Donald Trump: A New Emperor of the Lumpenproletariat?

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A Socialist Project e-bulletin ... No. 2180 ... August 30, 2020
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Donald Trump: A New Emperor of the Lumpenproletariat?

Clyde W. Barrow

In The Dangerous Class: The Concept of the Lumpenproletariat (University of Michigan Press, forthcoming 2020), I argue that US President Donald Trump should be understood as a "Prince of the Lumpenproletariat." The question that will confront us on November 3rd and long afterward is whether Donald Trump will become "Emperor of the Lumpenproletariat." These terms are taken from Karl Marx’s 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, where he applied to Louis Bonaparte III. I argue that Trump has followed the script of the 18th Brumaire, which is the story of the exceptional rise to power of a lumpenproletariat organized and led by an authoritarian populist.

Marx described Louis Bonaparte III as an authoritarian dictator:

"who constitutes himself chief of the Lumpenproletariat, who here alone rediscovers in mass form the interests which he personally pursues, who recognises in this scum, offal, refuse of all classes [i.e., the lumpenproletariat] the only class upon which he can base himself unconditionally... An old crafty roué, he conceives... the historical life of the nations and their performances of state as comedy in the most vulgar sense, as a masquerade where the grand costumes, words and postures merely serve to mask the pettiest knavery... the serious buffoon who no longer takes world history for a comedy but his comedy for world history."

In his preface to a second edition of the 18th Brumaire, Marx observed that the purpose of his book had been to "demonstrate how the class struggle in France created circumstances and relations that made it possible for a grotesque mediocrity to play a hero’s part." It is no coincidence that the cover of Time (June 18, 2018) features an image of Donald Trump looking at his reflection in the mirror and seeing a king reflected back in the mirror. The July 4, 2018 New York Daily News portrays Trump as "the clown who plays King." The language used to describe the Trump Administration as a theatrical but dangerous "clown show" played out on a world stage is remarkably similar to Marx’s description of Louis Bonaparte in the 18th Brumaire.

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