Trump’s Gothic Populism
Comparing Trump's Inauguration Speech to Obama's
Trump’s inauguration address confirmed his radical populist stance. While his speech writers polished and tempered his hyperbolic excesses and he avoided the temptation to indulge in the extemporized, stream-of-consciousness ravings that defined his campaign speeches, the address nonetheless distilled the essence of his populist challenge to both conservative and liberal ideals and norms. Trump’s ghost-writers seem to have deliberately imitated much of the style and structure of Obama’s inauguration speeches, with the use of conventional rhetorical devices. Yet Trump’s populist paranoia undermined their best effort to give his speech the high-flown style and conciliatory tone of more recent presidential inaugural addresses. As his fictional Queens-born alter-ego and master of the malapropism Archie Bunker might have said, Trump’s speech was truly “unpresidented.” Obama hymned the American Revolution’s Enlightenment and republican ideals. Trump’s speech was its counter-Enlightenment riposte. Obama unified “we, the people” through a shared commitment to liberty, equality and happiness: constitutional patriotism was tempered by a cosmopolitan compassion. Trump unified his people through their shared fear of the elites, criminals and Islamic terrorists.
Unsurprisingly, Trump hit all the main notes of contemporary radical populism: the Manichean, moralistic distinction between the pure people and the corrupt elite; the anti-pluralist idealization of a common, unified people; and the commitment to a populist leader who directly incarnates the general will: Trump expresses himself as the pure, uncorrupted representative of the people. As Jan-Werner Müller has observed, radical populists like Trump abstract “the people” from empirical reality: Trump emphatically excludes all those he designates as actual or potential enemies.[i] Like all populists, then, Trump engages in an exclusionary identity politics. “The only important thing,” as he said at a May rally, “is the unification of the people — because the other people don’t mean anything.”
The logic of this populism is essentially anti-democratic. For the radical populist, government of the people, by the people and for the people does not require active civic participation, public consultation or parliamentary debate, or even electoral confirmation. As Trump made clear during the campaign, populists believe that if they lose at the ballot box this is not because they have no political mandate; it is only a sign that the “elite” rig electoral politics. For the populist, the legitimacy of governing for the people is not a matter of listening to their voice or counting their vote, but of the leader incarnating their general will. “I AM YOUR VOICE” as Trump emphatically declared in his campaign speeches.
As if this Manichean, anti-democratic politics were not distressing enough, Trump’s inauguration speech gave populism an even darker, more disturbing twist. We might call it Gothic populism.[ii] Like Poe’s tales, Trump’s narrative evokes seen and unseen threats to generate fear and anxiety.[iii] Trump’s Gothic populism conjures up a terrifying, paranoid political landscape of a people bound together by blood sacrifice and an all-pervasive fear of enemies within and without. Despite its relative prosperity and peace, Trump depicts America as a scene of carnage, and identifies culprits everywhere: Washington’s cosmopolitan elites, illegal aliens within, and parasites without. Trump litters the American landscape with people “trapped” in poverty by local elites and foreign companies stealing & redistributing their wealth, with inner city dwellers whose lives and potential are “stolen” “by the crimes and the gangs and the drugs,” and with industrial “tombstones” marking the death of American greatness. Betrayal. Theft. Decay. Death. Through a glass darkly Trump sees nothing but “American carnage.” Trump has the tombstone blues.
Trump’s darkly Gothic populism stands out against the luminescence of Obama’s inauguration speeches. Obama’s language follows an aesthetics of the beautiful: it weaves together harmonies, symmetries, and continuities that peacefully resolve differences and dissonances. Trump delivers an aesthetics of the sublime evoking fears and terrors that can only be met by the resolute triumph of the leader’s will against the people’s enemies. Obama’s aesthetic of the beautiful exorcises fear; Trump’s aesthetics of the sublime excites it. Obama uses the rhetorical device of antithesis, but only to reconcile oppositions in a higher synthesis. Trump’s deploys antitheses only to reinforce irreconcilable enmities. The differences between Obama’s Enlightenment aesthetics of the beautiful and Trump’s Counter-Enlightenment, Gothic aesthetics of the sublime are nowhere more evident than in their representations of “the people.”
