Jacques Derrida had a reputation for being one of the world’s most obscure philosophers, but if he had been alive during the rise of Trump, I think he would have had a lot to share.
In his 1994 work ‘Spectres of Marx’, Derrida attacked the clichéd view that the collapse of the communist state meant the consignment of Marxism to the dustbin of history. Our current “new world disorder”, he quipped, of “neo-capitalism”, has not managed “to rid itself of Marx’s ghosts”. However, Marxism now exists in different flavours. Derrida was heavily influenced by another French philosopher Blanchot who spoke of the “multiple forms” of Marx. Though the wheels have fallen off the old Marxist express train, the machinery of neo-capitalist globalisation is still haunted, Derrida claimed, by the spirit of Marx.
Given that Trump has threatened to slap import tariffs on corporations, such as Ford Motors, for moving their factories to Mexico, might Derrida have found the Marxist ghost, lurking? Trump it would appear is protecting workers from losing their jobs, as well as confronting the greed of the corporate capitalists seeking to exploit low-wage foreign workers. Yet Trump – a critic would reply – is also one of the most famous stars of modern neo-capitalism with vast property holdings in the US, and around the world.
Derrida might have retorted that it is this very mix of contradictory ideologies that explained Trump’s unlikely rise: a bold defence of workers’ rights – the ghost of left-wing revolution, from a person who is the very culmination of neo-liberalism. The Economist magazine says Donald Trump favours proposals loved by the right and backs ideas favoured by the left. “He sounds European”, it concludes. Derrida called this Marxism of the Right. In short Trump’s business and political career is itself a destruction of traditional, but now antiquated left/right political distinctions. But in breaking these ideological differences, Trump has married the best of both worlds – the adulation of the struggling workers left behind by an exploitative capitalism, and a self-promoted reputation as a savvy player in the high-stakes world of international capitalism, who (Trumps claims) might be able to bring jobs, formerly outsourced by American corporations, back to America.
As to whether Derrida, given his sympathy for immigrants and critique of the free market, would have found anything favourable to say about the anti-immigrant Trump as channelling the ghost of Marx, Derrida might have recalled that there is no hegemonic reading of Marx – nor for that matter a hegemonic reading of Trump (given his numerous conflicting opinions over the years).
Derrida, in fact, might have added another reading of Trump based on passages from ‘Spectre of Marx’: the celebrity businessmen is actually not really human, instead exemplifying – in Derrida’s take on Marxism – the weird neo-capitalist creature who emerged from the hyper-globalist market place. Derrida vividly described this monster:
“[T]he inert thickness of its ligneous body and autonomy is no more than the mask of automatism. A mask, indeed a visor that may be hiding no living gaze beneath the helmet. The automaton mimes the living. The Thing is neither dead nor alive, it is dead and alive at the same time. It survives. At once cunning, inventive, and machine-like, ingenious and unpredictable, this war machine is a theatrical machine”.
In brief Trump is a kind of zombie or robot. Derrida would, in support of this assertion, cite this psychological profile of Trump, which described Trump’s eyes as affectless, what we would call cold, or eerily blank.
Derrida might have also enjoyed the phrase “no living gaze beneath the helmet” – a nice allusion to Trump’s large unnatural hair thing, while all the other images and tropes also seem entirely a propos, in describing Trump’s maniacal energy, weird unpredictability, and baroque public image.
Fascinated by these contradictory and bizarre aspects of Trump, we can imagine Derrida announcing to the world that he will write a new study: ‘Trump: the Text’.
By Thomas White