Donald Trump’s Entrepreneurial Individualism

It hasn’t been easy to be an American abroad in US election cycles. After the nightmare of George W. Bush and the ongoing disillusionment that has been the Obama presidency, the current face-off between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump represents a new low. But as difficult as it is to muster up any genuine enthusiasm for hawkish technocrat Hillary Clinton, the question on everyone’s mind is clearly: why Trump?

Several obvious factors in the Trump campaign resemble the rise of populist far-right politicians across Europe: the explicit racism, nationalism, and rampant islamophobia; the hysterical anti-establishment rhetoric; and the reactionary obsession with walling ourselves in and closing down our borders.

But what makes Trump unique even amongst European counterparts such as Geert Wilders, Nigel Farage, and Marine le Pen is his history as a mass media celebrity. For decades, he has cultivated his image of glamorous and successful businessman with his countless appearances in Hollywood films, glossy magazines, and reality television.

This media image somehow overwhelms the historical reality of inherited millions, multiple bankruptcies, and failed businesses: he has been presented as the archetypal successful businessman for so long that he has come to inhabit the role like no other.

As the first reality TV star to become a major-party presidential candidate, Trump’s persona has thrived like no other in the cultural and economic wasteland created by three decades of neoliberalism. While the economic effects of the growing wage gap are felt so strongly by an increasingly disenfranchised working class, the cultural logic of neoliberalism has taught us to worship at the altar of entrepreneurial individualism.

According to this logic, each individual is made to feel entirely responsible for his or her fate in life. It’s a way of thinking that undermines all forms of organized collectives, from labor unions to feminist and anti-racist activist groups, thereby eroding the basis for organized progressive movements.

Not coincidentally, popular culture has been overrun by such “entrepreneurs of the self” in the neoliberal era: secret agent Jack Bauer in the TV show 24, popular billionaire-superheroes like Batman and Iron Man in the superhero movie genre, dictatorial chef-entrepreneurs like Gordon Ramsay, and of course “The Donald” himself as the stern but humorous embodiment of his personal brand on The Apprentice.

This constant exposure to the cameras has not only bolstered his confident performance of his carefully cultivated persona: it has also made him a comfortable and familiar media personality to millions of viewers who feel betrayed and abandoned by the political and economic system of neoliberalism. To them, he seems to represent not just a public validation of racist views and class-based frustration and resentment: his personal brand of entrepreneurial individualism also embodies the dream of beating the system and succeeding in spite of repeated failure.

It is, of course, deeply and bitterly ironic that someone who has ridiculed and exploited the working class throughout his entire life should be perceived in this way. But such is the power of the media image: allowing a compulsive liar and lifelong con man to appear more sincere, more legitimate, and even more trustworthy than a career politician.