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The Resistible Rise of Donald Trump

By Paul Walsh.


Like a human stingray, Trump stuns with insults and diverting hand gestures—but what shocks people is that Trump’s election victory, and the Brexit vote, are baskets of unexplainables; shocking events in a world of shocking events, generating fear and defying normal explanation. We see ourselves and our world reflected in a shocking mirror; afraid of what we’ve become, and what we’re becoming.

So explaining Trump is our dilemma, one which leads us reconsider the past, and past shocks to established order; because the rise of Donald Trump mirrors the rebirth of obscure intellectual Herbert Spencer (1820—1903), who had some shocking ideas of his own.

As with Trump, the Spencer revival came quick, with several recent books raising him from the intellectual undead—one academic even placing the invention of modern life at Spencer’s feet. Right-wing think tanks (the Cato Institute, the Liberty Fund) parade Spencer as an ideological hero, the original man against the state—his ideas forming the ideological backbone of the US libertarian right, now demolishing the Republican Party from within.

Yet as with Donald Trump, under a thin cloak of authority we find the parallel lines of two unusual men pushing ideas crowded with contradictions—dangerous ideas evolving into threatening ideas—yet still resistible.

So what connects our two unusual men? First, their influence on business, and on workers.


More famous than Darwin, Spencer sold a million books during his own lifetime— industrialists, anarchists, reformers of all stripes strode forward under the canopy of Mr. Spencer, who applied evolutionary thinking to the development of world society, touring America in 1882 to a blaze of publicity. On that visit, Andrew Carnegie took Spencer round his Pittsburgh steelworks, and amid the dust and smoke Spencer gave his verdict: “Six months residence here would justify suicide.” Yet Spencer carried the torch of scientific reason high, illuminating corners kept dark by religion and superstition. Carnegie’s response was typical of many:

“I remember that light came in as a flood and all was clear. Not only had I got rid of theology and the supernatural, but I had found the truth of evolution. ‘All is well since all grows better’ became my motto, my true source of comfort.”

Ten years later, Carnegie set a private militia on his workers in the 1892 Homestead strike, killing seven. After the strikers lost the bitter, bloody dispute wages shrank by one fifth, and work shifts increased from eight to 12 hours. Carnegie’s rationale? Spencer’s evolutionary ideas — supplying a ready-made excuse for greed — unburdened Carnegie of his Scottish upbringing and those awkward religious remnants: morality and conscience.

Trump seems to have taken a leaf from Carnegie’s book. According to a USA today exclusive, ordinary workers have filed dozens of law suits against Trump, from building subcontractors to bar waiters, who claim Trump refused to pay them. Records show that over 253 subcontractors were unpaid, or not paid on time, for work on Trump’s Taj Mahal Casino (the “eighth wonder of the world”) in Atlantic City—recently closed amid a 100-day strike by workers demanding outstanding healthcare and pension benefits.

As well as inspiring a rising class of American plutocrats, at the birth of American sociology, Spencer eclipsed heavyweights like Comte, Durkheim, Marx, and Weber—and a growing middle-class readership devoured his ideas. But Spencer’s intellectual tires soon wore thin; his star fell quickly; his ideas lost their shine, in time becoming untouchable. Talcott Parsons famously asked in 1937: “Who reads Spencer now?”

But why did people read him then?


Spencer likened society to an organism, developing over time, progressing to a higher state over time. Organisms develop from simple, homogeneous forms into more complicated, heterogeneous forms through the process of evolution, a term he used before Darwin, meaning ‘an unrolling, opening out, or revealing’ — like the unrolling of a scroll. This comprised Spencer’s ‘law’ of development.

He extended this ‘law’ across the whole span of society in his voluminous writings, synthesizing all branches of knowledge into one scientific truth: his synthetic philosophy. Naturally, such an ambitious project attracts criticism, and satire. American philosopher William James gradually tired of Spencer’s “dry school-master temperament” and vague ideas, writing this 1876 parody of Spencerian wind:

“Evolution is a change from nohowish, untalkaboutable, all-alikeness, to a somehowish and in-general-talkaboutable not-all-alikeness, by continuous somethingelseifications, and sticktogetherations.”

But despite the occasional satirical jab, evolution was a revolutionary idea, the secular fountain from which new ideas sprang forth, causing a generation to rebel against received opinion and religious cant. Anarchists — both anti- and pro-capitalist — read Spencer’s The Right to Ignore the State with admiration. British economist Alfred Marshall brought biological ideas into economics, seeing the weakness of purely mechanical thinking, writing “the Mecca of the economist lies in economic biology rather than in economic dynamics.”

Less positively, a character in Anton Chekhov’s story The Duel said that “living with a woman who has read Spencer and has followed you to the ends of the earth is no more interesting than living with any Anfissa or Akulina. There’s the same smell of ironing, of powder, and of medicines, and same curl-papers every morning, the same self-deception.”


