Trump : Joan Wallach Scott

Claire Tabouret / L'Affront (2013)
Claire Tabouret / L’Affront (2013)

Trump : Joan Wallach Scott


Is “trump” a political concept in the sense that Adi Ophir has defined it?—as a “unit of mental representation,” a linguistic performance that “tries to explain, to present and to express the essence of what the concept refers to.”1 Is it, pace Koselleck, more than a word? He writes, “In use a word can be unambiguous. By contrast, a concept must remain ambiguous in order to be a concept.”2 Until recently, trump was just another word—a noun and a verb—whose definitions long antedated its current avatar. It was not even one of those “keywords” in a collective lexicon that Raymond Williams said distinguished vocabulary from mere words.3

It is only since the candidacy and then the election of Donald Trump that the word trump has acquired the status of vocabulary in Williams’ sense. I’m not sure it’s a concept. The coining of the word “trumpism” seems a better attempt to articulate something we would recognize as a political concept. To cite Koselleck again, social and political concepts “are recurrently emerging neologisms reacting to specific social or political circumstances that attempt to register . . . the novelty of such circumstances.”4

Trumpism has fast entered current discourse across the political/ideological spectrum. It’s more than just a way of referring to the Trump brand, which has been carefully marketed and gold-plated over the years. The term headlines articles from the Nation to the Atlantic and the National Review; it is invoked in serious analyses and satirical remarks. Attempts to define the phenomenon are legion, most prominently in discussions of populism. In these discussions, trumpism is taken to be neither exactly like the reign of Juan Peron in Argentina, nor of the Venezuelan Hugo Chavez, nor, for that matter, of the Italian or German fascists. Coining the term with the leader’s name suggests the existence of distinctive characteristics that warrant explicit denotation. Trumpism has already acquired a currency that Trump does not have: it tries to make sense of the man’s incoherence as a political/ideological formation; and it tries to make sense of our own surprise at his capture of the presidency, but it may only be the name for this moment in our history.

In this essay I want to explore both trump and trumpism; they are connected in intriguing ways, not least because the definitional history of the word trump is so uncannily embodied in the man whose grandfather is said to have chosen it as an alternative to the German Drumpf upon arrival in the United States.5 Did Friedrich Drumpf understand the power of the word he chose as his family name? Was there something in the word itself that enabled his grandson to actualize so many of its definitions? And what are we to make of the fact that among his many supporters, Trump’s name has become synonymous only with “wealth” and “success,” leaving aside the many other apt (and more negative) characterizations that fill the pages of our dictionaries? What about trump (the word) can help us understand trumpism (the attempt to name a politics)?


In early English usage, and still today, a primary definition of trump comes from card games, in which, for the duration of the game, one suit is arbitrarily chosen to outrank all the others. The trump card wins the trick; possessing it assures a winning advantage; it can always “take” the card of another suit. My friend Sarv, the psychic, tells me that in the Tarot deck, the trump cards “are those that have stronger bearing upon the others”; they are the dominant cards against whose power there is no appeal.6 The power of the trump card leads to the word’s association with triumph and to its metaphorical uses: “a trump card is the move one party can use to attain decisive victory. In this sense, a trump card can be a person, weapon, or the starting of a chain of events.”7 The trump card is “a key resource to be used at an opportune moment.” It is the “clincher” that seals the deal. Although trump can refer to “a reliable or admirable person,” and “to turn up trumps” means to turn out well or successful, the word more often has connotations of deception and cheating. “Trumped up” are those false charges used to impugn someone’s integrity or throw obstacles in the way of his career. They are forgeries, fabrications, and inventions devised for unscrupulous ends. The OED cites an example of how this meaning is expressed: “you have trumped up a cock and bull story.” I think this usage may have to do with the fact that in card games trump suits are arbitrarily designated and they are used to win tricks; there is a short metonymic slippage from this kind of ungrounded invention (the arbitrary designation of the trump suit) to dishonest fabrication (trickery).

