Donald Trump Was a Monster Forged by the American Free Market

Donald Trump is the grotesque embodiment of market principles. In climbing back from his disastrous four years, one of our aims must be to wrest back democracy from the market.

Donald Trump at the Cabinet Room of the White House on June 15, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Doug Mills-Pool / Getty Images)

Donald Trump was everyone’s monster. “Monster” comes from monstre and monstrum, a portent, warning, or revelation — as in “demonstration.” After Trump’s general election loss, everyone wants to know, or thinks they know, what his dishonest, chaotic, and bigoted administration reveals about the country that elevated him.

He has been influentially called the country’s “first white president,” on account of being the first of forty-four white men in the office to be elected, in some sense, as a repudiation of a black president. By that standard, he is certainly the first male president, in that he was the first to defeat a woman for the office. Each formulation captures something about the white grievance politics that Trump fomented on his path to the White House and his efforts to keep it. Each taps into a view about the importance of racial hierarchy and misogyny “in the DNA” of American life, as a strut of other parts of our social order, made explicit under pressure from demographic change and demands for genuine gender equality.

But Trump was also, and in a somewhat more direct sense, the first (late) capitalist president — not the first to celebrate that system, of course, but the first whose claim to the office was based on a story about his power to make money from money, not on any record of political, military, or other public service. Although he was not the first entertainer-president — Ronald Reagan preceded him, and the last century has generally favored presidential candidates who mastered the latest medium — he is the first to have thrived in a new era of fragmented media and splintered publics, in which success comes from a passionate niche, often defined more by an imagined common enemy. Trump is the president of the Twitter–Fox–MSNBC era, when resentment is the political emotion par excellence and everyone feels they are in a potential endangered minority.

He was, relatedly, the first nihilist president. His campaign and presidency made sense only on the basis of a collapse of the difference between politics and marketing — and marketing of the cheapest, most short-term kind, never more than one step ahead of the tax police (if only we had those!) or the repo man. This line had been badly blurred and crossed over forever, but with Trump, governing dissolved into a mere vehicle for the latest pitch. It was the point where a long process of erosion tipped over into a more lycanthropy-like transformation.

This was the manner of Trump’s business practice before it was a political practice. The sense in which he was the first capitalist president was simply the other side of the same coin as his political nihilism. An unerring instinct for credulous marks and pots of money available for organized looting led him eventually from branded steaks and shady real estate investors to the Republican primaries and the United States Treasury, along with the many incidental business opportunities of the presidency, particularly for a man with a large and enterprising family.

The Marketplace and the Ballot Box

These observations add up to a basic point about the life of a capitalist democracy like the United States. For any stability and legitimacy, that regime relies on a division of spheres.

On the one hand, there is the marketplace, where people count according to their ability to generate returns on investment, and where more or less any legally tolerated way of generating returns is fair game — cutting labor costs, tanking pension obligations, offshoring, breaking an inconvenient union, or deluding people that your product has all sorts of magical benefits. It is a realm of sanctioned selfishness, where wealth amounts to authority and where the most basic and far-reaching inequalities are taken for granted.

On the other hand, there is the sphere of citizenship, where we decide together about the “direction of the country” and where the law is supposed to establish a basic equality of treatment and expectation. “Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” wrote the poet of democracy, and that remains the idea.

But the spheres cannot stay separated. The charisma of wealth doesn’t recede in politics. The habits of inequality, dependence, and deference don’t go away when we cross the line from an unequal economy to a notional civic equality. And, above all, the relentless striving to find a new angle for profit doesn’t stop at the limits of the law and the state.

Instead, “the market,” as we politely call this striving, settles on and colonizes politics. It discovers that one of the best angles of advantage is simply to get control of the law itself, or the state that makes it. It extends — meaning “political entrepreneurs” and “norm entrepreneurs” extend — the techniques of profit-seeking to politics itself. And so the state becomes something truly worthy of nihilism, no longer able to sustain even the bare idea that politics is a different thing, a place where we act as equals to take collective control of our lives.

In climbing back from the Trump years, one of our main tasks will be to reclaim democracy from the market whose avatar he is.

“Everyone Gets To Bid or Buy”

The confusion of democracy and the market preceded Trump and went well beyond him. In 2020, the gamified day-trading app Robinhood described its “mission” as “ democratiz[ing] finance for all.” “Democratize,” in this case, meant lowering the barrier to participation in winning and losing in a market casino. Six years earlier, promoters were talking about crypto-trading as “democratizing Wall Street” just as cryptocurrency bitcoin “seeks to democratize currency and payments.” In 2011, the resume-matching site Monster promised to “democratize recruiting” by letting more kinds of job seekers link up with employers.

Start looking, and you will see it everywhere: promises to “democratize” advertising, design, direct marketing, medicine, whatever. Some of these barrier-lowering changes do increase users’ powers. Most just intensify the vulnerability of life in the marketplace, speeding up the already relentless press of speculative bets, pushy ads, and precarious jobs, dressed up to make market vulnerability look like freedom’s fun new frontier.

Maybe it isn’t surprising that touts would debauch a notoriously vague word. But for all their love of “disruption,” the touts weren’t leading the change. In 2010, a Harvard Business School professor explained that Apple cofounder Steve Jobs “set out to democratize computing” by making it “available conveniently to the masses.” In the same year, Robert Zoellick, then the president of the World Bank and previously George W. Bush’s trade ambassador, promised to “democratize” development economics by providing open access to the bank’s databases.

