Donald Trump and the Plague of Atomization in a Neoliberal Age
Donald Trump lowered the bar even further by attacking the Muslim parents of US Army Captain Humayan Khan, who was killed in 2004 by a suicide bomber while he was trying to save the lives of the men in his unit.
This stunt was just the latest example of his chillingly successful media strategy, which is based not on changing consciousness but on freezing it within a flood of shocks, sensations and simplistic views. It was of a piece with Trump’s past provocations, such as his assertion that Mexicans who illegally entered the country are rapists and drug dealers, his effort to defame Fox News host Megyn Kelly by referring to her menstrual cycle, and his questioning of the heroism and bravery of former prisoner-of-war Senator John McCain. This media strategy only succeeds due to the deep cultural and political effects of neoliberalism in our society — effects that include widespread atomization and depoliticization.
I have recently returned to reading Leo Lowenthal, particularly his insightful essay, “Terror’s Atomization of Man,” first published in the January 1, 1946 issue of Commentary and reprinted in his book, False Prophets: Studies in Authoritarianism. He writes about the atomization of human beings under a state of fear that approximates a kind of updated fascist terror. What he understood with great insight, even in 1946, is that democracy cannot exist without the educational, political and formative cultures and institutions that make it possible. He observed that atomized individuals are not only prone to the forces of depoliticization but also to the false swindle and spirit of demagogues, to discourses of hate, and to appeals that demonize and objectify the Other.
Lowenthal is helpful in illuminating the relationship between the underlying isolation individuals feel in an age of precarity, uncertainty and disposability and the dark shadows of authoritarianism threatening to overcome the United States. Within this new historical conjuncture, finance capital rules, producing extremes of wealth for the 1 percent, promoting cuts to government services, and defunding investments in public goods, such as public and higher education, in order to offset tax reductions for the ultra-rich and big corporations. Meanwhile millions are plunged into either the end-station of poverty or become part of the mass incarceration state. Mass fear is normalized as violence increasingly becomes the default logic for handling social problems. In an age where everything is for sale, ethical accountability is rendered a liability and the vocabulary of empathy is viewed as a weakness, reinforced by the view that individual happiness and its endless search for instant gratification is more important than supporting the public good and embracing an obligation to care for others. Americans are now pitted against each other as neoliberalism puts a premium on competitive cage-like relations that degrade collaboration and the public spheres that support it.
Within neoliberal ideology, an emphasis on competition in every sphere of life promotes a winner-take-all ethos that finds its ultimate expression in the assertion that fairness has no place in a society dominated by winners and losers. As William Davies points out, competition in a market-driven social order allows a small group of winners to emerge while at the same time sorting out and condemning the vast majority of institutions, organizations and individuals “to the status of losers.”
As has been made clear in the much publicized language of Donald Trump, both as a reality TV host of “The Apprentice” and as a presidential candidate, calling someone a “loser” has little to do with them losing in the more general sense of the term. On the contrary, in a culture that trades in cruelty and divorces politics from matters of ethics and social responsibility, “loser” is now elevated to a pejorative insult that humiliates and justifies not only symbolic violence, but also (as Trump has made clear in many of his rallies) real acts of violence waged against his critics, such as members of the Movement for Black Lives. As Greg Elmer and Paula Todd observe, “to lose is possible, but to be a ‘loser’ is the ultimate humiliation that justifies taking extreme, even immoral measures.” They write:
We argue that the Trumpesque “loser” serves as a potent new political symbol, a caricature that Trump has previously deployed in his television and business careers to sidestep complex social issues and justify winning at all costs. As the commercial for his 1980s board game “Trump” enthused, “It’s not whether you win or lose, but whether you win!” Indeed, in Trump’s world, for some to win many more must lose, which helps explain the breath-taking embrace by some of his racist, xenophobic, and misogynist communication strategy. The more losers — delineated by Trump based on every form of “otherism” — the better the odds of victory.
Atomization fueled by a fervor for unbridled individualism produces a pathological disdain for community, public values and the public good. As democratic pressures are weakened, authoritarian societies resort to fear, so as to ward off any room for ideals, visions and hope. Efforts to keep this room open are made all the more difficult by the ethically tranquilizing presence of a celebrity and commodity culture that works to depoliticize people. The realms of the political and the social imagination wither as shared responsibilities and obligations give way to an individualized society that elevates selfishness, avarice and militaristic modes of competition as its highest organizing principles.
Under such circumstances, the foundations for stability are being destroyed, with jobs being shipped overseas, social provisions destroyed, the social state hollowed out, public servants and workers under a relentless attack, students burdened with the rise of a neoliberal debt machine, and many groups considered disposable. At the same time, these acts of permanent repression are coupled with new configurations of power and militarization normalized by a neoliberal regime in which an ideology of mercilessness has become normalized; under such conditions, one dispenses with any notion of compassion and holds others responsible for problems they face, problems over which they have no control. In this case, shared responsibilities and hopes have been replaced by the isolating logic of individual responsibility, a false notion of resiliency, and a growing resentment toward those viewed as strangers.Wait, before you go…
If you're reading this, you probably already know that non-profit, independent journalism is under threat worldwide. Independent news sites are overshadowed by larger heavily funded mainstream media that inundate us with hype and noise that barely scratch the surface. We believe that our readers deserve to know the full story. Truthdig writers bravely dig beneath the headlines to give you thought-provoking, investigative reporting and analysis that tells you what’s really happening and who’s rolling up their sleeves to do something about it.
Like you, we believe a well-informed public that doesn’t have blind faith in the status quo can help change the world. Your contribution of as little as $5 monthly or $35 annually will make you a groundbreaking member and lays the foundation of our work.Support Truthdig