Trump also derives from the musical instrument, the trumpet (and the trumpet itself from the fact that it is a tube). The trumpet connection has to do with sound. To trump is to blow the horn, to issue a loud summons, a resounding call, or a celebratory proclamation. A trumpeter was sometimes likened in popular parlance to a braying ass. In slang, trump refers to the “act of breaking wind audibly” or, as the Concise New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional Usage puts it, less euphemistically, to farting.8 (John Oliver seems to have known or intuited this when he referred to the countenance of Trump, the candidate, as “smiling but gassy.”)9 The distasteful odor associated with this impolite sound attaches to the word’s deceptive connotations. The past tense of trump is sometimes rendered not as trumped but as trumpeted, one of whose definitions is to have “greatly extolled or boasted” in exaggerated ways. “Some of the most trumpeted of names,” one wag noted in 1908, “are authors of no consequences.”10 In these meanings, blowing the trumpet has nothing to do with the pleasures of music, it is simply the expulsion of hot air. One dictionary explains the origins of this usage as “alluding to quacks and montebanks, who attracted the public by blowing a horn, and then cheated them into buying” shoddy goods. Hence trumpery as “showy but worthless finery,” “something of less value than it seems.”11 (All that gold plate covering over the junk underneath.)

The English comes from the French. Tromper, to blow the trumpet, also meant to act the fool. But the word has more negative connotations than that. It may be that cheating death (trompe-la mort) has something admirable about it, but there is little else to redeem the word. In French, trump is essentially a negative term. Tromper (to trump) means to lie, to dissimulate, to seduce, to cheat, to betray (as a lover or spouse), to promote false ideas with the intent of provoking errors of judgment, to abuse the ignorance or trust of another. “It is more shameful,” the editors of Didérot’s Encyclopédie wrote, “to trump (tromper) than to be trumped (d’être trompé).”12Tromperie is the art of deception, fraud, and mystification. The trompeur or trompeuse is a hypocrite, perfidious, never to be trusted. English has taken much of this into our own language, but perhaps the term of choice for thinking trump (Trump) today, is the one we use in its original French, trompe-l’oeil. This refers to an artifice, originally visual, but extended metaphorically to mean anything that creates an appearance of reality. Trompe-l’oeil deliberately creates an illusion (a misperception) that is not confined to aesthetic practice; it is also synonymous with delusion (leurre), a false belief that is tenaciously held even if contradicted. Artifice is the name of Trump’s game.

Donald Trump is the original mountebank, purveyor of shoddy goods, presenting himself as truly independent, unafraid to speak his mind (he tells it like it is, his followers say admiringly, even about his lies). His similarity to the Wizard of Oz has not escaped commentators. Trump is the carnival huckster (reinvented as a virtual reality television celebrity) who, like the Wizard, requires the residents of his Emerald City to wear green glasses—everything is money-colored in his world. But, as the Scarecrow soon discovers, he is nothing but a “humbug.” Humbug, the historian Brian Connolly reminds me, was also the self-characterization of P.T. Barnum, who embraced artifice as a winning sales strategy, long before the advent of Madison Avenue. Kevin Young has noted the racialized aspect of nineteenth-century hoaxes in his new book, Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News.13 Philip Roth and Ariel Dorfman point us to Melville’s The Confidence Man (1857). Roth says, “Trump is just a con artist. The relevant book about Trump’s American forebear is Herman Melville’s ‘The Confidence-Man,’ the darkly pessimistic, daringly inventive novel—Melville’s last—that could just as well have been called ‘The Art of the Scam.’”14 Dorfman tell us that the novel’s subtitle, “His Masquerade,” is also important to take into account. “The passengers of that boat are systematically bilked by a devilish protagonist who constantly shifts his identity changing names and shapes and schemes” (among them “real estate deals and bankruptcies, spurious lies disguised as moralistic truths . . . financial hustles and deceptions”).15 Like Trump, Dorfman adds, citing Melville, the confidence man “exercises on his dupes ‘the power of persuasive fascination, the power of holding another creature by the button of the eye.’”16 The power of the con man, it should be added, ultimately lies in its appeal to hope, to a belief in the promise that all the money invested will earn tremendous returns.17

