What Trump Means – Maryam El-Shall

The questions a culture asks about itself—questions of identity, questions of practices, questions of policies—are framed by how it perceives its past in relation to its present.  Where are we?  Where have we come from?  Where are we going?  These questions become most prominent in electoral campaigns where the struggle of and for history is embodied in candidates who claim to speak for the culture’s history.   What they make visible is less a discrete period of time—Bernie Sanders represents the future while Hillary Clinton represents the past, for example—and more the way time—the past, the present, the future—is sutured together into a story. What we find in presidential candidates in particular is the story of ourselves.  In the 2016 presidential election, the struggle of history has been best represented by the popularity and controversy which have surrounded Donald Trump.

Trump’s rise has been assessed in two opposing ways. The first is dismissal.  Even at the highest point of his popularity, many have insisted on the ephemera of the Trump phenomenon.  “He will not last,” they say.  “He will disappear.  He cannot win and it will only be a matter of time before people lose interest.”  In this dismissal, there is also the paradoxical recognition of Trump’s significance.  When addressing the question why Trump’s popularity will not last, there is at the same time an insistence on his importance, which is represented as false so that in addition to dismissal, there is also repudiation.  We are told on one hand that Trump will fade away while on the other hand we are told not to pay him any attention because he is a false character, a showman, caricature.  What he offers us, this viewpoint suggests, is not real.  With Trump, we have only spectacle and to participate in this spectacle is to make that which is not real, real.  So, this is the first assessment.

The second assessment takes the opposite position and says, “No, there is something here, there is something that Trump speaks to.”  Trump, in this view, is the representation, the voice, the embodiment of a silent rage simmering beneath the surface of our culture. What is this rage? This is the rage of a demographic that feels itself drifting to the margins, becoming insignificant, losing its power.  This is the rage that constitutes the Trump milieu, the milieu of the white, working class male.  This subject has been left behind.  He has been left behind by the progress of a technology that has automated his job, by a culture that no longer speaks in his voice, by a society in which he can no longer recognize himself.  And so, this assessment suggests, this subject screams with rage.  Trump is this rage.  Trump is the life of this rage.  Trump will not disappear until this rage subsides.  So, this is, more or less, the second assessment.

So, on one side of Trump we have denial and on the other side we have confirmation.  What does this mean?  We cannot know for certain until all the votes have been counted and the story of Trump finds its end.  But even here, perhaps the vote is not so significant.  Perhaps it is the discourse surrounding Trump that is significant.  Perhaps it is the uncertainty surrounding Trump that we should pay attention to.   What Trump represents is history as struggle.  This is not to say that Trump is struggling for history—to, as his campaign slogan says, “Make America Great Again.  We are not interested in Trump’s intentions.  Rather, in saying that Trump represents history as struggle, we are saying that he brings the present to the surface as a pivotal moment in our culture.  The discourse surrounding him—repudiation on one side and celebration on the other—highlights this struggle as a struggle for the meaning of the present in relation to the past and to the future.

This is where the debate about the significance of Trump is mistaken.  Trump is neither a false prophet nor the hope of the future.  Rather, Trump is but the reflection of the present determining its place in history.  It matters little that Trump the individual has fit this role; it could just as easily have been someone else.  What does matter is the moment itself, our present which says in its reactions to Trump:  I want the present to reflect my past or I want the present to reject the past.  What we encounter in the debate surrounding Trump is the present-as-a-transformation-of-the-past, which makes it a discrete moment in time.  This is also what makes the present part of a story the end of which we do not yet know.

In this election, in the clamor surrounding its characters, in its discourse, we can discover the struggle of and for history. This, perhaps, is the ultimate significance of Trump.

Maryam El-Shall teaches English and Humanities at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.  Her research explores the intersections of cultural, historical and political discourses.