Already in 2009, the New York Times was referring to Robinhood’s precursors as “democratiz[ing] investment,” and in 2007 the Times explained the trend of “democratizing plastic surgery, which meant that people with household incomes under $30,000, who often lacked health insurance, were financing their cosmetic procedures with loans. After all, the paper of record pointed out, earning power follows attractiveness. “I financed my car,” the Times reported one patient saying in an emblematic reflection: “Why shouldn’t I finance my face?

A person walks on Wall Street as the coronavirus kept financial markets and businesses mostly closed in New York City this past spring. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

These are not random abuses of a word. They mirror the Internet optimism of the 1990s and early 2000s, which insisted that universal access and transparency would democratize software (through open, unencrypted code), democratize knowledge (through sites such as Wikipedia which, it became fashionable to say, was better than Encyclopedia Britannica), democratize the news through blogs and amateur reporting, and democratize democracy itself by enabling citizens to organize online. We now know, though there was no excuse for overlooking it at the time, that actual results would include the largest monopolies in world history, a vile efflorescence of conspiracy theories and other “alternative” knowledge, and a Hobbesian online of warring multitudes.

The underlying confusion here, between democracy and the market, is the more respectable version of the confusion Trump has embodied. The market, like democracy, lets everyone in, gives everyone a forum to express their convictions or preferences. In this sense, both are egalitarian. The market, like democracy, organizes shared life partly by aggregating many dispersed perspectives and values — not by voting, but through purchases. “Everyone gets to bid or buy” joined “everyone gets to vote” as an easily understood conception of “democracy,” and to some extent replaced it.

With this change, the egalitarian spirit in democracy came to mean the breakdown of market barriers, of “expert” knowledge, of whatever stood in the way of the consumer-investor and her plans for her marginal dollar. What the confusion concealed is that a thoroughgoing market order is less a version of democracy than a bizarro democracy, an opposite that, precisely through its resemblances, makes actual democracy ever more unreal.

Politics and the Trump Years

Both Trump and his opponents tried to rely on this and other substitutes for democratic politics. While he ran the White House as a direct-marketing campaign and color-commentary feed on the Wall Street indexes, Democrats initially hoped that sensible, rational markets would tank, punishing Trump for his cronyism, his erratic gestures toward industrial policy, and his reckless trade wars, both real and rumored. When it became clear that capital was feeling happy, mainstream Democratic opponents turned to “norms” as the things Trump was violating — true as far as it went, but which amounted to an elite morality that could never be the legitimating or driving vision of a democratic politics.

Democratic Party leaders also hoped the Constitution, the courts, and the rule of law as personified by Robert Mueller, would bring Trump down. Not only did this not happen, the courts are now the way that Trump diehards hope to see their leader steal the election from the voters. All the alternatives to politics were tried, and all failed. After that dispiriting experience, politics nearly failed, but did not.

One of the more hopeful things to happen during the Trump years is that the Democratic Party has been vividly reminded that majorities win elections and get to govern. This is largely because Trump was only the second obviously minority president of the modern era, having taken the White House with almost three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton, a clear and decisive loss under any system not distorted by the electoral college. (George W. Bush received about half a million fewer votes than Al Gore in 2000 — a loss but a close one.) Relentlessly attacked for undermining the letter and spirit of the Constitution, he owed his presidency to it.

Trump’s administration was the keystone of a Republican Party whose entire strategy for rule is converting popular minorities into constitutional majorities, by way of the institutional triangle of the White House, a Senate which it controls with representatives of about 45 percent of the country’s population, and federal courts whose lifetime appointments need only the president’s nomination and the Senate’s confirmation. The Supreme Court now has a majority of justices who were confirmed by a minoritarian Senate vote, three of whom (Trump’s) were appointed by a minority president. More than half of Trump’s appointees to the federal appeals court have been confirmed with minoritarian Senate support.

The Right Kind of Conflict

In the relief, exhaustion, and disgust that follow Trump’s eviction from the White House, there will be an impulse — natural in anyone, and congenial to the Biden style — to say that all the conflict of recent years has been a mistake. The relief will be half-right. Our broken constitutional system allows electoral minorities to take power but is too fragmented for any government to legislate effectively. It produces the wrong kind of conflict.

With positive visions such as the Green New Deal often feeling fantastical even to voters who want them, political mobilization falls back on the urgency of the existential threat, the terror of what the opponent will do. Instead of a potential ruling majority, every political grouping is addressed foremost as a potential endangered victim — Trump’s voters, in their own minds, most of all. Everything becomes politicized, from food choices to holidays to everyday language, but politics changes little about the material conditions that keep us secure or vulnerable, give us power or deny it.

We need to be clear that we have, indeed, been having the wrong conflict, the conflict of narcissistic projection and paranoia that Trump modeled and wanted, the only way he could win. But that does not mean conflict itself was the mistake. Its necessity is the ground of politics, and the point is to make it productive.

The Democratic Party’s down-ballot losses, failure to flip statehouses before the next round of congressional redistricting, and significant weakening among Latino men were all evidence that “We are not Trump” can command a slim national majority, and — by a collection of whiskers — a substantial electoral college win, but is not nearly enough for a party that wants to rule.

Bernie Sanders’s call for a “political revolution” was the clearest statement in decades of what democracy is supposed to do: empower majorities to take control of their own institutions and reset the terms of their shared lives. The need for this kind of politics has only become clearer as the country has drifted into ever-crueler inequality through the slow burn of the pandemic.

But the successors to that campaign will have to overcome more than the minority president who won the White House in 2016. They will have to fight to reclaim democracy itself from the marriage of a market civilization with an anti-majoritarian Constitution, a pairing that makes it always too easy to mistake our confinement for a form of freedom.