Trump offers his exaggerated wealth as proof of his incorruptibility, as well as of his reliability. He will bring the skills of a successful businessman, he and his supporters tell us, to the running of the nation. Politics is, after all, according to him, the art of the deal. And it’s the art that makes the deal. He who plays the trump card wins the trick. That the Trump brand touts success and confidence, the assurance of quality and stability in defiance of the actual record of his businesses and behavior is the trompe-l’oeil this man manages to pull off. Melville’s metaphor—“holding another creature by the button of the eye”—is a good translation of the French term. Trump’s cunning deception probably would have worked for a similar type, given the circumstances, even if he had a different name. But the uncanny incarnation of the word in the man makes it all the more intriguing to think about. Would there be Trump, or for that matter trumpism, without trump? Or, to put it differently, without the artifice that is trump (the verb) would there be Trump (the Donald) or, for that matter, trumpism (the attempt to locate some reality behind the operations of artifice and deception)?


If political concepts are attempts at explanation and understanding, what does the coining of trumpism by political commentators attempt to do? It wants to suggest novelty, an unprecedented development in the history not only of our nation, but of the world. But what is new about trumpism?

In the on-line Wiktionary, trumpism is defined tautologically as “the philosophy and politics espoused by Donald Trump.”18 But two historians note that Trump, the man, has neither a political philosophy nor an ideology. One of these—a historian of American populism—says that Trump lacks “a relatively coherent definition of ‘the people’ he claims to represent.”19 This in contrast to past populist movements (especially the People’s Party of the 1890’s) that have understood ‘the people’ to be workers, farmers, or the common man—concrete referents for the general term. Although Trump has insisted that he speaks in the name of the people, some commentators dismiss this claim. “Where populist leaders claim to be the vox populi,” writes one, “Trump is the voice of Trump.”20 Yet, replies another scholar, there is nothing new here: he sees Trump’s authoritarian democracy as characteristic of the post-1945 reformulation of fascism: “radical narcissism, charismatic messianism, and mythical thinking often appear in the history of populism as essentially attached to racism, nativism, and xenophobia.”21 Whether he started out that way or not, this scholar concludes, “Trump became the name of America’s populist right.”22 In this vein, Frank Rich suggests that “Trumpism predates Trump,” and he points to the 1968 presidential campaign of George Wallace as its most recent earlier expression. Toxic anger defines Trumpism, Rich writes. It is “a rage at America’s cultural and economic elites in both political parties as well as at minorities and immigrants.”23 This toxic anger, he says, has steadily informed a movement that has been more or less visible, but nonetheless extremely resilient over the years; the movement achieved a name with the successful capture of the presidency in 2016 by Donald J. Trump.

Trumpism, for these writers, is a way of describing the current president as a populist, locating him as the heir to a long tradition of nativist, nationalist, and racist zealots. (We can think here of Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life or of his The Paranoid Style in American Politics, or of Michael Rogin’s discussions of “American political demonology” in his Ronald Reagan, the Movie.) Trump’s performances fit the descriptive definitions catalogued in a compelling article by Jean Comaroff, written in 2011 (before the advent of Trump). A charismatic leader, a resurrected patriarch, his rhetorical appeals are anti-elitist and anti-establishment. He is the (white) primal father who will restore order in a chaotic world.24 He is the leader who, in Weber’s terms, emerges “in times of . . . distress” and who has been “neither officeholder nor incumbent of ‘an occupation.’” Charismatic leaders, says Weber, are men who have not acquired expert knowledge. They have “specific gifts of body and spirit”—gifts that “are not accessible to everybody.”25 Their charismatic appeals express strident rage in uncivil rants marked by emotive dualisms and radical reductionism. Coherence is not a test of their power; their power lies in themselves. Trump insists, in typical demagogic fashion, that his lies are self-evident truths. His followers find some inherent, deeper truth in those lies. And he elicits from them a populist energy that lacks any social consciousness or social responsibility. In office, he and his followers have set about dismantling what Rich calls the constitutional and legal “guard rails” of American political institutions. His xenophobia and white supremacy put him in the ranks of the worst representatives of the right-wing populist genre. Although Cornel West heralded the election of Trump as the dawn of neo-fascism, and the historian Frederico Finchelstein argues that trumpism is a form of post-fascist politics, we don’t have to look beyond Richard Spencer and the specter of Charlottesville to find the rekindling of that discredited past among his acolytes.26