Despite the recent interest in Spencer’s work, renovating Spencer’s ideas proves hard work, as does verifying Trump’s business genius, because contradictions abound. In a 1999 paper, one economist poured doubt on any Spencer revival— as an unpublished letter seems to confirm Spencer’s “political economy of mean-spiritedness”. In this letter, sent during the Boer War, Spencer blames state-sponsored education for the rise in popular jingoism at the time; believing public education diverted evolution from its long-term, beneficent path:

“The slumbering instincts of the barbarian, partially kept down by social influences, have been awakened by agencies which would have done comparatively little had not the artificial spread of intellectual culture brought the masses of the people under the power of a demoralized press.”

The “artificial spread of intellectual culture” Spencer refers to here is literacy. Spencer was responding to the activist policies of British Prime Minister William Gladstone, such as the 1870 Education Act, which provided the framework for compulsory child education — but which clashed with Spencer’s belief in small government. Such policies split the Liberals, and led to the formation of the anti-socialist Liberty and Property Defence League, whose ideas were later taken up by the Society of Individualists (founded in 1942) , still in existence as the Society for Individual Freedom, an organisation which campaigned against the use of car seat belts or — as individualists put it — “against seat belt compulsion”.

In contrast, the renovation of Donald Trump, a businessman with a string of bankruptcies to his name, is largely a PR triumph—personal connections, timing and luck trumping any personal attributes at his disposal. As shown in Adam Curtis’ film Hypernormalisation, Trump grew fat from the fiscal collapse of New York City in the mid-70s—buying up buildings cheap and renovating them, while paying little or no taxes throughout the 80s. For Trump to claim his business success is the result of hard work is disingenuous.

Trump merely entered a crooked casino, and beat the house.


Spencer and Trump also share one key attribute: their ideas contain exit-doors to escape when necessary. You can escape anomalies in Spencer by descending the intellectual exit-doors in his books—but some contradictions are harder to explain away than others. In Social Statics, or the Conditions Essential to Human Happiness (1851), Spencer makes a case for women’s suffrage—then backtracks a few years later in this letter to T.H. Huxley:

“While they [women] were slaves and during the long ages when they were ill-treated, not a word was said about their rights, now they have come to be well treated the screaming sisterhood make the world ring with their wrongs, and they scream loudest in America, where women are treated with the greatest regard.” (italics added)

Also in Social Statics, Spencer attacks property rights, writing “if one portion of the earth’s surface may justly become the possession of an individual…eventually the whole of the earth’s surface may be so held; and our planet may thus lapse altogether into private hands.” Yet he deleted this section from subsequent editions, prompting American social reformer Henry George to write A Perplexed Philosopher; Being An Examination Of Mr. Herbert Spencer’s Various Utterances On The Land Question, With Some Incidental Reference To His Synthetic Philosophy in response, in which George labels Spencer a defender of landlordism and a practitioner of “intellectual prostitution.”

Trump, post-victory, also comes shot through with contradictions. His flagship policy – The Great Wall of America – dropped quietly off the news cycle, perhaps because of the 12 million cubic yards of concrete and 5 billion pounds of reinforcing steel estimated to complete it, and the price tag: $25 billion. We’ve seen Trump tear through diplomatic red tape, stunning the world with his first foreign policy move—a polite conversation with a strong, female leader in the form of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen—prompting a Chinese slap-down.

Yet Trump has little time, and spares little mercy for America’s women. His cabinet, according to one recent article, may be “one of the most hostile in recent memory to issues affecting women”; many members with a long history of blocking pro-women policies like Planned Parenthood and limiting access to abortion. For U.S. ambassador to the U.N. he picked Nikki Haley, a long-time supporter of pro-life legislation as governor of South Carolina, who said Trump’s election had brought “exciting changes to America.” For education secretary, he nominated pro-life billionaire Betsy DeVos, whose brother Erik founded notorious security company Blackwater.

Summer 1964 saw the release of ‘Where Did Our Love Go’ by the Supremes and the launch of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s ‘war on poverty’. Fifty-two years later, Trump wages a war on women—and millions of Americans ask: where did our country go?


I wrote that Trump stuns people—that we’re stunned by unexplainable politics, looking for an explanation. According to researchers Jonathan Havercroft and Justin Murphy, one explanation is that Republicans — or more precisely, the Libertarian wing of the Republican Party — want to bring back Social Spencerism, or misarchism; and misarchism can be explained by a forgotten critique of Spencer, by German curmudgeon Friedrich Nietzsche.

Misarchism is the label Friedrich Nietzsche attached to Spencer’s ideology, which according to Havercroft and Murphy, is “an ideology which is anti-government but statist and moralistic”. Nietzsche thought that Spencer’s philosophy, at its core, involved a hatred of rule. (From Greek misein ‘hatred’, and archos ‘ruler’.) Remember that Spencer believed government action diverted society’s natural evolution towards perfection; a natural end-point filled with self-governing, altruistic individuals. Even worse, government action sapped a society’s health and vitality. According to Spencer, with government intervention society became “flat-chested”.

