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On Brian Francis Culkin’s New Book “The Meaning of Trump”
A Review by John David Ebert

“Trump wants neoliberalism, absent the globalization.”

That is the paradox of Donald Trump, according to Brian Francis Culkin in his new book The Meaning of Trump, out from Zero Books in the first week of July, 2018. In other words, Trump embodies a paradox: he essentially represents the very neoliberal system–with its outsourcing of productivity to the Third World; migration of social and mediatic interactivity to the digital hypersphere; and the financialization of Big Business–that he built his entire campaign upon dismantling, promising to the middle American workers of the Rust Belt an impossibility: namely, that he could bring their jobs back, bring factories back from Mexico and China–such as Carrier–and in his words, “make America great, again.”

Furthermore, the global migration crisis, according to Culkin, which Trump avows also to put a stop to, is in fact the fallout and result of American militarization and unrestrained multinational corporatism that Trump fully supports. You can’t have one without the other. Which lands Trump within another paradox: ignoring climate change and ordering his Titanic full speed ahead at the approaching iceberg by deregulating Big Business, ignoring environmental devastation, the dissolution of local economies and the rise of wars over resource scarcity, all of which virtually guarantees that the problem of human migration will only grow worse and worse. We are looking, over the next century, at the uprooting of possibly over a billion people in zones where failed nation states, such as in Syria and Iraq, and gradually increasing global temperatures, will be rendering such areas inhospitable and uninhabitable. The Syrian crisis is merely the prelude to the gradual depopulation of the Middle East as soaring temperatures will render it shorn of all human beings. These people have to go somewhere, and northern latitudes are going to be prime real estate. The irony is that Trump’s policies of deregulation will only make this situation worse, never better. Just like entropy. It only goes one way.

Trump’s campaign, as Culkin also points out, won on a message that was, in essence, impossible to fulfill, namely to “make America great again,” by bringing back factories and jobs to the Rust Belt, turning back the clock on immigration to an age in which mostly white men benefited from the economy, and turn back to a time when social media wasn’t disrupting the flow of information from centralized sources. This is an example of what Arnold Toynbee called “the idolization of an ephemeral self,” such as in the case of ancient Athens after the Persian Wars, when the arrogance of the Athenians, relying upon their past greatness, kept getting them into worse and worse social and cultural disasters.

American industrialization is dead, done and gone. Nothing can ever bring it back, as many of these jobs are in the process of becoming more and more automated. You cannot reverse the decaying entropy of a place like the Rust Belt. Economies simply don’t work that way, for they are built on exhausting and depleting resources in a specific area which, once exhausted, can never come back. It’s like trying to resurrect a mining town that is becoming a ghost town as the reserves are being depleted. The Sumerians, for instance, kept salinizing and ruining their soils as they went along, which is why, according to Thorkild Jacobsen, Mesopotamian civilization is a story that gradually migrates from southern Iraq with the Sumerians, to middle Iraq with the Babylonians, and ultimately to northern Iraq with the Assyrians. Once those soils are dead, they can’t be revived and neither can American industrialization. So that is a phantom set of floating signifiers whose signifieds have all been melted down. There’s no bringing them back.

But note the vectors so far: Trump wants to build a wall to keep out Mexican immigrants; put travel bans on Muslim immigrants; he has withdrawn from the Iran nuclear deal; threatens to withdraw from NATO; supported Brexit; criticized any American involvement in Syria; and eased tensions with North Korea for the sole purpose of protecting American interests. In other words, it is an attempt to turn back the clock to pre-World War American Isolationism. It is like the Chinese emperor who, in the 1400s, ordered the burning of all admiral Zheng He’s records of his naval explorations in the Pacific, to Africa and, very possibly, the Americas. Subsequent Chinese influence upon the world retracted by the 1600s almost to zero as a result.

It doesn’t sound so much like Trump wants to “make America great again” as to make it “small again.” Small, quaint, ignorant and provincial. Yet, as Culkin makes clear in his analysis of the very paradox that Trump represents, all the while supporting Big Business, deregulation and global corporate investments. It is a telling fact that while in North Korea, Trump was said to have been eyeballing its beaches as sites for possible future real estate developments.

Reagan’s narrative, recall, was “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” to rid it of Big Government interference in the financial flows of its citizens. (In other words, as a wealthy movie star, he simply got tired of paying taxes). Trump’s narrative, on the other hand, is “The Art of the Deal.” Everything can be negotiated. He knows nothing of politics, cares nothing for history, and is ignorant of climate change. None of this matters. All that matters to him is transforming any and every situation to his advantage by extracting financial flows from it. His journey to North Korea had nothing to do with diplomacy: he was looking for ways to make money off of Kim Jong-Un. He wasn’t even thinking of echoing Nixon’s visit to China, which he probably doesn’t remember anyway.

Trump’s right hand, it is clear, does not know what his left hand is doing. As Culkin demonstrates, he is perhaps the most confused and confusing American president that we have ever had. And yet, the contradictions continue to ramify. Bizarrely, Trump has recently announced the creation of a Space Force, to be aligned with the American military. But isn’t this a retrieval of American expansionism again? But wait a minute: I thought he wanted to make America small again. Hold on: he meant “great,” right? Or was it small? So which is it: do you want to continue the expansion of the American Empire or shut it down and turn it into a quaint and cozy place of isolationism. Nation state or Empire? I don’t think this guy has thought anything through.

Culkin’s book succeeds best when it analyzes the kinds of contradictions that the Trump presidency represents. He is the first Hypermodern president, who tweeted his way into the White House, just as JFK was the first televisual president. I wonder, though, how popular Twitter is with the kinds of small town American Rust Belt workers that put Trump into office? Wouldn’t they regard it as a toy of the coastal liberal elite in their decadent big cities? Voting for him, as Culkin points out, was clearly not in their best interests, although due to his charisma and rhetoric he was able to make them think that he was their Big Brother–in the best sense of the phrase–looking out for their best interests. But the joke was on them. Their jobs aren’t coming back and Wall Street is only going to grow bigger, more esoteric and complex.

In short, Culkin’s new book is brilliant, short, readable and beautiful. I highly recommend it and it can be ordered from Zero Books at the following link:

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