Is trumpism, then, just a new name for an old formation? Why, then, the new name? Here I want to follow the lead of the journalist Adam Shatz, who refers to Trump as “a grotesque symptom of a national malaise,” and of Stuart Hall who, contemplating Thatcherism in the 1980’s, remarked that “the swing to the right is not a reflection of the crisis; it is itself a response to the crisis.”27 The coining of the term trumpism, I want to argue, is at once a symptom of and a response to the crisis that neoliberalism has produced in this moment for democratic politics. It is a crisis that comes from growing inequalities of wealth (domestically and internationally), from the loss of productive economic activity (manufacturing especially), the weakening of once powerful forms of political representation and engagement (unions, opposition parties), the corruption of politics by money (Citizens United), and the failure of law to guarantee social, political and economic justice. To be sure, there are distinguishing features of the Trump response to the crisis (its unprecedented authoritarian disregard for law among them) that we could say constitute trumpism. (I will return to those below.) My concern is that the term is too often used as a way of locating the entire crisis squarely in the practices of the current administration, as if the alternative of, say, Hillary Clinton would have provided the needed resolution.

Wendy Brown is perhaps the best diagnostician for the crisis neo-liberalism has posed for democracy: global capital has become sovereign, she writes, it is “both master and coin of the realm, except there is no realm, no global polity, governance or society, and neither are there boundaries or territory that delimit capital’s domain.”28 Even as market values have permeated national political life, states are asked to protect “national populations against the ravaging effects of open markets on everything including the national imaginary.”29 Human subjects have been reduced to embodiments of homo economicus; self-realization is defined in terms of the accumulation of “human capital.” “Every man for himself” has replaced an ethos of collectivity and community. Xenophobic nationalism (“build the wall”) is the fantasized response to de-nationalized economic life, but it is more symptom than cure; neo-liberal rationality has already subverted its goals, having had a “corrosive effect on the rule of law,” substituting entrepreneurial criteria for “the supremacy of law and every other supervenient moral authority.”30 There is no real possibility of return to the political autonomy of the sovereign nation-state. What is deemed trumpism is at once the embodiment of the neoliberal rationality that has generated the crisis and the nativist response to it, a response that is itself informed by a certain neoliberalism.

Trump, the man, is the personification of a neoliberal subject. He has commodified himself: he is a brand, he licenses his name for profit; he vaunts his success in terms of his ratings—they, and his monetary wealth, are together the measure of his human capital. His coalition includes billionaires with similar profiles. His cabinet and the Republican congress are implementing the neoliberal project with a vengeance (ending what there ever was of the welfare state in the U.S.; extending the reach of capitalist profits and the impunity of corporate practices; defunding public education, healthcare, and undermining the rule of law). The solutions this coalition envisages are neoliberal to the core.

“Make American Great Again” reconceptualizes the nation as a firm, governed not by hallowed constitutional principles, but by The Art of the Deal, the trickster’s game in which deception substitutes for diplomacy, and crime sometimes pays off. Brown points out that inside the market model, the criminal is “a rational economic individual who invests, expects a certain profit and risks making a loss.”31 Kevin Williamson, writing in the National Review, suggests that we watch again the film of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) to get a glimpse of Trump’s handbook—not only for the sustained vulgarity of the real estate developers who are the actors in that play, but also for the rules of the game: become the alpha male by impersonating him, weave webs of illusion that appeal to a buyer’s unconscious desire, “fake it ‘til you make it,” —one version or another of trompe-l’oeil in its shoddiest form. Williamson’s piece is called “Death of a F***ing Salesman”; its subtitle is “Donald Trump can’t close the deal,” by which he means that Trump is ultimately impotent.32 (It’s interesting to note here that Roget’s Thesaurus lists impotence as one of the antonyms of trump.) Closing the deal in the Mamet play, as in Trump’s rhetoric, is about heterosexual consummation, the orgasmic pleasure of holding the winning hand. Mamet’s characters say it clearly: “it takes brass balls to sell real estate;” if you don’t close you’re a “fucking faggot” or worse, “a cunt,” “you can’t play in the man’s game.” The play demonstrates the futile attempt to call upon the instrumental power of masculinity to close the deal because that very masculinity can be achieved only by the completed deal. The deal itself is always a scam; and the deal can never be closed.33 I take Williamson to mean that Trump’s displays of virility (all those blonde “Trumpettes” in his corner) are just an empty come-on, because he cannot ultimately solve the economic problems that infuriate some of his base.34 Unlike the early moves of Juan Peron or Hugo Chavez, there is no attempt to lessen social inequality; in fact, Trump’s policies will only increase the gap between rich and poor. The anti-politics he champions (“drain the swamp”) has already revealed itself to be a new form of authoritarianism, democratic only because he holds an elected office (hence the importance of his insistence on the false claim that he won the popular vote), but otherwise not at all representative. The president, like the Wizard of Oz, leaves the management of his realm not in the hands of neutral technocratic elites, but in the hands of ideologues in the service of global capital. The “undoing of the demos”—in reality the fruit of neo-liberalism—reconceived as the fulfillment of the white American dream.35