Populists do not have a monopoly on the claim to govern for the people. Indeed, Obama’s and Trump’s inauguration speeches share the populist trope. If we examine Obama’s inauguration addresses, it is clear that he too identifies American republicanism as “a government of, and by, and for the people.” By way of rhythmic repetition — the rhetorical device known as anaphora – Obama solemnly and emphatically invoked “we, the people,” as the authors and agents of the American republic. Indeed, Obama makes far greater use of “we” than Trump. Obama envisions “the people” bound together by a shared commitment to the Constitution and the 1776 Declaration of Independence’s commitment to unalienable rights, universal equality, and the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This Enlightenment credo ties together Obama’s speech and the American people. Obama takes great pains to acknowledge the American revolution, to laud its Enlightenment ideals of freedom and its founding of a constitutional democracy, to praise the anti-slavery and civil rights movements’ struggles to expand the realm of liberty and to acknowledge the emerging constellation of cosmopolitan responsibilities. Obama presents “the people” as the inheritors, custodians and executors of a grand, unifying political project. Trump disconcertingly banishes all lines of continuity linking past, present and future, just as he severs the possibility of amity and co-operation between “the people” and “the elite” (to accept his terms), and sows discord between “Americans” and “immigrants.” Instead he announces a radical new beginning. After excoriating the so-called political elite for profiting at the expense of the forgotten people, Trump declares the beginning of new populist era: “That all changes — starting right here, and right now, because this moment is your moment: it belongs to you.”
Trump fails to link the present American people with their constitutional tradition; he does not acknowledge the foundational commitment to equality, life, or even happiness. He mentions “liberty” not at all and “freedom” only once. Trump’s “we, the people” are not bound together by a shared commitment to sacred and constitutionally sanctioned rights. Rather, Trump binds the people together through their shared fear of neglect, betrayal, destruction, theft and death. It is not sharing the same unalienable rights that make American citizens equal regardless of race, color or creed, but “bleed[ing] the same red blood of patriots.” Trump’s sanguinary populist patriotism expresses itself in the defense of the people against its enemies, displacing Obama’s constitutional patriotism. As for the “glorious freedoms” of the American republic, Trump mentions these only in passing as accomplished facts, unlike Obama, who sees them as cherished ideals that the people have a duty to make real for every citizen.
For Obama, the civic duty to defend equality, and the rights to life, liberty and happiness, is one that begins with the local and then expands outwards in concentric circles: “What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition on the part of every American that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world.” Obama’s figuration of patriotism is one that makes cosmopolitanism its regulative ideal.
We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.
America may be first, but for its citizens, others also have a legitimate, if secondary claim on their political responsibilities and moral conscience. Obama tempers patriotism as but one circle of moral responsibilities that extends out to the cosmopolis, and he softens it with an appeal to universal compassion. Predictably, Trump, the radical populist, gives short shrift to this cosmopolitan humanism, as a sign of weakness or betrayal: “Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo.” Trump’s patriotism fixates on the irreconcilable, zero-sum confrontation of “us” versus “them”, “friend” versus “enemy.” He rhetorically hammers home the antithesis between “us” and “them,” and in every case, he insists, “their” gains necessarily come at the price of “our” loss. For Trump it is “only America first, America first.”
What gives Trump’s populism and nationalism its peculiar twist is that he motivates political identification by exciting ressentiment. Nietzsche conceived ressentiment as an emotion that discharges painful feelings of humiliation through the invention of enemies.[iv] Alleviation is found in “being mistrustful and dwelling on wrongs and imagined slights: [those motivated by ressentiment] rummage through the bowels of their past and present for obscure, questionable stories that will allow them to wallow in tortured suspicion.”[v] The hallmark of ressentiment is that it alleviates distressing feelings of humiliation and self-contempt by inventing culprits, rather than addressing and curing the real sources of suffering. The violent, intoxicating emotions that flow from inventing and blaming culprits are the means through which sufferers alleviate their feelings of impotence and humiliation — “I suffer: someone or other must be guilty.” Conspiracy theories are therefore a sure index of the malady of ressentiment. Trump’s “birther conspiracy” exemplifies his politics of ressentiment. It has been one of the signature tunes of Trump’s campaign to relieve the humiliation of “the forgotten people” by inventing an “elite” who callously neglect or use them and an “under-class” of border crossers and marginal groups who exploit them and steal their birthright.
