is to an early human phase of predatory, fighting culture, an epoch whose cumulative and lasting influence wove itself into current institutions in the United States and beyond. Most important, for Veblen, the barbarians and barbarism that matter today come not from outlying rural districts or some marginalized hinterland. They emanate from the highest elite circles of Establishment wealth, privilege and power. In contemporary America, the manifestations of Veblen's war-drenched barbarism are most visible in corporate boardrooms, Wall Street investment banks and the national security state. Put another way, contemporary barbarism is a defining attribute of militarized capitalism, competitively organized, profit-driven business institutions — the chief centers of absentee ownership — investment banks, hedge funds, corporations, along with the political institutions, public policies and military power that support them. Collectively, such institutions anchor the major inequalities of power, honor and wealth that are touchstones of the American social structure. In short, contemporary barbarism has its gravest and most compelling effects at the apex of US society and among its leading institutions, not in a mysterious "deep state," much less in rural backwaters or rust belt industrial towns. Obviously, the capitalist barbarism that Veblen's theory highlights has gone through many changes and transitions from its brutal beginnings. Its rougher edges have been smoothed down, polished and refined. Presidents win peace prizes. Generals waive doctorates as well as swords. Business titans gather stock bonuses, mansions and private jets, not scalps, hides and bones. Their behavior is considerably more civilized than their violent forbearers would have tolerated. Today's barbarism is relatively pacified. It has until recently even broadly accommodated what passes for democracy, representative government and rule of law. But it is engraved with the same driving ambition to conquer, dominate, and prevail. It reeks with the same predatory desire to be to be cheered, lauded and honored for successful aggression. The symbols and media of barbarism have changed radically. Its aspirations have changed much less.
Indeed, it is just this channeling of barbaric traits into gentlemanly, businesslike and democratic forms that makes Donald Trump's rude intervention such a shock to the institutional system — and to many members of his own social class. Insistently rebelling against conformity to mannerly expectation, Trump stands out as a recalcitrantly defiant, rebellious member of the leisure class. He is a man who manifests "energy, self-seeking and disingenuousness" compounded with miniscule loyalty to his classmates. Indeed, he loves to spit in their face, preferring to "cast himself as the everyman's rich friend [...] whose heart (is) aligned with Middle America." Donald's abrupt entrance into the highsociety enclave of Palm Beach, Florida, is a case in point. He delighted in telling biographer Timothy O'Brien that his decision to convert the fabled Mar-a-Lago mansion into a private club horrified his staid, old-money neighbors. "They went fuckin' nuts about me [...] The bottom line is that after litigation [...] I ended up winning [...] Very traumatic, very long arduous task [...] They hated me."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Veblen's America"
Copyright © 2018 Sidney Plotkin.
Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents
1. Donald Trump through Veblen’s Looking Glass;
2. Evolution, Institutions and Barbarism;
3. The American Plan;
4. Trumpean Ancestors, Exploitative Legacies;
5. Building for the Leisure Class;
6. Picturesque Accomplishments;
7. Candidate Trump and the Politics of Rage;
8. Limits of Barbarian Governance;
What People are Saying About This
“One of the world’s leading Veblen scholars has done it again. Sidney Plotkin’s Veblen’s America provides an insightful and brilliant analysis that exposes Trump’s rural ‘country town’ appeal as an expression of the deep red barbaric strand in American political culture, its racism, misogyny and inflamed nationalism. This book is a must-read.”
Bill Scheuerman, Professor Emeritus, SUNY, USA
“A powerful and unique book: Trump’s presidency is Veblen’s dystopia. Using Veblen’s insight into the competitive thrust of pecuniary culture, Plotkin shows that Trumpism is not a deviation from the arc of US history, but a continuation of its trajectory.”
William M. Dugger, Senior Scholar, Global Political Economy Research Unit, and Professor of Economics, University of Tulsa, USA
“Sidney Plotkin, one of the most erudite disciples of Veblen, provides a compelling account of America’s astonishing reversion to illiberalism under the presidency of Donald Trump. This is a must-read for anyone concerned about the rise of authoritarianism anywhere in the world.”
Ahmet Öncü, Professor of Sociology, Sabancı University, Turkey