Donald Trump’s political career has invited all kinds of analogies, some useful, most not. Among the most facile have been the attempts to portray the US president as a Mao-Zedong-like figure. The pundits who make Mao-Trump comparisons tend to be either a). China watchers or China scholars whose specific expertise is not in the history of the Mao era or Maoism, or b). experts, but from a relatively small group of outliers, well known for the distinctive rabidity of their anti-communist views. Most people who specialize in the study of Mao Zedong and his revolution see superficial links, if any, between the Chairman and Donald Trump. The men do indeed share a taste for power and adulation; a willingness to fabricate truths and discard evidence in pursuit of what they deem to be greater goals; and a high tolerance for chaos and violence in both rhetoric and reality. But those characteristics could be attributed to a great many powerful politicians and rhetoricians. In terms of actual politics, message, tactics, and even personality, Mao Zedong and Donald Trump are about as similar as chalk and cheese.
It is unhelpful, if not disingenuous, to draw comparisons between the two men. But thinking about Trumpism in light of Maoism does help us understand why Trump got more votes than any incumbent president in US history. The good news is – it’s not because all those voters are fascists. Rather, it’s that Trumpism, like Maoism, empowers the very people disempowered by the ideology of progressive, liberal, urban elites. It is the failure of liberalism, which time and again, throughout the modern era, has produced subjects who are vulnerable to forms of populist authoritarianism. But the fact that we might be able to compare Trumpism to Maoism, but not Trump to Mao, can also give us hope. It is the form, but not the content, that links the two. And this might mean that it isn’t the content of Trump’s politics, per se, that fuels his popularity. Indeed, many Trump supporters say just that – they note that they don’t always like the things he says; they just like that he says things. Trumpism, like Maoism, empowers people to speak. A politics of equity and emancipation could thus also mobilize massive numbers of people in the US, but it would have to simultaneously grant them the genuine political authority that liberalism denies them.
Take Melissa Carone, for example, the IT worker who was Rudy Giuliani’s star witness at a November 2020 hearing on voter fraud in Michigan. Liberals around the world took great pleasure in mocking Carone after she went viral for shouting down elected officials to allege that Detroit poll workers had counted tens of thousands of fraudulent ballots. In a piece for Slate, Lili Loofbourow urges us “not to laugh at the voter fraud cranks,” noting that Carone represents “a particular kind of American ‘authenticity” that liberals love to mock. (The hearing wasn’t even over before Twitter began demanding an SNL skit; the cast obliged the following weekend). According to Loofbourow, it is precisely the “mockability” of this authenticity that “is its potency,” but she warns us to resist the urge to parody because doing so gives such people a wider audience. While I sympathize with the desire to stifle misinformation, ignoring the “cranks” or laughing at them are both manifestations of the way liberalism fails the majority and then abets the few in covering their tracks.
To elaborate, let me first ask what, precisely, is inherently or obviously mockable about Carone? Some of her claims were bizarre but familiar (food trucks smuggled in fake ballots), and others seemed more like misinterpretations by someone unfamiliar with the minutiae of electoral procedures— none of them were any funnier than the other tales we’d heard in the preceding weeks. Some commentators seized on her fabulously messy updo, striking eyewear, and perfectly applied dark red lipstick, but that particular expression of midwestern femininity is too common for its satire alone to propel a person to stardom. What is funny about Carone, it seems, is her audacity. As Loofbourow observed, Carone presents “a recognizable “type,” which is “as confident as it is ignorant, so righteous and blustery and simultaneously sincere and unhampered by facts or deference.” And Carone is just one in a long line of similar “types” who testified that they too had seen evidence of fraud and corruption. “Most weren’t quite as theatrical as Carone,” Loofbourow wrote, but they were all like her in that they were “clearly thrilled to be playing important roles, to matter, as they addressed lawmakers.” And that’s really the crux of it—what liberals find funny about Carone is that she thinks she matters.
As I watched this story unfold, I was reminded of a mid-century porter from China’s Shanxi Province; he was a bit like Melissa Carone in that he became famous for his dogged political accusations, which many around him found outlandish. At the time of the Chinese Communist victory in 1949, Zhang Shunyou was in his late twenties. He had a job driving a cart and hauling wares for a small-time grain merchant named Song Yude. Zhang later claimed that when the new government launched the “Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries” in 1952 and invited citizens to report any such elements, Boss Song began acting shifty. According to Zhang’s account, Song counterfeited travel permissions for himself and his employee, moved his operation from one province to another, and changed his name. “I began to suspect that Song Yude was not a good fellow,” Zhang told authorities, adding “I thought I should report him.”
