- Trump's Unwitting Prophecy
Mary Stuckey's essay on the rhetorical correlates of political change is prompted by the unexpected outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Trump's triumph raises the question of whether the republic is in crisis. Trump, Stuckey maintains, is a harbinger of change, and not the kind of change that bodes well for democratic politics. He won the presidency on the basis of overt bigotry. The success of his exclusionary vision suggests that the shape of the new political order, the nation's sense of itself, will be dominated by issues of identity, privilege, and belonging. The language of excess—hyperbole, incivility, and an appeal to nostalgia that relies on significant erasures—threatens to become the enduring and defining feature of the nation's politics. It short-circuits the rationality that is crucial to self-rule and republican governance.1
I do not disagree. An excessive rhetoric of exclusion is rampant in contemporary U.S. politics (and politics elsewhere in the world). It is a dangerous and undemocratic trend. I also agree that Trump is as much a symptom of rhetorical disorder as an agent of it, although (as Stuckey points out) political power is ceded to individuals rather than institutions in unstable times. Trump's political agency cannot be overlooked, nor should its rhetorical import be underestimated. The significance of Trump's rhetorical excess for democratic polity and politics extends, beyond incivility, to deception and unwitting prophecy.
Trump's rhetoric is deceptive about change in particular. He is a harbinger of change in the sense that he channels and redirects much of the public [End Page 707] discontent that seems to call for a turnabout. Indeed, as Bonnie Dow argues, the violent imagery of Trump's coarse, indecorous, and unapologetic rhetoric feeds a collective fantasy that he will get things done by shaking up politics as usual.2 His hyperpolarizing misdirection of public discontent subverts democratic values and process. His rhetoric of antagonism alienates the polity from democracy, deflects politics away from deliberating the inequities of neoliberal globalization, and thereby sustains the reigning system of economic privilege. In Alison Hearn's terms, Trump's hustle is a symptom of, and alibi for, a "failing political economic system marked by perpetual crisis, where traditional jobs are disappearing and employment is ever more precarious."3 In adopting the persona of the populist, he advances the agenda of a corporate capitalist. His act is political theater that stymies rather than presages positive change.
Trump's carnivalesque rhetoric is neither Democratic nor Republican. The change it foreshadows—regardless of how long he remains in office—is a movement beyond capitalist democracy and corporate oligarchy toward an undisguised authoritarianism that would consolidate its political and economic power over the people. Mark Andrejevic notes Trump's demagogic "jouissance," which provides a kind of pleasure in spectacle that merges entertainment with politics, skepticism with fantasy, and violence with authoritarian tendencies.4 His demagoguery, should it prevail, inclines toward the imperial. Its patriarchic patriotism infantilizes the polity, or at least a large segment thereof. Its undemocratic leaning threatens a political regression away from an already thin democratic culture. Its caustic bent reinforces a militant mindset.
Trump's deception hinges on a facile promise of national salvation. It is a puerile discourse of redemption by demolition and deal making.5 It prompts followers to emote—to express uninhibited feelings of fear, anger, and hatred. It is a seductive spectacle of the wrecking ball well adapted to a media culture of fast-paced, combative entertainment. As envisioned by the president's chief political strategist, it deconstructs the administrative state.6 It vows to restore lost glory by demolishing funding for nondefense agencies, increasing annual military spending by $54 billion, cutting taxes, dismantling regulations on Wall Street, repealing Obamacare, shredding trade agreements, eliminating government regulations, canceling executive orders, staying unwanted immigration, and eradicating radical Islamic terrorism. It promises a swift, simple, and emotionally satisfying renovation [End Page 708] of a system rigged against the American people. It plays to a fantasy of bootstrapping individualism and unfettered capitalism. It dominates the public agenda in a mercurial display of political clownery and racist innuendo...