The Intellectual Situation
“You are the problem, Politician”
“The first thing we do,” Dick the Butcher famously says to Jack Cade, leader of the rebellion of 1450, in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 2, “let’s kill all the Lawyers.” Cade responds enthusiastically:
That I mean to do. Is not this a lamentable thing, that of the skin of an innocent lamb should be made parchment? that parchment, being scribbled o’er, should undo a man? Some say the bee stings: but I say, ’tis the bee’s wax; for I did but seal once to a thing, and I was never mine own man since.
For Cade and his comrades, physical pain is nothing compared with the damage done by writing. Their political enemy is not the nobility (Cade, a commoner who insists he is secretly of noble birth, wants to take the place of the king, not abolish it), but the professional class. Lawyers and their ilk use writing to steal the fruits of people’s labor, either by tricking them into signing away their rights or preying on the weakness of the sovereign. Come the revolution, they are first against the wall.
I thought of Cade’s wrath when Ted Cruz attempted to debate a Trump supporter last May, in the last properly viral moment of his campaign. Behind in Indiana and needing a miracle, Cruz approached a tall man sporting wraparound black sunglasses and a buzz cut. With the steely politesse of a chess champion confronting an unpleasant human obstacle in the lunchroom, Cruz asked the man to explain his loudly displayed affection for The Donald. When his adversary cited Trump’s plan to wall-off Mexico, Cruz relaxed. The man Alan Dershowitz once described as “off-the-charts brilliant” calmly reached for the fact that Trump had told the New York Times editorial board that the wall was never going to happen.
Trump’s wall is seen by his supporters as a way to raise the price of labor for American citizens by shutting off the cheaper supply sold by the undocumented. For all its racism, the wall is at bottom a class demand, and it was Trump’s willingness to pay lip service to it that put him on the path to the Republican nomination. Confronting this reality in person, Cruz called on the old division between the city and the country. The big-city developer, the senator from Texas informed the man from Indiana, had told the big-city paper not to believe the lies he was telling the country bumpkins who supported him. Cruz waited as his antagonist shifted uncomfortably under the weight of this focus-grouped info weapon. Would the old saw still cut?
It would not. “You are the problem, Politician,” the Trumpian spat back. He repeated this mantra to cheers from the like-minded coterie behind him, over and over, for the rest of the short-lived exchange.
For city-dwelling socialist professionals, it was an easy encounter to savor. Finally, Ted Cruz — an ambitious lawyer laden with degrees from two-thirds of the Harvard-Yale-Princeton axis and married to a highly compensated double-graduate-degree-holding employee of Goldman Sachs — was subject to the same arguments he had used to shut down the government in 2013. Cruz had built his political career legitimating the belief that Washington, DC — the idea of the city itself — as opposed to the country, was the problem; that the opinions of the politicians who worked there and opposed him, regardless of party, counted for nothing because, well, like the man said: You’re the problem, Politician.
Donald Trump is definitely not a politician. Nor, for that matter, is he a businessman — that would be Mike Bloomberg — and his claims to being one only obscure the class basis of his appeal. Trump is not a professional of any kind. He is a prince, closer in substance and style to the great hereditary inheritors of the past. This, far more than anything else, is what attracts his constituency, who, however inarticulate they may appear on cable news, believe intuitively that only someone inoculated against the entanglements of professional life can hope to carry their banner through the city with any effectiveness. This is also why any and all attempts to damage Trump by recourse to professional language — citing, say, his hypocrisy, his declaring one thing at his rallies and muttering another, sotto voce, to the Times — will only entrench the affection of his supporters. They prefer the sting to the wax.
Profit has no more divine justification than rent, and if you can fight a landlord who calls himself a king, you can fight one who calls himself a capitalist.Tweet
Ted Cruz did not invent the strategy that ultimately consumed him. The left, for its part, has long been vulnerable to a politics organized around the difference between the city and the country. Hence the wishful alliance of its signature symbol — the hammer wielded by urban laborers alongside the sickle swung by agricultural ones — that downplays the role of the professional class in left politics (even though Lenin was a lawyer, Che a doctor, and Mao, technically, a teacher, no symbol of their vocation ever flew over the countries they governed). It was Marx’s genius to argue that capitalists were not fundamentally different from the feudal landlords who preceded them, since each took percentages based on an arbitrarily declared “ownership” of factories or land. Profit has no more divine justification than rent, and if you can fight a landlord who calls himself a king, you can fight one who calls himself a capitalist.
Modern revolutions have consisted of the successful efforts of workers and professionals to replace kings with politicians, sovereign aristocrats with professional sovereigns. Counter revolution is the reverse process, an alliance of a certain segment of anxious professionals, rural workers, and displaced aristocrats for the restoration of the latter to power. In the same way that the hammer and sickle erases the leadership of the professional classes, the division of the city and the country conceals the counter revolutionary leadership of modern aristocrats.
A counterrevolutionary landlord, Trump is today’s leading modern aristocrat. What attracts his constituency is this very difference from the professional classes, his unwillingness to speak, think, or act like them. While the Republicans have long been a party dominated by latter-day rentiers — usually of the High Church fossil-fuel variety, like the Bushes — they have historically downplayed this fact, but Trump relishes it, citing his overwhelming wealth as evidence of his own independence and authenticity. Trump may have historic amounts of money (and brag about making it when he hasn’t), but his political success turns on his real passion, which is more like glory or honor than wealth considered separately from either. He is terrible at everything he has ever done except drive recognition of the family name through the roof. He is the incarnation of the Pikettyian lemma r > g, stating that, outside a world war, the rate of return on capital will always be larger than the rate of growth more generally. Not even Donald Trump could fuck it up, and not for lack of trying.
Practically, this means that for the first time in a generation, an average American member of the white working class has something somebody wants, which is the power to give this incompetent prince the presidency. And because of this, also for the first time in a generation, there is reason to believe in the possibility of an exchange: jobs for glory. Trump gets the presidency, and the workers get a real border with Mexico: a wall, which, the logic goes, would translate to a less competitive labor market and a living wage.
The point is not that this deal is a good one, or even that it’s actually on offer, but that it is logical and legible in terms of the left’s most central concepts. Both American and Mexican labor are cheaper for being divided, and there is no obvious reason to believe that more labor laws, like raising the minimum wage, will change this fact if there remains a surplus of undocumented workers to whom these laws technically apply, though in practice they are unenforced. The real wage, calculated as the average rate paid to documented and undocumented workers alike, explains Trump’s rise more than his virulent racism does. Racism is a side effect of a regime that keeps labor laws on the books only to look the other way when millions of brown people are subjected to conditions far beneath these standards.
The wall isn’t racist; the border is racist. The wall is an effort to force a broader recognition of the privileges the border grants to professionals, who are the primary beneficiaries of American immigration and trade policy, and to redistribute some of its racist benefits downward. The only solution to this problem is to raise the price of labor power in Mexico, and then everywhere else. But given the limited political horizon of the professional left, for whom a higher minimum wage for American citizens is the best that can be hoped for, perhaps the unemployed people of Indiana can be forgiven for thinking that the wall is more realistic.
Trump is a prince and a buffoon, but this doesn’t conceal his message; it is the message. His America, in which a caste of aristocrats presides over a restive peasantry, is a cracked mirror of the politics he repudiates, in which a caste of meritocratic professionals justifies trade deals that benefit them while dividing and crushing international labor. Neither platform, Republican nor Democratic, nor any nationalism, can fully dull the cut of this contradiction.