I want to suggest that much of the analysis of trumpism—indeed the formulation of the concept itself—is a way of denying the neoliberalism that so thoroughly saturates American society, the Democratic party, and beyond, the neo-liberalism that at every level—political, economic, cultural—has for long years eroded American democracy across most of the political spectrum.36 Trumpism suggests novelty, even as some commentators point to continuity, but even the continuity is with exceptional movements like populism, not the mainstream. The concept of Trumpism suggests a newly identified malignancy that sets it apart from the business-as-usual of politics sold to the highest bidder, from the undermining of community by selfish individualism, from the degrading effects of global capital on humans and the environment.

Trump’s neoliberalism is, then, not new, but there are aspects to “trumpism” that do distinguish it from other political formations: its combination of neoliberalism with other features that are not directly related to it. (Here it is useful to remember Koselleck’s point that, unlike words, concepts are always ambiguous.) One is the way in which his coalition includes a white supremacy that is outside neoliberal market rationality; the other is the performative aspect of the Trump presidency. On the first aspect, Ta-Nehisi Coates has called Trump “the first white president.” While Coates concedes that Trump’s white predecessors were undoubtedly also racists, they “made their way to high office through the passive power of whiteness.” Trump has made that “awful inheritance explicit,” enabled by the white backlash against the Obama presidency. Coates finds that other explanations for his success—populism, white working class economic insecurity—are distractions from the central issue of racism, attempts to displace or deny the problem. “White tribalism,” he writes, “haunts” even the writings of such liberal journalists as Nicholas Kristof and George Packer.37 (That white supremacy overrides other issues is evident in the willingness of overwhelming numbers of white Republican women to vote for Trump, despite revelations about his misogyny, and, most recently in the fact that 63% of white women voted for the sexual predator Roy Moore in the Alabama senate race in December 2017. It is also evident in the way in which shouts of “Trump” have become an explicit expression of white racism; indeed dictionaries may have to add a new definition, Trump as a white racist epithet.)38 It is the making “explicit,” not only rhetorically, but in fact, of the wish for white supremacy—the elevation of it to a national goal—that distinguishes “trumpism” from its neoliberal aspects and from other forms of racism. “Make America Great Again” conceptualizes the nation not just as a firm, but as an exclusively white firm. There is no question of extending the bounties of capitalism to anyone else.

The second aspect of trumpism has to do with the performative style of the man. He is not an ordinary president. That his is an acceptable form of political engagement can only be understood as an effect of reality TV. Because if we’re talking about trumpism as the creature of its historical moment, the effects of commercial media—television, social media, the internet—cannot be underestimated. Not simply as ways of magnifying its impact, but of actually creating the phenomenon itself. Here is where I want to return to trompe-l’oeil as part of my effort to think trumpism as something whose meaning rests on a set of illusions, whose manipulation puts masters of that art like P.T. Barnum to shame. Emily Nussbaum, the New Yorker’s TV critic put it aptly last summer:

It’s become a wearying, ugly observation, a media truism at once superficial and deep: if “The Apprentice” didn’t get Trump elected, it is surely what made him electable. Over fourteen seasons, the television producer Mark Burnett helped turn the Donald Trump of the late nineties—the disgraced huckster who had trashed Atlantic City; a tabloid pariah to whom no bank would lend—into a titan of industry, nationally admired for being, in his own words, “the highest-quality brand.”39