Zhang’s experiences as he later narrated them run counter to what we usually assume about the Maoist era; it took him months to get anyone in the Party bureaucracy to investigate the case. Zhang did his own research and collected testimonies from others, including accusations that Song was a former landlord who had once killed an innocent peasant. Yet no one would take Zhang seriously; he was turned away from dozens of government units, in large part because officials at all levels questioned his credibility. Zhang did finally find a champion in Central Committee member, Liu Lantao, who saw the potential links between Zhang’s account and the central government’s ongoing efforts to attack the corruption and malfeasance that plagued the bureaucracy. But just as Rudy Giuliani seemed skeptical of Melissa Carone’s political passions, Liu Lantao was apparently skeptical of Zhang Shunyou’s motivations. Historians later discovered that top officials had conducted an investigation in an attempt to discover the “truth” behind Zhang’s political zeal. A number of theories circulated, and, although Liu Lantao excised the information from the nationwide propaganda campaign, the behind-the-scenes verdict was that Zhang had accused Song for personal reasons, not political ones.
In Mao’s China, as in Trump’s USA, grassroots zealots often baffle people, including the politicians and theorists who sell the ideologies that appear to motivate the zealotry. A common explanation – ideologues don’t believe their own rhetoric and are amused/discomfited when others do – might work in some cases, but most recent studies of the Soviet Communist Party or the US Republican Party suggest that there are more true believers among the elite than the cynics allow. The reason that even other true believers tend to read people like Carone and Zhang as cranks, cynics, or some combination of the two, is probably deeper. In the capitalist globality that produced Liberalism and Marxism, the idea that capitalism is a total system, such that all of human behavior can be understood as part of or analogous to economic activity, is entrenched in modern consciousness. Even the Maoists, with their exceptionally powerful thought reform abilities, seemed unable to completely root out all of the corollaries to the notion that societies are markets and people are self-interested profit-loss calculators.
In this market-consciousness, utility and value are often conflated with self-interest and cynicism, which leads to the conflation of use-value and exchange-value. So, ideology, for example, becomes like a currency, not valuable in and of itself but only as a means to acquire something else, the thing that has the “real” value. We see this interpretation clearly in many of the set pieces oral historians collect from onetime Maoists. I spoke to a former red guard, for instance, who told me that during the Cultural Revolution she had been an ardent radical, but she now spoke of that radicalism as a currency. “I got good at quoting Chairman Mao,” she said, “because it was useful to do that.” I suspect, however, that her hindsight undervalues what Maoist ideology gave to its speakers, because she went on to say that Mao’s words “gave me the right to speak and the power to win arguments. People were more likely to listen to me because they were afraid to ignore Chairman Mao.” If we were to say that her comments revealed a utilitarian deployment of Maoist language, that would be an understatement at best. For this woman, who said that before the Cultural Revolution, she was “someone with no status . . . someone whom no one paid attention to,” the power to be heard, to have her opinions warrant consideration, had a value far more profound than the price of the goods and privileges it might have allowed her to purchase. It transformed her into someone whose ideas mattered.
That market-consciousness can take the investiture of epistemological authority and render it as merely a superficial and often cynical currency exchange is part of what makes liberal ideology so formidable. In recent weeks, as the punch-drunk post-election hilarity ensued, and so many of us were in stitches over satires of conspiracy theorists, I thought of another figure of fun, also from the history of ideology: the most memorable relic of the Korean War brainwashing episode might be the cinematic scene in which the Chinese psychiatrist, Dr. Yen Lo bragged about his thought reform prowess, saying of The Manchurian Candidate: “His brain has not only been washed, as they say. It has been dry-cleaned.” My students and I all laugh every time I show this clip in class, but people once took brainwashing very seriously. In the 1950s and beyond, everyone from the CIA to the Chinese Communist Party was convinced that communist thought reformers had transformed the minds of US prisoners of war, causing them to side with the communists and attack the US for its imperialism. By the 1990s, however, the scholarly consensus, among both US and China-based historians, was that “brainwashing” had largely been a figment of an overactive “American” imagination. This presentist misremembering goes against a great deal of evidence suggesting the Maoism did indeed transform people’s thinking and their actions. It forgets the vast number of ideological converts around the world (from anti-imperialist freedom fighters to French intellectuals). It evades the way Mao’s ideas invigorated radical politics in anti-racist, feminist, and lgbtq liberationist movements and elides the direct links (inspirational and practical) between the Maoist state and revolutionary organizations such as the Black Panthers. But in market-consciousness, brainwashing can only be a joke, a tinfoil-hat conspiracy, because Maoist ideology was simply a currency, which “brainwashed” POWs wielded out of self-interest and/or coercion. Even better than defeating your challengers is convincing the world they don’t exist. If all competing ideologies can be reduced to currencies traded within a liberal-capitalist totality, then that totality appears as the only ontological reality, to which there is, as Margaret Thatcher loved to say, no alternative. Turning Trumpism into a set of bizarre conspiracy theories and then mocking their adherents serves that same agenda.
