Published on http://www.counterpunch.org
“President Trump touched something inside me. He speaks like me and he talks like me.”
– Fayetteville, NC Trump rally
“Make Empathy Great Again”
– T-shirt voice
Donald J. Trump won the presidency partially because of his already existing Reality TV celebratory status. Audiences got used to his dealing tactics and he became proficient in reaching those who enjoyed — perversely at a time when layoffs were rampant in the land — hearing “You’re fired!” That segment of the population aided him in discovering the nature of the current populism. As president he has put into play what he learned: bigotry and prejudice to the point of racism has populist appeal, so too does a ridiculing of any authority, whether political, scientific, legacy media, academe, the EU and all Western agreements.
He responded to a Vox populi instinctively and in turn shaped a Vox populi that responds to him instinctively.
There is an authenticity to the Vox populi, which means it’s genuine and real and cannot be ignored. This doesn’t mean that the Vox populi is true or authentic in the existentialist sense that it is not permeated with a false consciousness or deceived within the American hyperreal which infects politics as well as everyday life. Neither is its voice reliable, rational guidance but rather only a signaling of what transfixes the cultural consciousness as well as the mass psyche. Because this voice is layered in both dimensions, there is no transparent meaning to the expression but rather only the expression which nonetheless permeates. It is authentic but not transparently meaningful.
Think of a baby on a crying jag or your dog or cat or goldfish showing signs of malaise or, on a whole other level of illustration, a lone gunman opening fire on a crowd of concertgoers at the Route 91 Harvest music festival on the Las Vegas Strip in Nevada, killing killed 58 people and wounding 422, with the ensuing panic bringing the injury total to 851. (Wikipedia)
We can attribute the same authenticity on the collective level as we do on the individual level. There are occasions when we can be anti-populist and ignore the Vox populi because we cannot accept a collective, social, national evil that is recognized as the voice of the people, say, for instance, the voice of slaveholders or sweatshop entrepreneurs or champions of a cleansing genocide. However, denying the authenticity of its expression does not free us from its populist power.
The only reason that Donald J. Trump, as presidential candidate and as president, speaks with the voice of the people, is a self-declared chosen one of the Vox populi, is because that voice had no previous representation in either political party and because he learned and mimics Vox populi “speak” masterfully. We add to that a plutarchic restructuring of the U.S. that has allowed that Vox populi to degenerate to a level at which a confidence man has easy access.
Even though Trump or someone other demagogic huckster, some other confidence man, was bound to pop up, the conditions of a particular time and place brought him forward. The stage has been set for Trump for a long time, the set being a society deeply entrenched in the hyperreal, voters across all parties believing in their own illusionary self-empowerment and being in a full revolt against any authority, whether of reason or reality, opposing that self-conferred freedom to choose.
Twitter made the aptness of Trump’s presence at that moment internationally and repeatedly known. You need to imagine Trump without Twitter, Trump without a means to instantly transmit the impulsiveness of an erratic mind. Difficult to imagine because there are no reasons to expect cyber communication to vanish or that they will be less effective in their access to “followers.” We can expect that we will be even more deluged with misinformation, confidence games and flimflam gambits. The Vox populi fractures into a Babel of voices as the means to winnow the chaff from the kernel vanishes. Resistance is futile, in a Borg expression, because every voice drowns out every other voice. In short, we cannot expect that the “education” of our impulses and our worst instincts will not be nurtured by future con artists on any future Twitter-like “engine of the democratization of all voices.”
Trump’s presence in the White House tells us that voices do rally when called from “the vasty deep.” In the same fashion that the lowest level of almost everything rises to prominence in our hyperreal culture, the worst devils of our nature are, we observe, more speedily and widely advanced than what philosophers term the Western Rationalistic Tradition.
The terrible shape U.S. and British democracies are in right now has much to do with the eruption of a Vox populi not in the streets but on the highways of cyberspace, a Vox populi whose only foundational authority is its own voice, a voice unfortunately either drowning in the churn of all voices or flocked together by Influencers and bullshit artists, Donald J. Trump and Boris Johnson filling these roles.
Trump rolled into view in the wake of the 2008 Great Recession, a recession that brought economic collapse as well as fear and trembling to the 80% but rescued the 20% at the top of the economic chart quickly and in fact maximized their wealth as they were positioned to turn crises into profit. Many more were angered and anxious than “bullish” by the event. A populist response developed in a space left absent by both political parties. And so too does this populism become a workable political frontier when so many feel they are disregarded and excluded by the political order of things they experience.
Trump or a Trump clone is late on the stage following this because someone else, Barack Obama, put his finger on the first emotional responders to crises – hope and all its Hollywood/Disney hyperreality. Instead of the Vox populi screaming revolt in the streets, storming the Bastilles of Wall Street (not setting up “occupying” tents) the hyperreality of a hope, totally by 2008 unsupported by the destroying consequences of an obscene wealth divide and by the bold looting practices of the financial sector, attached itself to the personality of Obama and his confirmation of the illusions of a personalized “Yes, we can!”
