I wish I could say that Trumpism: A Cultural Psychogenesis by Michel Valentin makes a clear, linear argument, but in fact it makes many nonlinear arguments all at once, spider-webbing in every direction as if the author were tracing the spreading cracks in our collective windshield. Perhaps this is the only fitting way to discuss the Trump phenomenon. No single, clear ideology can explain current events; no one politic guides the present White House. So it goes that Valentin, a retired University of Montana French professor and researcher for the Existential Psychoanalytic Institute and Society, brings to bear his considerable knowledge of postmodern thinkers and interpretive strategies to attack the problem. If the reader is denied the privilege of a unified interpretation with which to agree or disagree, the book is filled with glimpses and moments, reflections caught in the cracks, which are both insightful and thought-provoking.
A primary thread Valentin follows is populism, and he opens his opus with a chapter that redefines postmodern populism at the nexus of unbridled and globalized capitalism, a crumbling education system that is ever more focused on utilitarian “know-how” as opposed to knowledge and the inevitable shortfalls of post-industrialism. Valentin writes:
Many Trump supporters are casualties of an increasingly deracinated state, which can no longer defend or guarantee the forms of collective life, as such, which are the pre-conditions (and limits) of politics. Their lives are increasingly subjected to impersonal, global forces, which de-subjectify and ob-jectify them.
Valentin by turns sympathizes with and demeans the victims of this post-modern populism, but, kind or cruel, he is always brutally descriptive in his all-fronts assault on the question of why so many of us are buying into this new populism. Valentin masterfully deploys such varied tactics as Deleuze and Guittari’s schizo-capitalism, Kristeva’s theories of the abject and Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, with plenty of Zizek and Baudrillard for good measure. My only complaint here is that I wish he would slow down a bit and expand on some of the theories as they apply to the topic. Many of his references are rather oblique.
The other instigating pock that sends cracks radiating across our field of vision is Trump as phenomenon. Valentin does a great job of examining all the Trumpisms — the braggadocio, the inability to recognize or acknowledge truth, the o’er-weening narcissism and the drive to erect all manner of constructions. Of Trump’s troubled relationship with the truth Valentin writes:
What is different in the politics of our new “Gilded Age” is its seeming indifference to language, as if neo-capitalism, with its infernal dance of signs, had worn out the referential dimension, to use a linguist’s term, and severed the last tenuous bond between reality and words. It is not only a question of truth versus lie, since in order to lie, one has to believe that truth exists. It is more the reflection of a total indifference to truth.
Valentin shows us a Trump who is a self-contained monolith that leaves the rest of us playing a game of “the Emperor’s New Clothes.” In Valentin’s terms:
The U.S. Presidency represents the ultimate adornment, the pinnacle of his career of accumulation and denial that he can erect on his own towering shoulders, so that he can stand on his own shoulders — a clone of himself, a tribute of himself to himself. The future will show if he knows how to turn his Rabelaisian dimension into a force to be reckoned with, and a politics for all to share.
Ultimately, the cover by Missoula artist Sarah McClain (a cartoon, inspired by the famous Brussels sculpture, the “Manneken Pis”, showing a stylized Trump pissing on the globe) sums the book up best. Valentin’s Trumpism: A Cultural Psychogenesis is an irreverent and provocative sketch designed to evoke a gut reaction and lively discussion.