The value of ideologies, in part, is that they offer epistemologies and lexicons, which people can use to think through and discuss concepts that are otherwise difficult to articulate. The danger of ideologies is also that they advance particular epistemologies and lexicons, so that when one becomes dominant, all others will appear, by definition, as illogical and false. Trumpism, like Maoism, was born and thrives because people are deeply dissatisfied with liberal and neoliberal ideology, and many have caught on to the way it vanquishes its challengers by making them into jokes.
If we don’t like the “truths” that people like Melissa Carone use Trumpism to claim, we might start by trying to figure out what they want to say. It seems to me that Carone and her Trumpist comrades have a litany of valid and legitimate grievances. They rightly see that ordinary people are utterly disempowered in this so-called democracy, that we are indeed being defrauded by global alliances between corporations and states, that many of our political leaders are corrupt and do regularly cover for each other, and for other elites, as they commit heinous crimes. Liberalism does not offer the conceptual tools to make sense of those truths; indeed it is designed to conceal them.
Figures like Mao Zedong and Donald Trump harness that broader discontent, and they distill complex affective and libidinal responses to very real injustices into easy to grasp ideas. Their power lies in their ability to create memes that anyone can use to participate in knowledge production and successfully make claims to political and epistemological authority. Whether people such as Mao Zedong or Donald Trump “believe” their own rhetoric, whether or not they think that Zhang Shunyou or Melissa Carone matter, is of little consequence in the end. Maoism and Trumpism make Zhang and Carone matter, precisely because ideology is collectively produced and only tangentially connected to individual ideologues. Indeed, ideology is not ideology unless it is collectively fashioned and practiced by the many – if there were no Maoists, for example, there would be no Maoism, only the writings of Mao Zedong; and if there were no Trumpists, Trump would be no more than an angry twitter troll. At the grassroots level, in Mao-era villages or factories, or on Trumpist (social) media, the political knowledge associated with these leaders can be quite far afield from any of their actual words or deeds. The millions of people who participated in spreading Mao’s image around the world did as much if not more than the man himself to create the meanings associated with global Maoism in the 1960s. And MAGA warriors, Q-adherents (or the Q-curious) have done as much if not more to create the Trumpism that is spreading around the globe today.
The lesson linking the two movements is that the masses matter, and when we are mobilized and demand to be heard, we can create powerful change, for better and for worse. Zhang Shunyou did succeed in his campaign against his allegedly counterrevolutionary employer; Song Yude was executed in 1952. Melissa Carone and the other voter fraud activists have come extremely close to overturning an election. They’ve got almost half of our elected representatives to publicly promote the idea that the democrats stole a presidential win. As Dahlia Lithwick emphasized, supreme courts denied voter fraud claims by small margins, meaning that almost half of our highest judges might have awarded a victory to Trump. Those truths are not funny at all. And Donald Trump could never have done that without all of the many Melissa Carones. Rudy Giuliani’s “shushing” of his star witness is a small but important reminder that the ideologues and their consiglieri actually have very little control over what the masses do with the ideology the masses produce.
There’s been a lot of talk about what will happen when a “smarter Trump” comes along, one who can play the game better and tip those legislative and judicial scales in his favor. But neither Trump nor anyone else can actually do that alone. They need us, the masses. If more people refuse populist authoritarianism, it will be because they have another powerful ideology instead. Economics need to be part of the package (we all know that Floridians voted both for Donald Trump and a fifteen-dollar minimum wage). But money won’t be enough, because we know – even if we can’t quite conceive of it with our market consciousness, and even if we can’t quite articulate it with our capitalist lexicon – that we are not solely economic subjects. Financial insecurity is only one of the many consequences of the fact that most of us do not have the epistemological tools, the language, or the political authority to identify, articulate, and demand restitution for the ways we are disempowered by our economic and political institutions. What we all want, most fundamentally, is to matter. And until we all do, none of us will.