election 2016

An Intellectual Foundation for the Next Four Years

Politics and Campaigning in a Post-Trump America

by morgan anastasi

The recent triumph of Donald J. Trump over Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2016 presidential election demands that we develop a new foundation for how we understand the political world. Trump’s victory astounded and astonished most of those who relied on traditional legacy news-media, defying expectations so thoroughly that it demands that we reconsider the most fundamental axioms of our political life. Indeed, the results of the election demand a clean break with the hoary and antiquated maxims which we have inherited from countless generations - a Cartesian reconsideration of what we have uncritically accepted. To begin this project, I wish to articulate a handful of principles which we may use to guide in our interpretation of the events of the next four years.

First, hierarchy is dead - long live non-linearity! In the broadest and most general possible interpretation, the recent election was a referendum on the notion of linear political hierarchy. In one sense, Secretary Clinton represented a dismantling of traditional gender and racial hierarchies in the liberal pursuit of the universal, homogenous state. In another sense, however, she represented the further entrenchment of hierarchies based on familial ties, wealth, and network - Secretary Clinton’s status as a veteran Washington insider with close ties to Wall Street banks and Beltway lobbyists, as well as her sham-primary which appeared to be closer to a coronation ceremony than a legitimate democratic process is nothing else but the entrenchment of top-down hierarchical insider politics. Trump is almost exactly the inverse - he represents the further deepening of racial and gender hierarchies, on the one hand, but -- as a political outsider and independently wealthy businessman -- the utter obliteration of power structures which depend on deep networks, deep familial ties, and deep-pocketed donors on the other.

One must simply look at the structural differences of the two campaigns to see these differences laid bare: Secretary Clinton ran a traditionally hierarchical campaign, with the candidate delegating campaign get-out-the-vote activities to state and local party offices. Her campaign was essentially similar to every Presidential campaign since FDR. Trump, in contrast, had very little help from GOP national and state apparatus, and the amount of local support he received varied wildly from place to place. Trump instead ran a decentralized and grassroots campaign based around massive rallies where the candidate was able to communicate directly with tens of thousands of supporters. Trump’s campaign also displayed a deeper and more intuitive understanding of the nature of digital technology and viral social media. Trump used provocative and often humorous posts on social media to devastating effect in both the primary and general election campaigns. These provocative posts frequently dominated news cycles for days or even weeks, allowing the candidate to effectively control and manipulate the media narrative to his advantage.

In short, Secretary Clinton embodied the old-school, pre-digital, hierarchical, centralized, and linear values of a pre-Internet world. Trump, however, showed us the future of politics in a digital world: non-hierarchical, de-centralized, viral, non-linear, grassroots and entirely unpredictable. This is sure to be one of the guiding principles of the next four years: linearity and hierarchy are dead, and de-centralized, viral and rhizomatic politics are here to stay.

Next, universality is dead - long live the particular! Trump’s campaign message was deeply concerned with particularistic attachments - the attachments one has to one’s own town, one’s own family, one’s own church, one’s own neighbors, et cetera - over and against the neoliberal consensus that all particularistic attachments are morally indefensible forms of racism. Trump also appealed to the notion of national sovereignty - which is necessarily the sovereignty of this or that nation and therefore particular - against anti-democratic neoliberal supranational confederations such as NAFTA and NATO. Secretary Clinton, in contrast, echoed the global financial interests in her dream of hemispheric open borders and a worldwide common market.

This attachment to a particularistic view of national sovereignty hearkens back to Aristotle’s original conception of a polity: a specific group, with a specific shared identity, in a specific place (frequently, but not always, surrounded by walls), with clearly defined notions of who is and is not a citizen. Secretary Clinton’s platform, in contrast, supports what has been called the “universal and homogenous state”, in which every adult human being is a full and utterly equal member. As political philosopher Leo Strauss explained in his illuminating debate with Alexander Kojeve, the development of a universal and homogenous state represents a grave threat to the possibility of the philosophical life. The philosopher seeks to live the best life, which necessarily requires judgements of better and worse, and therefore a concrete articulation of good and bad. The universal and homogenous state which was the goal of Secretary Clinton’s campaign regarded any notion of better or worse ways of life as morally indefensible prejudices, and any articulation of good and bad as merely relative opinions or beliefs, with no validity in the world beyond the individual who holds the belief.

The final principle that needs be described here is this: attention is the most valuable currency in 21st century political life. From the beginning of the campaign, Trump had a devastating advantage over the seventeen Republicans and five Democrats who stood between him and the Oval Office: his ability to dominate the attention-span of the entire nation. This proved to be more valuable than the entire Clinton political machine, which consisted of top talent from Secretary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign and President Obama’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, and which was surely the largest, most comprehensive, and most expensive campaign apparatus ever assembled. Trump starved this massive apparatus of the oxygen it needed to survive -- through his provocative statements he captivated the attention of a nation. Nearly every day brought new controversy to the front-pages of every media outlet in America, while Secretary Clinton’s more low-key approach was often either a footnote or overlooked entirely. In the new media landscape where e-mails, Facebook notifications, posts on Twitter, and text messages all crowd thick and fast to demand one’s attention, anyone who wants their message to be heard must distinguish themselves from this ordinary background noise of technological life. And the only way to do that is to be louder, more provocative, more humorous, and, in general, more interesting than that background noise. Perhaps the politics of the future will not be based on policy or philosophy, but on comedy. In accordance with this final principle of Post-Trump politics, the political figure who will be most successful will be they who can craft the wittiest joke, the cleverest retort, and the most outrageous soundbite.

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