Trump is nothing more than the exemplar of the neoliberal American dream; you’d cash in if you stuck with him. The theme song of the show was “For the Love of Money” by the O’Jays: “Talk about cash money!/ Dollar bills, y’all . . . For that lean lean lean mean green/Almighty dollar.” “The Apprentice is set in a patriotic world of capitalist potential.” Winners chose “which Trump property to help manage.” The episodes never call Trump’s judgment into question. “All scandal and debate are erased,” writes Nussbaum, “Trump’s combative streak is alchemized into Daddy’s tough love . . . He’s a family man and a business genius . . . Frequently, he narrates from a helicopter, hovering like Zeus.”40 When the Celebrity Apprentice replaced the original show in 2007, Nussbaum says, Trump also became a philanthropist, corporate brands got associated with charity, providing a veneer for what were often failing companies or those fined millions for deceptive business practices.41

Concealed behind a screen, the Wizard of Oz projected a scary, fantastic image—a huge disembodied head surrounded by fire; in contrast, Trump appears on screen as a life-like depiction of himself. The reality effect is seemingly undeniable—you see what you get, or is it you get what you see? This is not to say that illusion entirely trumped reality; Lynne Joyrich suggests convincingly that viewers are aware of the staged aspects of the shows. They move in and out of credulity, she says, finding affective affirmation and ways to identify that are, to them, authentic in terms of their own experience.42 As they watched the show from season to season, I want to argue, viewers became desiring subjects of the Trump brand; it’s not just rage that moved them, but the wish to identify with his evident success and the success of those he deemed winners. “Losers”—one of his favorite insults—don’t know how to play the game; winners hold the Trump card. It isn’t far from that identification to casting the vote for him in 2016, choosing him somehow meant his choosing you, like a winner on The Apprentice.

The appeal to rage was an instrumentalized populist supplement to the image of the feisty business genius who, like all geniuses, was entitled to his eccentricities and excesses (gold, women, fancy suits, silly hair, long ties).43 The rage singled out enemies—domestic and foreign—as the cause of disappointment and decline: Mexican rapists and drug dealers; Muslim immigrant terrorists; feminists, gays, lesbians, trans people, D/democrats (with both capital and lowercase d), Hillary Clinton, elites, academics, journalists, the politically correct, and especially African Americans, with Barack Obama at the head of the list. Coates is right that white supremacy was the explicit theme of Trump’s campaign. The list of enemies grew longer as his ability to manage the presidential reality show weakened. Various stunts were revealed for what they were: stacks of empty folders said to be financial disclosures, accusatory tweets that turned out to be based on sheer ignorance or at least false information. Nussbaum says (more hopefully than realistically) that Trump could no longer “control how these stunts played on TV.” Well, not all TV, nor all of Twitterdom, nor the Internet. Nor does Nussbaum take into account what Ducan Faherty calls the “seriality” of Trump’s performances. “Trump offers a kind of discontinuous seriality, one which is predicated on the idea that today’s plot need not have anything to do with yesterday’s and makes no attempt to try to reconcile those differences. It’s a post-modern seriality of the first order.”44 He repeatedly turns former friends into enemies and fires them, or tries to, and he denounces as “fake news” even his own earlier accounts. There is no narrative and no closure, just a quest for ratings that alone can confirm the value of the man. There are still large and influential media spaces where the game plays on, displacing—as illusions do—the problems wrought by global capital onto others, others who are not perpetrators, but also the dispossessed victims of what Brown referred to as “the ravaging effects of open markets on everything.”45

If trumpism is a political concept, it has to attribute a distinctive meaning to the Trump presidency. It doesn’t precede him, though it draws on and, indeed has been produced by long-standing resentments and conflicts—of class, race, and gender—in American society. Its success also rests, ironically, on the artifice of an electoral college, an elitist institution designed to prevent the very populist victory it insured in 2016. It employs tactics known to others of his type, especially the misidentification of the source of the problems it purports to solve. Trompe-l’oeil is not an invention of this politician, though it carries his name. But its use is distinctive in his case. What is novel, and so warrants a special designation, is the explicit deployment of all the tricks of artifice (all the tromperie).

