The Meaning of Trump
Brian Francis Culkin
For a wannabe social scientist like me, the Trump years offer seemingly boundless riches. From the President’s personal psychology to political theory and mercantile economics, if he’s tweeting, there’s probably a new avenue to explore.
I try to avoid the more commonly visited precincts. Bob Woodward‘s fly-on-the-wall style doesn’t add much when the presidential fishbowl revolves around an exhibitionist with an itchy Twitter-finger. And I don’t see the point of Michael Wolff‘s stylistic mash-up of Edmund Morris and Aileen Mehle, let alone Omarosa‘s get-even tales.
The present volume, relatively current and promising a more philosophical approach, presented itself on a table of books-for-a-buck and I took the gamble. After all, at 81 pages–including 95 endnotes and a three-page bibliography–how much trouble could I be buying?
More than a little it turns out.
Admittedly, I read a lot of dry stuff. From professors to pundits, I’ll give almost anyone an opportunity to persuade me why their perspective is correct. Their political orientation is almost irrelevant and I try to make sure I pay as much attention to those I disagree with as to those I do.
All that reading has led me to one conclusion: There’s a lot of dreck out there.
It is, of course, entirely possible that I’m drawn to such matter. I don’t exactly have the most rigorous selection process. Sometimes I get a gift. Sometimes I hear about things on the radio. Sometimes I just stumble across something in the course of my travels, which is clearly what happened here.
So just what has Mr. Culkin wrought? Well, something more or less like a seminar paper prepared for a graduate program dedicated to critical perspectives on western society. What I mean by that is, there’s a whole lot of bellyaching wrapped up in tortured prose that seems designed to add someone’s idea of intellectual sheen to an otherwise emotional argument. Quite apparently, there is also a distinct lack of empirical data.
I can hear the protests now. Forms of argument themselves are artifacts of oppressive systems designed to keep alternative perspectives out of the discourse. To insist on a critique rooted in data is to miss the point of the argument and, so, to be trapped in it, rather than gaining understanding that can lead to societal transformation.
Among the many reasons the professoriate isn’t for me, is thinking like that. Call me a fan of old dead white guys, but Lévi Straus, Durkheim, Weber and Veblen, among others, supported their assertions with observable facts. Daniel Patrick Moynihan actually took his ideas to the public policy and then electoral marketplaces. By comparison, my friends from the Frankfurt school, and the other giants of critical theory–Derrida, Marcuse, Gramsci, Lacan, and so forth–have influenced, well, …. the academy.
Despite how that sounds, I’m not complaining. Winners get to set the rules for their own sandbox. I’ve always preferred to play around the edges of the big game. I’d rather try to influence the world as I find it rather than cogitate about a world that might be. That’s my choice and I accept what comes with it.
I get the distinct sense that Culkin and Co. see no reason to accept that acceptance as legitimate. In part, that’s because his entire critique is not about Trump, but about a neo-liberal order that he believes would inevitably throw up a Trump-like character.
There’s no better way to demonstrate this book’s myriad problems than to let the author speak for himself:
“Today, however, that perception of labor has definitely changed. Because labor has become ever more specialized and fragmented in today’s postindustrial economy, the worker more and more considers his job to be the most important part of his life: work has become ideologically reconstituted in the postindustrial economy as the signature place where one’s emotional, creative, and intellectual potentials can be fully put to use.” p. 24
It’s a beautiful thing, isn’t it?
Just two sentences long, but one of them has 56 words.
Run it through MS Word‘s scoring system and you’ll find it described as Ph.D.-level writing (Flesch-Kincaid grade level: 19.9) that could reasonably be described as dense or difficult (Flesch reading ease score: 9.8 out of 100). This is a book designed to make a certain kind of reader feel good about their ability to make sense of it at all.
It is also utter nonsense. What it does is distract the reader from noticing that it’s an airy construct, built of assertion piled atop assertion with nary a corner- or keystone in sight. In advertising, one way to review draft copy is to read it and then ask of the claims, “Says who?” Sometimes that’s obvious (4 out of 5 dentists), sometimes not. But who says the perception of labor has changed? And how? And by how much? “Definitely” is not a quantity.
That’s only the first sentence. The second sentence, like the rest of the book, fares no better. Culkin dollops in an appropriate buzzword every now and then–post-industrial, seen above, is a favorite–to remind you that his is an analysis worthy of the time you are investing in consuming it. But, like Oakland, there is no there there.
All of this is tarted up in the trappings of scholarship, which bear their own mention. Bibliography? Check, although almost all of the works cited hail from publishers well-known for an orientation towards leftist critical theory. I was once told dismissal of the other side is effective, if not especially fair. Completely ignoring it works even better.
Those footnotes? Amazingly, they mostly hail from the first 50 pages, certainly never more than 100, of the works cited. That’s an old trick I’ve mentioned before and you might apply it to me, pulling a quote from page 24. But the book only has 65 pages of text, so I was in a third of the way or more. It reeks of cherry-picking and skimming, not reading.
None of this would matter if a plausible explanation of Trump as a phenomenon was put forth. But it isn’t. Here, Trump is merely a canvas for a different critique. Nobody’s really offered a great explanation of Trumpism. Both liberal and conservative critiques seem, to me, to dodge the simmering, now boiling over, anger that lies at the heart of this moment. Culkin would blame neo-liberalism, a label applied retroactively and of little practical use in addressing the matter at hand.
Is there no redeeming value in the time I spent on this work? Only in the most unintended way. Perhaps the most delicious irony of all is that the footnotes and bibliography skew toward the Kindle editions of the publications.