Nothingness: The Shared M.O. of Trump and the Center

Centrist pundits fancy themselves the only honest alternative to the Trump phenomenon, touting the gulf between the populist Right’s hysteria and the center’s cool restraint. They argue that Trump and Sanders, on the other hand, are complementary: both riling up breathless throngs of dimwits with catch phrases and hyperbole. It is only the center, with its deliberation and sobriety, that can defeat Trump’s demagoguery. When centrists come out and argue for something, they insist, it’s calculated and thoughtful; not slipshod and reckless.

Turns out that’s not true at all. Actually, Trump and the Respectable Center have an essential commonality: they both, at bottom, believe in nothing. It’s hard to communicate coherently about politics when you have absolutely no fundamental values, or even material points of reference.

It’s the same reason why Continental philosophy from after the 1960s is impossible to comprehend: its first principle is its own lack of reference to the outside world. Trump and the centrists both, at one point or another, absorbed that same unabashed meaninglessness — Trump from the naked avarice of real estate, and Eduardo Porter of the New York Times from the ironical, coiffed dysphoria of the posh academy.

Let’s take a look at his dish of Trumpian word salad, published today, called “It’s the Economy, Democrats, But Inequality is Not the Issue.”

The article begins with the question “Is income inequality the defining challenge of our time?” You can feel the sense of contempt inflected into words like “defining,” “challenge,” and “time”: vestigial constructs from a bygone epoch of naivety. Thus, Porter never answers his own question — answers are dogmatic — and instead meanders through a useless survey of the political moment.

Barely addressing inequality even on a conceptual level, he instead offers a disjointed list of platitudes— “most voters think government is doing the rigging,” “should they stop talking about guns and the right to choose,” and “the challenge is not to prepare for a jobless future but to ensure available jobs offering decent incomes to working families.” He’s quoting another ghoul in that one, but nothing preceding that sentence has anything to do with “a jobless future.”

The piece is nothing but digressions mounted upon digressions, with no common thread besides antipathy towards political change as such. Both of the two progressive policies he mentions by name — free college and a $15 minimum wage — he dismisses without elaboration, in the signature Trump style. The former, he declares, is “not the way to do it”; the latter is “a bad idea.” That’s it.

Another recent article exudes the same smog of nihilism. Michael Tomasky, also in the Times, writes “I’m a liberal who would be perfectly happy with single-payer health care in this country. But I also support a functioning political system.” Tomasky dismisses single payer in favor of preserving equilibrium, which just amounts to saying “instead of having single payer, let’s not.”

It’s all process without politics, writing without meaning, words without things. Material platforms are supplanted by tenuous, winking symbolism.

To be sure, Trump may have a broken brain, but his staggering lack of moral fixity or consistent awareness of the world has an identifiable cultural origin. In “A Brief History of Neoliberalism,” David Harvey analyzes the hypercapitalist New York out of which Trump rose to power:

‘Delirious New York’ (to use Rem Koolhaas’s memorable phrase) erased the collective memory of democratic New York…New York became the epicentre of postmodern cultural and intellectual experimentation. Meanwhile the investment bankers reconstructed the city around financial activities…and diversified consumerism.

Trump was conceived from a specific context, in which capital united with academia to throttle democratic value systems. The centrist pundits come from a similar set of attitudes. And while their brand of cynicism may resemble J.D. Salinger more than Trump’s “American Psycho,” the bright rapture of oblivion is suffused through the blatherings of both.