The contradiction here, according to Havercroft and Murphy, is that while Spencer was opposed to the state redistributing wealth, reducing poverty, and educating the poor, he was in favour of the state increasing “policing power to maintain order”. It seems he wanted the state to stretch and shrink at the same time — an impossible motion. One contemporary, the biologist T. H. Huxley called this “administrative nihilism”; in Huxley’s view, “Spencer’s political program sought to eliminate the government by empowering the state.”

This sounds counter-intuitive — how can the state eliminate the government? We live in a world where state and government have relatively clear functions, and we rely on those functions. But the state could, in theory, strip back government to its simplest, basic functions — with the state becoming more disciplinary, a police state, A New, Improved Leviathan —which perhaps describes the punitive, militarised machine that passes for policing in towns across America.

This also explains how and why Tea Party people and Libertarian people differ. The Tea party supports aggressive pro-state policies: the use of military drones, a belligerent foreign policy, the expansion of NSA surveillance—Libertarians don’t. As Havercroft and Murphy write: “[O]ne can be anti-government while being pro-state.”

Yet both Tea Party supporters and Libertarians agree with Spencer: any government is bad: any program of amelioration, any pedagogical government policy verboten, like teaching people how to be better parents, neighbours, citizens, or employers. Modern misarchism combines anti-government, pro-state, moralistic attitudes into a political ideology, a dangerous ideology; an ideology of the strong, punitive state protecting citizens from immigrants, terrorists, and criminals; building walls, closing borders, punishing those who break the rules. (Omitting the fact that some rules are unjust to begin with.) An ideology of shock and walls.

What’s more, to increase the shock value of his message, Trump combines misarchism with wrestling showmanship—the we’re-gonna-get-Hilary meme: “Lock her Up!”; the insults to women, Mexicans, television presenters, and journalists; the outlandish claims — “Build that Wall!” — all wrapped in political baby-talk: We need clever people. As in wrestling — the feuds, the taunts, the make-believe world and the fighting talk — all seem to increase his popular appeal.

Furthermore, Trump’s win declares one simple fact: he has a constituency. Political scientists Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler, in their book Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, explain that the recent polarization in American politics is driven by a previously unknown bipartisan group: authoritarians. The existential fears held by this group run deep; they seek a strong leader in times of sweeping, destabilizing change — not so much change reaching back to the civil rights, feminist, gay liberation movements (though these feature in right-wing crosshairs too) — but the perceived existential threat provoked by demographics, immigration, and the rise of Islamic terror.


The Tea Party, funded by grassroots support, think-tanks, and wealthy industrialists like the Koch brothers, holds to a political ideology based on Spencer’s ideas; the same ideas that dazzled that other wealthy industrialist, Andrew Carnegie — ideas pulling Republicans to the right — and the whole of American politics to the right. Moreover, the Tea Party provided the window of opportunity for the rise of Donald Trump, a modern expression of neo-spencerism and professional misarchist: anti-government, pro-state and moralistic. (Though anti-free trade, at least rhetorically.)

Trump: a bully, a racist, a misogynist — all cloaks hiding his failings. As one former associate recently said: “Donald is actually the most insecure man I’ve ever met. He has this constant need to fill a void inside. He used to do it with deals and sex. Now he does it with publicity.” But he’s a sideshow: to fight Trump you need to fight Spencer first. Because simple though it may seem, behind Trumpism lies a philosophy; a philosophy that corrodes democracy, erodes government and promotes what Bertolt Brecht called “wickedness beyond measure”. (Or more frightening: incompetence beyond measure.)

This era of neoliberal dominance — with the market the guiding hand of society; with economics an autonomous zone beyond democratic control; with precarious labour becoming de facto labour — has filled people with fear; a sense of fear ‘activated’ and amplified by perceived threats like terrorism and immigration, stoked by the noise of a twenty-four hour media machine.

So we arrive at our problem: when the Trump presidency really hits home, can the Left fight back? Can the Left dismantle the “vast satellite system of rightwing news and propaganda” poisoning American minds? Can the Left provide an alternative to the politics of fear—an alternative both to neoliberal insecurity and to state-led socialism, an alternative with decentralized power rather than centralized control, with social safety nets maintained and strengthened—a society not afraid to look itself in the mirror? Or are we doomed to an atavistic future, punctuated by the shrill voices and diverting hand gestures of authoritarians like Trump, Putin, Orban—or worse.

Perhaps there’s a lesson here. Herbert Spencer died a virgin, alone, without children or family, his philosophical system in ruins, sailing to obscurity. Yet even he, at the end, relented. When asked by his housekeeper, “Why is everybody so interested in love affairs, Mr. Spencer?” he answered: because love is the most interesting thing in life.

The choice between love and fear is the choice of a coming generation, shocked to learn that the smashing of old mirrors is not unlucky, but entirely necessary.



Paul Walsh is a writer, teacher, and precarious worker. His work has appeared in ROAR magazine, Red Pepper, Hybrid Pedagogy, and others. He writes about neoliberalism, social and grassroots movements, pedagogy, and south-east Europe.  He is currently working on a book of essays entitled Wrestling with Neoliberalism.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, December 12th, 2016.