The cultural theorist Joan Copjec memorably described Ronald Reagan as the "Teflon Totem."1 The media, she said, was so obsessed with reporting Reagan's flagrant lies and "idiotic blunders" that they missed the real point, the core of the President's unshakeable appeal: the love of the American people for their leader. For all the rational evidence of Reagan's gross incompetence, he somehow emerged from each attack unscathed. Though the media exhaustively documented his every mishap "it could not - by its own incredulously tendered admission - menace the position of the president himself." She argued that the media was guilty of a "realist imbecility": the assumption that what mattered was the raw substance of the thing, not the intersubjective beliefs involved in elevating Reagan beyond rational criticism and into the arena of love. For love, she argued, following the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, is immune to concrete criticisms of this or that characteristic. After all, we love the other unconditionally whilst acknowledging their personal failings. The American public felt no different about its Teflon President.
Not insignificantly, for this article at least, a future Republican presidential candidate played an anecdotal role in Copjec's description of the media's imbecility: after Ivana Trump confronted her husband Donald over his infidelity, news crews rushed to report on the empty spot outside a motel where the confrontation had taken place. Citing Roland Barthes, Copjec related this obsession with the raw object - the referent, the dull, empty space of an event - rather than its actual significance to an "illusion." The media, in her view, tended to ignore the unique qualities of the enunciator (the person who speaks) and look only at the objective circumstances in which they speak - yielding an empty space where a proper explanation should be.
Donald Trump has been carefully cultivating a relationship of stagy antagonism with the media for thirty years and has benefited from a similar type of dynamic to Reagan. But Copjec's argument is that figures of this kind - who inspire deep libidinal devotion in their audience - are in fact strengthened by the endless cataloguing of their idiocies. Trump is impervious to rational criticism because he embodies, for some Americans, a moment of pure innocence which precedes all doubt. Although Copjec does not blame the media for Reagan's success, it is easy to extend her critique to those who rather hysterically cry foul over Trump whilst forever returning for more. Trump, of course, is ratings dynamite - but the news networks' and the highbrow media's investment in the Trump car crash goes far beyond the profit. The US specialises in this revulsion-attraction to its leaders. In America the citizens resist the abstract uniformity which their citizenship entails and "require instead this master to accredit our singularity." To be fair, the USA hardly has a monopoly on such offensive buffoonery, from the enduring popularity of Boris Johnson in the UK to Silvio Berlusconi in Italy. Copjec's argument is that sometimes America and the world needs a Reagan - which implies in its turn a further question: Why this time did it get a Trump?
Trump is in fact startlingly unpopular: according to the Huffpost Pollster page he currently has a sixty-three percent unfavourable rating among the US electorate. By contrast the gaffe-prone Vice President Joe Biden can boast that only thirty-seven percent of the electorate find him unpalatable. And yet somehow this bewildering character, who is actively disliked by the vast majority of US voters, stands a good chance of becoming President. To understand Trump's success and his dubious distinction of being the most brazenly offensive, polarising candidate in modern US history, it is necessary to look at the class make up of his support.
As an extensive survey carried out by the PRRI and the Brookings Institution shows, deteriorating living standards and fear of foreign infiltration (in whatever phantastmatic form) have been conjugated into a single discourse among certain sections of the American public. The survey showed that sixty-two percent of white working-class Americans believe things have got worse in the US since the 1950s. Meanwhile, seventy-four percent of Republicans and eighty-three percent of Trump voters feel that "foreign influence" over the US should be curtailed. According to the New York Times Trump leads Hillary Clinton among white working class voters without a college degree, often by large margins. It is often assumed that latent or explicit sexism and - more problematically - lack of education are driving the anti-Clinton vote. The accusations of sexism are undoubtedly true, but those feelings alone cannot explain the enthusiasm that greeted Trump among these voters before Clinton received the Democratic nomination. Writing in the Atlantic Ronald Brownstein declared, "Trump was lifted by a coalition that largely believes the America it has known is under siege." Trump's biggest audience, Brownstein writes, lies precisely "at the intersection of immigration and terror."