However, the “We” was already divided against itself. But not equal forces of division. One side knew how to defend its privilege within the economic system and the other didn’t know how to position itself outside that system or that privilege. Shouting “Empathy!” is not a knock out punch to “Send her back!” That situation remains.
Populism and the Vox populi then, didn’t’ arise from within this mess but outside it. And that’s where Trump has positioned himself from the start.
It’s possible to think of the presidency of Trump as a kind of detour from an upheaval we can expect when bread, circuses and the enchantments of cellular technology as well as the soma of endless live streaming run into the reality produced by a 20% “democracy” that has no plans to recuperate the lives of the 80%.
And because the Democratic Party has not yet been able to present a presidential candidate who has a finger on the impulses of our worst nature in the way Trump has, all rational calculations of the 2020 election remain unbinding. That was proven in the 2016 election when systematic analysis turned out to be worthless. No part of the reptilian brain of humankind reveals itself in polls.
Both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are spot on in analyzing what the problems are, but that analysis and their proposed solutions are not as easily digestible as the dog whistles and outright calls to gut impulses, never inspired by “love thy neighbor” but rather “beware of the stranger.” Who and what to be beware of is a daily Twitter feed of President Trump.
All plans to elevate the Vox populi above its present level and to do so by extending economic security to that populace are either deceitful and fraudulent, referring here to the Trump administration, or deemed too radical not only in the eyes of those whose economic hegemony would be threatened but also in the eyes of those who stand to benefit by what is tagged as “too radical.”
The confused and misguided anger of the Vox populi won’t fade when Trump fades to vanish because the turbulence of a cultural consciousness and a mass psyche cannot fade to vanish. They cannot because they have been exploited by Trump, but not resolved or remedied.
If we think of resolution, remediation, elevation simply in terms laid out by an economic system that has created this confused but targeted, misguided anger, then we haven’t stopped digging the hole we are in. The rise and fall of the Dow Jones and the S&P 500 are the benchmarks of the malefactors, the benchmarks of an order of things in which few rises and most perish, including the planet itself.
Are there any signs of an elevation of the Vox populi?
We are in an emergency crisis with global warming, not with Mexicans, Central and South Americans sneaking across the southern border. That may happen if the ravages of global warming put all the southern hemisphere on a migratory rush northward. We don’t stop that with The Wall but rather with mitigating climate change policies.
Trump is working in reverse, which means he believes that he’s representing the populist view. Whether there are enough voters in the nether regions who fear brown skinned, Spanish speaking “invaders” to confirm Trump’s position here is at this point not known. Racism speaks louder in the privacy of the voting booth than in public, especially when confronted with accusations of racism.
Education to the rescue? An educated populace is essential to keep a fragile democracy from being overthrown by a demagogue who can appeal to a winning block of voters.
This has already happened. The person of Donald J. Trump may vacate the White House but the country that put him in office, all the knowns and unknowns that put him there, to repeat, remain. We have been here before with Ronald Reagan, a presence that turned from an egalitarian mindset to a plutocratic one but left us bitterly divided as to whether this was a heroic change or a destructive one. The aftermath of Trump’s reign is not so clear simply because the forces that brought him to power and the design of his appeal remain more accessible to a psychiatric rather than a logical scan by Commander Data.
Similarly, the way we can probe the Vox populi is through prejudices, passions, and perverse instincts which, judging by social media, script the libretto of this voice. What we have is the logic of advertising and marketing brought into politics: you can sell fat burgers, sugar pops and salt chips simply because the nutritional Palette populi is at the lowest nutritional level. Americans don’t choose obesity; they choose what they like and what they like they are branded to like.
Cyberspace is where the young seek their education but what we get in cyberspace is a swarm of messaging appealing to every conceivable identity, loco to compos mentis, a kind of chaotic smorgasbord for a culture obsessed with the illusions of personal choice. As troubling as this is are the proposals addressing the challenge of an invasive illiteracy by a privatization of public education, the market’s turn to public education as the new profit frontier.
That debilitating, degenerating force is supplemented by tuition costs so high that student loan debt is now greater than credit card debt. Students must choose courses that will lead them to the biggest return on investment, that is courses and programs leading directly to jobs our economic system privileges, course that will pay off the tuition investment.
It’s clear that we are expanding the ways of instrumental reasoning and knowing, and marketable erudition required by the narrow fields of business and technology, narrow in the sense that the messiness of our human nature at work in politics, including presidential campaigns and elections, overspills the scope and methods of business and technology.
In short, the Vox populi doesn’t become more learned and astutely critical when and if it is educated within the instrumental fields of profit making. If this was not the case, Donald J. Trump would not be in the White House right now nor would we be facing a 2020 election in which there is an arguable case to be made that he will win again.
All this being said, there are forces in play that can create a Vox populi effectively focused on one issue: global warming. A kind of survival wisdom will cry out in the streets, push a politics of survival that will trump all other warring issues, including Trump himself.
The Vox populi screaming for survival and the ways to achieve it respond to the education our bodies and minds have achieved in the long evolutionary movement away from extinction toward survival.