“Make America Great Again” is about a fantasized nostalgia for a time (in antebellum American) when, as Roy Moore recently put it, “our families were strong, our country had a direction”; it is about the good times of slavery, not about restoring corrupted principles of liberty and justice. It is not really about Steve Bannon’s impossible dream of reclaiming national sovereignty. The word “again,” has a certain ambivalence to it: it evokes both a return to some mythic white edenic past, but more strongly, I think, the serial replication of Trump’s present economic prosperity and its extension to future generations, and also to the nation as a whole. In this scenario, there will undoubtedly be winners and losers. The winners will have earned their fortune; the losers will deserve to lose. Those who choose Trump (voters and Republican politicians alike) think they are guaranteed a win; it is, after all, they who hold the trump card.


Those of us driven to despair by the appearance of this new historical phenomenon need to think about how the fraud will be unmasked, how the green glasses of trumpism will be replaced by a vision of collective commitment to the common good. In the meantime, we might take some small comfort in the fact that—if we don’t lose everything in this hand—the dominant card holds its power only until the next hand is dealt.


Joan Wallach Scott is Professor Emerita in the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and an Adjunct Professor of History Graduate Center of CUNY.


1. Adi Ophir, “Concept,” Political Concepts: A Critical Lexicon ; many thanks to Johanna Brockman, Brian Connolly, Pete Coviello, Sara Farris, John Modern, Julie Orlemanski, Peter Thomas, Ken Wissoker, Andrew Zimmerman, and the members of the Globalization and Social Change seminar at the Graduate Center of the City University of NY, whose comments immeasurably improved this essay.

2. “The concept is connected to a word, but is at the same time more than a word: a word becomes a concept only when the entirety of meaning and experience within a sociopolitical context within which and for which a word is used can be condensed into one word.” Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, trans. Keith Tribe (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), p. 85.

3. Williams understood the problem of vocabulary in two senses (we might say he was talking Ophir’s language of concepts in a different register): “The available and developing meanings of known words, which needed to be set down; and the explicit but as often implicit connections which people were making, in what seemed to me, again and again, particular formations of meaning – ways not only of discussing but at another level of seeing many of our central experiences” (Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (London: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. xxvii).

4. Koselleck, Futures Past, p. 83.

5. There is some confusion about when the name was changed: Some suggest it was as early as 1600; others not until the early 20th century. See

6. E-mail correspondence, November 21, 2017.

7. This and the following quotes come from a variety of dictionaries, among them: The Oxford English Dictionary, Vol XI (1961), pp. 420-424; The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (1973 and 2006); The Free Dictionary; Oxford dictionaries on line; Wikipedia; and

8. The Concise New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, ed. Tom Dalzell and Terry Victor, 2nd Edition (New York: Routledge, 2015), pp., 800, 251.

9. John Oliver, “Last Week Tonight,” February 28, 2016.

10. See n. 7.

11. See n. 7.

12. Trésor de la langue française: 19 et 20 siècles (Paris: CNRS, 1994), Vol. 16; and Encylopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, ed. Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert (Paris: 1765), Vol. XVI, pp. 693–697.

13. Kevin Young, Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2017).

14. Judith Thurman, “Philip Roth E-Mails on Trump,” New Yorker, January 30, 2017.

15. Ariel Dorfman, “What Herman Melville can Teach us About the Trump Era,” The Nation, May 10, 2017.

16. Dorfman, “What Herman Melville can Teach us About the Trump Era,” The Nation, May 10, 2017. Trump is not the only master of the scam. On Bannon in this role, see

17. Thanks to Tony Alessandrini for this suggestion.

18. See the Wikitionary entry for Trumpism.

19. Michael Kazin, “Trump and American Populism,” Foreign Affairs 95:6 (Nov/Dec 2016), pp. 17-24. See also, Matthew Flisfeder, “’Trump’—What Does the Name Signify? Or, Protofascism and the Alt-Right,” Cultural Politics 14:1 (March 2018).

20. Cas Mudde, “The Trump Phenomenon and the European Populist Radical Right,” Washington Post, August 26, 2105; cited in Frederico Finchelstein, From Fascism to Populism in History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017), p. 146.