In an article for Foreign Affairs magazine the left-wing writer Michael Kazin argues that the Trump phenomenon is best understood "as an amalgam of three different, largely pathological strains in American history and culture." First, hostility towards immigrants - especially towards those whose religious and ethnic identity "clashes" with that of the majority. Second, populist right-was ing hostility to the corruption of the ruling elite - directed especially at the state (Big Government and so on). Third, attraction to the outrageous charisma of a wealthy outsider. Though Kazin provides a succinct sketch of the individual components of Trumpism, the medical metaphors ("pathological... strains") mask the absence of an explanation of its origins. Similarly, Brownstein argues that, "From the outset [Trump] has stressed three principal identities." First, the politically savvy business executive who can revive the economy. Second, the political outsider untethered to corruption. And third, the "embodiment of resistance to demographic and cultural change." It is this latter, Brownstein argues, which has been most prominent and consistent. If Kazin identifies the cultural strains of Trumpism, Brownstein identifies Trump's method for capitalising on them.
But we are still no closer to understanding how inchoate fears about falling living standards and lack of status have been so tightly conjugated with fear of "foreign influence." Indeed it is not clear if the latter signifies a single phenomenon or a bundle of anxieties about the changing colour of US communities, the increasing visibility of minorities in US public life, the ever-present threat of terrorist violence and the encroaching reality of global disorder. Who does this political messaging really appeal to? As Nate Silver at the FiveThirtyEight website argues, the extent of Trump's working class support is often overplayed: Trump supporters tend to be slightly better off than the median US earner. They are not the poorest who have been excluded from jobs, social security, healthcare, and homeownership by globalisation. "Class in America is a complicated concept," he argues, "and it may be that Trump supporters see themselves as having been left behind in other respects." This is a story, then, of relative decline for a "class fraction" of US society which has been heavily racialised by the US polity: the conservative, white, blue collar worker done good, who was the anointed centre not only of America's lived social reality but also of its reams of propaganda during the Twentieth Century. That stereotype has never been the entire truth of the US working class, but was nevertheless bought and sold as such. It was lived by millions in the postwar era of full employment and homeownership and rising incomes as such. It didn't matter that so much of America's minority working class was permanently excluded from that settlement. Now it has collapsed and its one-time beneficiaries are seeking violent self-validation. According to Drew DeSilver at the Pew Research Center, "A look at five decades' worth of government wage data suggests that... for most US workers real wages - that is, after inflation is taken into account - have been flat or even falling for decades, regardless of whether the economy has been producing or subtracting jobs." Today's average wage adjusted for inflation stands roughly at purchasing power parity with the average from 1979. Little wonder then that white workers in particular view the 1950s as a golden age. And little wonder also that they perceive this relative decline in racial terms - after all, the US was in the 1950s an openly racist society. The white working class is also a racialised construction, replete with a set of presumed social characteristics which elevated them for decades above inferior, truculent minorities. The US remains a violently racist place today, one in which poor people of colour are blamed for their own poverty and those threatened by stagnating incomes can all too easily retreat into a readymade racial comfort zone.
Donald Trump may be generally unpopular - but he is unpopular only among certain sections of a society riven by sexual, racial, and class conflict. Among other sections he is wildly popular. He may consistently lie and abuse others and even prove himself utterly incompetent. But this is not really the point. Because for some Americans he is the long-awaited confirmation of their right to exist - the object of their love. Much of the media has played the role of foil to Trump - publicly exasperated but deriving a covert pleasure from his various slanders and entirely unable to leave his side even for a moment. What would it mean to have a media which, instead of rushing to the broken, forlorn spaces that the Trump car crash vacates, was able confront the hideous source of his antics?
1See: Copjec, Read My Desire: Lacan Against the Historicists, Kindle location 2200