Trump is a ressentiment entrepreneur: he has built enormous political capital by inventing the conspiracies and scapegoats required to temporarily alleviate the bitterness of humiliation. Midas-like, he has turned the shit of humiliation into the gold of political capital. In his inauguration speech, Trump once again mined this rich vein. Obama’s speeches carefully avoided blaming his predecessors for present ills or specifying agents responsible for the nation’s shortfalls. Trump opened his address with a series of antitheses between us and them that structures his whole speech. This dramaturgy excites and inflames feelings of humiliation and victimization and then satiates this ressentiment by parading the guilty parties, many of whom shared the presidential dais. By turns Trump’s antitheses present the people as victims of “Washington,” “the politicians,” “the establishment,” and ultimately an abstract “they” who prosper at their expense.[vi] Later, Trump expands the list of those responsible to drug users, gangs, and thieving foreign nations that inflict “ravages” on their victims.
As many have noted, Trump’s campaign and inauguration speeches are lamentable for their lack of concrete policies and remedies for addressing political difficulties. Part of the reason for this lies in the fact that his rhetoric primarily aims to incite ressentiment. It is an integral part of Trump’s Gothic populism that it generates a tenebrous political atmosphere populated by a limitless number of demonic dramatis personae that threaten the purity, safety and unity of the people. This also accounts for Trump’s strangely passive construction of the people, as victims above all else. Passivity is built into the politics of ressentiment: it intoxicates victims by conjuring up demons that persecute them. The sufferers of ressentiment “rip open the oldest wounds and make themselves bleed to death from scars long-since healed, they make evil-doers out of friend, wife, child, and anyone else near to them.”[vii] By contrast, Obama’s inauguration addresses conceived the American people as a responsible, progressive, transformative agent pursuing a moral vision and capable of supporting the global community. Trump’s speech narrows the American people to the forgotten victims of domestic and foreign villains. Trump takes up the fight for these passive victims: “I will fight for you with every breath in my body — and I will never, ever let you down.” But Trump’s “fight” for the people is likely to consist in creating ever new Gothic scenes of carnage and culpable agents against whom they can rage. With Trump in office, a shadow will be cast over America for the next four years.
 It remains an open question whether Obama’s administration actually or effectively pursued Enlightenment and liberal goals, or if, as his radical critics like Cornel West maintain, its policies embraced neo-liberalism’s unforgiving, untrammeled market capitalism. For these critics, Obama’s neo-liberal policies made possible Trump’s populist siren song and the ‘Trumpenproletariat’s” unbounded, indiscriminate resentment of “elites,” “illegal” immigrants and minorities.
[i] Jan-Werner Müller, “The People Must Be Extracted from Within the People”: Reflections on Populism,” Constellations (2014), 21:4, 483-493.
[ii] I borrow from Richard Devetak’s use of the term “Gothic” in describing George W. Bush’s rhetoric in defending the “war on terror.” See Richard Devetak, ‘The Gothic Scene of International Relations: Ghosts, monsters, terror and the sublime after September 11,” Review of International Studies 31 (2005), 621–64.
[iii] Recent commentators rightly suggest that it is not sufficient to simply dismiss populist ideology and rage as pathological disfigurements of democracy. At the same time, it seems impossible to understand Trump’s inauguration address without taking into account its “Gothic” perspective. See e.g. Jan-Werner Müller, “Real Citizens,” Boston Review, October 26th, 2016 and Nadia Urbinati, Democracy Disfigured: Opinion, Truth and the People (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014).
[iv] See Michael Ure, “Resentment/Ressentiment,” Constellations 22 (2015), 599-613.
[v] Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality, trans C. Diethe Trans (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, (1997), Bk III. 15.
[vi] See Matthew Sharpe, “Of Boldness: Some Rhetorical Pointers on Trump’s Inauguration Address,” The Conversation, January 23rd, 2017.
[vii] On the Genealogy of Morality, Bk III.15.