21. Muddy, “The Trump Phenomenon and the European Populist Radical Right”; cited in Finchelstein, From Fascism to Populism in History, p. 146.

22. Muddy, “The Trump Phenomenon and the European Populist Radical Right,”; cited in p. 158. See also, Frederico Finchelstein and Pablo Piccato, “Donald Trump May be Showing us the Future of Right-Wing Politics,” Washington Post, February 20, 2016.

23. Frank Rich, “After Trump,” New York, November 13-26, 2017, p. 26. For similar arguments see Debbie Elliot on NPR, “Is Donald Trump at Modern-Day George Wallace?” April 22, 2016; and Norm Orenstein, “The Eight Causes of Trumpism,” Atlantic, January 4, 2016.

24. Jean Comaroff, “Populism and Late Liberalism: A Special Affinity?” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 637, September 2011, pp. 99–111.

25. Max Weber, “The Sociology of Charismatic Authority,” in Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (NY: Routledge, 1998), p. 245.

26. Cornel West, “This is What Neo-Fascism Looks Like” Democracy Now, December 1, 2016.

27. Adam Shatz, “The President and the Bomb,” London Review of Books, November 16, 2017; Stuart Hall, “Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left,” in his The Hard Road to Renewal. (London: Verso 1988), p. 43.

28. Wendy Brown, Walled States, Waning Sovereignty. (Cambridge, MA: Zone Books, 2010), p. 66.

29. Brown, Walled States, Waning Sovereignty, p. 68.

30. Brown, Walled States, Waning Sovereignty, p. 96.

31. Brown, Walled States, Waning Sovereignty, p. 97.

32. Kevin D. Williamson, “Death of a F***ing Salesman: Donald Trump Can’t Close the Deal,” National Review, July 30, 2017.

33. Williamson, “Death of a F***ing Salesman”; The film of David Mamet’s Glen Garry Glen Ross came out in 1992. See also Brian Connolly, “The rational response is to point out, as did John Oliver to hilarious effect, that no, he does not tell it like it is. Rather, he never tells it like it is. Trump claims he is worth $10 billion, but research reveals that is unlikely the case; Trump claims his entire campaign is self-funded, but a quick perusal of his website reveals not one but two “donate” buttons; he often claims he will or has sued someone, but then doesn’t, or never has — the list goes on. Telling it like it is, it seems, means something a bit different in Trump’s case: It is the sovereign who promises to declare a permanent state of exception because, in his authoritative telling, we are in a permanent state of crisis, a permanent conflict. What Trump performs here is the role of the castrating father who claims, because he possesses the phallus — that is, because he is the primal father — he can exceed the law. This is telling it like it is, and it is perhaps, in the end, most clearly articulated in his willingness never to be held accountable to facts, and instead invent the world that he wants to govern. This is why people find him appealing, and it is also why the crude phallic moments of his campaign matter so much” (Brian Connolly, “Our Sovereign Father, Donald Trump,” Los Angeles Review of Books, April 5, 2016.

34. On Trumpettes, see

35. Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Zone Books, 2015).

36. It remains to be seen to what extent the left wing of the Democratic Party—Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, et al—can take the country away from the neoliberal framework, replacing its ideological formulations (individualism, privatization) with some notion of the commons and the common good.

37. Ta-Nahesi Coates, “The First White PresidentAtlantic, October 2017.

38. Dan Barry and John Eligon, “A Rallying Cry or a Racial Taunt Invoking the President: ‘Trump,’” New York Times, December 17, 2017.

39. Emily Nussbaum, “The TV that Created Donald Trump,” The New Yorker, July 31, 2017.

40. Nussbaum, “The TV that Created Donald Trump.”

41. Nussbaum, “The TV that Created Donald Trump.”

42. Lynne Joyrich, oral comments at the Political Concepts conference, December 1-2, 2017.

43. For the instrumentalizing of rage, see Adam Serwer, “The Nationalist’s Delusion,” The Atlantic, Nov. 20, 2017.

44. Ducan Flaherty, oral comments in Globalization and Social Change seminar, December 12, 2017 (Graduate Center of the City University of NY).

45. Wendy Brown, Walled States, Waning Sovereignty, p. 68.