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Classical Social Theory and Donald TrumpTerm Paper

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¶ … remarkable political event to emerge in the United States in the past year is the improbable rise of Donald Trump as the frontrunner in the contest to be the Republican Party's candidate in the 2016 presidential election. Alan Rappeport's article for the New York Times on December 30, 2015, entitled "Looking Back at Donald Trump's 2015," puts emphasis on the improbability. The article surveys in retrospect the seven most salient moments of Trump's presidential campaign for the past year, reminding readers of some of the most noteworthy or bizarre episodes in Trump's campaign, from the announcement of his candidacy which veered into wild claims that undocumented Mexican immigrants were rapists, his veiled sexist jibes at journalist Megyn Kelly and fellow candidate Carly Fiorina and outright sneers regarding Senator John McCain's military service, former President George W. Bush's competency, and fellow candidate Dr. Ben Carson's religious faith, to his plan to prevent foreign Muslims from entering the United States. Rappeport's foregrounds what is newsworthy about this recap of Trump's campaign: Trump has "defied political gravity" with these "provocative policies and barbs that would sink most traditional politicians" (Rappeport 2015). As an over-the-top plutocrat with outrageous opinions, Trump would certainly not be out of place in the late nineteenth century; both his megalomania and his taste in architecture would seem far more mainstream in the Gilded Age. It seems fitting, therefore, that the unlikely Trump candidacy might be best explained with reference to the classical social theoreticians of the later nineteenth century: Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Emile Durkheim. Although proposing a Marxist analysis of Donald Trump may sound like shooting fish in a barrel, both Max Weber (with his concept of "charisma") and Emile Durkheim (with his analysis of individualism) can also shed light on what is perhaps the strangest sociopolitical event of the past year.

Marx is, of course, the theorist par excellence of class conflict. And although the economic conditions of the early twenty-first century are very different from those that Marx was analyzing, Donald Trump would actually be perfectly recognizable to Marx. Trump is the classic instance of the rentier capitalist in Marx's schema: having inherited a large amount of real estate, and using the profits from it to acquire only more property, Trump exists to derive profit from his inherited capital while producing nothing of actual value. (The fact that Trump has managed to reify and monetize his own persona in a television show only demonstrates further that he isn't actually making iPhones or automobiles.) The mystery from a Marxist standpoint is why Trump would have the support of the people who turn up to his campaign rallies, as Trump's voters are hardly capitalist overlords or even bourgeois themselves. Where is the Marxist class conflict? In reality, it would seem that Trump's appeal for these proletarians is best explained by recourse to Marx's concept of alienation. Royce notes that alienation in Marx's early work is a broad-reaching concept, but among other aspects workers under capitalism are alienated from their essential nature ... the ability of individuals to conceive a purpose and realize it through their laboring activity ... sis corrupted under capitalism where work serves an external need and is performed under the dictatorial control of the capitalist ...work under capitalism is contrary to human nature, quite literally dehumanizing ...[I]ndividuals under capitalism are alienated from their fellow human beings. Capitalism transforms all social relationships into competitive economic relationships, resulting in the "estrangement of man from man." (Royce 137)

We can imagine, then, the Trump supporters: working at places like Walmart, they are subjected to stringent rules, long hours of work, with nothing to show for it. Their personal creative energies are not expressed through this work. Meanwhile they have no view of society or solidarity, but instead are estranged from other people, who only represent the threat of competition or a drain on scarce resources. This puts Trump in a unique position. Although he exemplifies the "dictatorial control of the capitalist," his television program turns this into entertainment -- Trump fans can watch the capitalist insulting and degrading someone else on the TV program, and this allows enjoyment of seeing a potential competitor fail and perhaps also education about how to become a better competitor oneself. Trump's TV celebrity would not be enough to animate a political campaign, except that he uses the perfect freedom he enjoys as a rentier capitalist to speak racist nonsense about Mexican immigrants. This plays directly into the alienation of Trump's fans, who already see Mexican immigrants as potential competitors in the dog-eat-dog capitalist economy. It is also worth recalling how Marx and Engels characterize the condition of workers under modern capitalism:

The proletarian is without property; his relation to his wife and children has no longer anything in common with the bourgeois family-relations; modern industrial labour, modern subjection to capital, the same in England as in France, in America as in Germany, has stripped him of every trace of national character. (Tucker 481)

The way in which capitalism can destroy a sense of community or place in this way -- as Marx and Engels say elsewhere in the Manifesto, "all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned" -- explains the success of Trump's message. Trump promises to "make America great again" while at the same time indulging in lurid xenophobic fantasies about Mexican immigrants -- "They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists" (Rappeport 2015). For the alienated proletarians who comprise Trump's supporters, Trump supplies a message that appeals to their sense of threat from competition (Mexican immigrant workers might undercut them in wage competition and leave them unemployed) and their sense of nostalgia for a vanished America (which fails to recognize that it is the conditions of capitalism itself that change America with such dizzying speed).

A different analysis of Trump, however, would be provided by the theories of Emile Durkheim. Here, Trump's monotonously self-regarding egomania is the clue to how Durkheim would analyze him, in terms of a greater concept of individualism. Durkheim's analysis of individualism depends (in the words of Royce) on a "contrast between..two opposing types" of individualism: these are "egoistic individualism and moral individualism" (Royce 181). Durkheim derives them from two different trends in late Enlightenment thought. Moral individualism, which Durkheim appears to endorse, comes from the universalist philosophies of Kant and Rousseau, and is epitomized in the French Revolution's "Declaration of the Rights of Man": this promotes the idea of the individual as a "being preeminently worthy of respect" and is the foundation for the twenty-first century conception of human rights (Royce 181). But it is egoistic individualism that Durkheim anatomizes with skepticism, calling it a "sickness" that comes from the "crass commercialism" of a capitalist society "which reduces society to nothing more than a vast apparatus of production and exchange" (Royce 195). This is, of course, precisely the view of the world that Donald Trump endorses: he rarely fails to mention at campaign rallies that in the 1980s he wrote a book called The Art of the Deal, and obviously anyone who sees dealmaking as an art must believe that society consists of no more than production and exchange. We would not need Emile Durkheim to apply the term "egoistic individualist" to a man who is repeatedly insulting to women and minorities, and who cannot erect a building without putting his own name on it, but Durkheim's specific concept is a good clue towards Trump's strange appeal. Egoistic individualism, "celebrated in the writings of the orthodox economists, is an outgrowth of a 'crass commercialism' and the spread of the market economy" (Royce 181). Conceptually egoistic individualism "glorifies the private interests of the particular self" and "gives priority to the value of personal liberty, the freedom of individuals to act on their own wishes"; it sees actions as "oriented toward the achievement of purely personal or amoral objectives," it "flatters our instincts and furthers our personal interests" (Royce 181). Trump's supporters are those who feel their own "freedom ... to act on their own wishes" has been curtailed: they feel a vicarious satisfaction at seeing a billionaire be rude and politically incorrect, not only to Mexicans or women, but also to the previous Republican presidential candidates like McCain and Bush at a moment when these voters, who already identify with the Republican Party and its ideology that "glorifies the private interests of the particular self" but nevertheless feel that the party has failed to provide them with any material improvement in their lives. The irony is that all the more advanced feelings of individualism that Durkheim endorses -- that include the sense of solidarity, belonging, and common purpose -- are directed by these people merely towards Republican party membership and affiliation. That fact (in addition to being in the presence of a TV celebrity) explains the strangely religiose vibe in their adoration of Trump at his rallies.

Max Weber, however, might offer a very different reading of Trump.… [END OF PREVIEW]

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