There are a couple of emerging narratives about Donald Trump. One is that he is the unreconstructed id of middle-aged, white American men who were left behind by the economy. They aren’t quite sure who they’re mad at, but the list probably includes everybody who doesn’t look like them, women in general, and all those libruls who insist on the “political correctness” of being civil whilst in civil society. It also includes the Republican establishment, which Trump supporters have finally realized not only has virtually nothing in common with them, but also does not care about their actual interests. So the base devolves to all it has left: a generalized rage. The other narrative says that Trump is a European-style nationalist: you can have your social services, but you can’t have people who don’t belong to your tribe running around and using those services. These narratives have in common the idea that Trump is appealing because he is racist.
One should never underestimate the explanatory power of racism in American politics, but there’s a third narrative about Trump that belongs in the picture, because I think it adds some explanatory value that the other two don’t: Trump is also the perfect embodiment of contemporary capitalism, by which I mean brand capitalism. I want to take a little time to explain this via a detour into Saussure, but if you don’t want to go there, here’s the gist of it: Trump doesn’t have policy positions because he’s not selling any product other than himself, and there isn’t anything to him other than his being the embodiment of TrumpTM.
Trademark is how we legally understand brands, and for most of its history, trademark was basically designed to reduce consumer confusion by eliminating free-riding. If Coca-Cola invests a gazillion dollars into marketing and creating warm and fuzzy thoughts about its product in the minds of consumers, then it would be unfair to allow me to market a soft drink in a can that looked too much like Coke, because a certain percentage of consumers would be confused, and buy my product instead. That risk would also cause Coke to quit investing in improving its product, since it can’t recuperate that investment. So you get worse products all around. The going mainstream theory of trademark accordingly speaks in terms of market efficiency and search costs.
In a brilliant article a few years back, Bartron Beebe offers a “semiotic” theory of trademark. Put on your Saussure hat for a moment (if you don’t have one of those, it was through the Beebe paper that I finally understood, so bear with me a minute) and consider the signifier-signified relationship. The signifier, say, “Nike,” signifies athleticism, which is therefore the signified. Or the signifier “cat” signifies whatever it is that you associate with cats (maybe an image of one doing something on YouTube). Saussure is credited with the insight that the relationship between signifier and signified is arbitrary, in the sense of “not necessary:” “Nike” could signify something else, like “victory.” This story leaves out a third element, however: the referent. In the Nike case, the referent is the shoe. What Beebe makes abundantly clear, and what strikes me as very near to capturing the essence of a lot of global capitalism, is that the relation between the signifier and referent is also arbitrary. Indeed, this is inherent to the process of commodification itself and is applicable to a wide range of contemporary commodities: when you put the food in a package, consumers see the package, not the food. Brand differentiation, not product differentiation, becomes the goal. If you don’t believe me, tell me what the necessary referent of “Hello Kitty” is, and if you have an answer, consider how few people know it. Brands are promiscuous, because they generate value by an intensification of the signifier-signified relation, and the way they do that is to attach it to as many appropriate things as possible while avoiding any associations that would weaken the connection.
This is contemporary capitalism, at least in the U.S.: companies are willing to put their name on anything that they think strengthens the connection between their brand name and whatever desirable signified they want you to associate with it. Hence Nike socks, soccer balls, and so on. But you will never see a Nike barcalounger. This is Trump: over his career, he has attached his name to anything that he thinks will strengthen the connection between “Trump” and thoughts of “classy and rich.” If, at any point, he thinks the connection is harmed, he drops the product line like a hot rock. Mitt Romney’s list of failed and abandoned Trump products makes the point: Trump vodka? Really? It didn’t work out, so Trump cut the vodka, and now, nobody remembers it.
Translate this into politics, and virtually everything Trump does makes sudden sense. “Trump has no core!” is precisely the point. He’s not selling a product (policy); there is no necessary referent. Is ISIS a problem? We’ll deal with it! His early experiments with xenophobic racism served him well. So he repeated them. The base loves the wall. So make it bigger! Why would Donald Trump care about a wall? He probably doesn’t (and it doesn’t matter at all if I’m wrong, and the wall is all he ever thinks about), but it’s great for his brand, which in this case is something like “manly outsider who is also classy and rich” (after all the big hands discussion, remember Trump was very eager to remind the audience that he never gets sued because he never settles – he always fights lawsuits. A real man). If a feminist group decided it was time to build a wall, Trump would disavow knowing what the word “wall” means. At last night’s Fox News debate, Megyn Kelly tried very hard to pin his policy flip-flops onto him, and he essentially kept shrugging his shoulders and saying “that was then, this is now.” Cruz was right to insist that this was not rigid conservatism, but that only gave Trump the chance to look reasonable as he explained that only an idiot would never change his mind as he learned new things.
The other thing that brand capitalism is very good at is co-opting critique. Part of the reason is that there is no product that the brand is necessarily associated with. Critique that product, and the brand will obligingly drop it. David who? Oh – David Duke (damn headphones, which by the way came from your crummy network)! Well he’s toxic, so no, I don’t want him. But he waited long enough for the people who do like David Duke to interpret this as “I like David Duke’s endorsement, but the politically correct crowd will make me pretend I don’t.” Trump University was a scam (I’m back on last night’s debate)? We refunded some people their money, and by the way, Marco Rubio doesn’t show up to vote, so he’s the real scam! Whoever thought it was a good idea to bring Mitt Romney out to put Trump in his place was evidently asleep at the time, because of course the only thing Trump needed to say then is “loser,” while rolling the footage of Romney saying how singularly honored he is to have Trump’s endorsement (as Colbert noted, this does prove that Trump has made some poor investments). His supporters then immediately forget all about whatever was supposed to be wrong with Trump, and remember that since Romney lost, Obama is still president (or was, until Justice Scalia died). If policies or plans or coherent ideologies are typical political products, then Trump has either none or indefinitely many, and so an attack on those is going nowhere. If it’s a bad policy, he’ll change it, who wouldn’t? But that’s because bad policy is bad for the brand, not because torture violates international law and any coherent standard of human decency.
The way to bring down brands, at least according to the trademark law that tries to protect them, is “dilution” – associating the brand with something that everybody thinks is bad. To his credit, Romney tried: Trump the businessman plus a list of failed business ventures. But a major problem there – aside from “loser!” – is that Trump isn’t (currently) selling himself as a businessman. He’s a manly man who will be a manly president – and so Trump vodka has no bearing on that. Worse, it’s associating him with a bad product – but what’s important to Trump is the signifier-signified relation. One of the best attacks on Trump is therefore John Oliver’s: he produces an amalgamation of many of the horrendous things Trump has advocated, but then seals the deal because he understands perfectly that the problem is internal to “Trump” itself and the way the signifier tends to signify victory. Oliver singles out the affect that the word “Trump” generates and then formulates that into a critical question: would anybody be quite so excited about these things if they were proposed by “Donald Drumpf?”