by George Gonzalez
In March of 2016, following his primary victories in Mississippi and Michigan, now President and then Republican frontrunner, Donald J. Trump, held a primary night press conference which the New York Times referred to as a “prime time infomercial.” Peddling his Trump water, Trump Steaks, Trump magazine and Trump wine, Mr. Trump transformed a canned political event into consumerist pageantry. It made for titillating and confusing political theater. Ostensibly, the reality TV star and real estate mogul scripted the evening as a colorful response to his political rival, Mitt Romney, who had questioned Trump’s business record and business acumen. As it turned out, though, the steaks Trump positioned as emblems of his success were not actually Trump steaks but, rather, of a different brand altogether. His own steaks, in fact, had not been a commercial success. Nor does Trump own the Trump water and Trump wine he commandeered as props. In the end, it did not seem to matter, though; Trump was able to magically attach himself to these easily digestible signifiers of “success, luxury, abundance,” absorbing their discursive power for himself. Brands are bundles of metaphorical associations that are ritualized on, onto and through the bodies of consumers. They can break through the restrictions of instrumental calculus with ease.
Just like some consumers might double their monthly coffee bills to participate in the cosmopolitan romance of the Starbucks brand or others might wrap their social identities around the Harley-Davidson brand, Trump’s appeal had less to do with his resume and more to do with the stories his supporters were able to plug into. The power of charisma simply overwhelmed the facts. Like a punchline-worthy used car salesman, Trump had a bridge to sell us—himself. While he might have boasted of having “big words,” Trump actually understands quite well that the semiotic power of his personal brand of magic depends bigly on his flaunting the social conventions of the people he effectively marginalizes as ‘liberal elites.’ He and his counselors know that Trumpism depends on, as Judith Butler explains, the mining and psychic liberation of our collective Id. The more technocratic and peppered with the professional language of officialdom the Clinton message became, the bigger Trump’s appeal among his supporters became. The election became an MMA grappling contest halfway through. And, in the end, magic trumped ‘rational’ debate, exploiting its narrative, bodily and psychic weaknesses by consistently shifting the terrain and rules of combat to favor ‘spiritualized’ and half-conscious (if that) longings for racial superiority, the dividends of patriarchal prerogatives, and capitalist success.
Much has rightly been written about the election of Trump as an effect of racial backlash, as the violent gasp of a masculinist, cis-gendered, Protestant, whiteness which has come to see itself as victimized by culture wars, tides of immigration, and the election of the first African-American President. There have also been lively debates about the degree to which Trump’s victory could be attributed to the economic disaffection of working class whites. Some has been rightly written about the role misogyny played in the public framing of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy (despite, in my view, her real flaws as a candidate who was committed to an updated neoliberal and neoconservative program). However, there has been dangerously little written about Trump as brand; of Trumpism as the branding of the American Presidency. If Mr. Trump and his advisors have their way, the brand takeover of government will indeed be televised (and re-tweeted). These days, repetition has the power to make its own truth. If reality is entertainment (and, rather fallaciously, entertainment becomes reality), why should politics be any different? The Frankfurt School thinkers saw Trump coming and knew well that the path to a specifically American totalitarianism necessarily cut through our innocent fun and games—our mediated spectacles.
Barely more than two months into the Trump presidency, we seem to have brands collectively on the mind. A reference to Melania Trump’s clothing line on QVC in her official White House bio was quickly removed out of an “abundance of caution” and due to fears that it might be seen as product endorsement. The President, who had previously singled out Boeing, Lockheed Martin and media outlets for criticism, scolded the chain department store, Nordstrom, accusing them of dropping Ivanka Trump’s brand for political reasons. Among other retailers, Belk and Neiman Marcus no longer carry Ivanka Trump merchandise. Senior White House adviser, KellyAnne Conway, was “counseled” about the ethical rules in place to prevent federal employees from endorsing products, after she promoted the Ivanka Trump brand in a televised interview from the White House. The Office of Government Ethics did end up suggesting that disciplinary action was warranted though a cynic might well wonder if such a response was, in fact, needed to preserve the prima facie integrity of the Trump Administration’s political brand.
Meanwhile, among other retailers, Belk and Neiman Marcus no longer carry Ivanka Trump merchandise. The #GrabYourWallet campaign has called for a consumer boycott of the Trump family brand and their partners. There is a web browser plugin that makes it easier to avoid Trump-related businesses online. L.L. Bean has been targeted by consumers angered by family member Linda Bean’s contributions to Trump’s super PAC during the campaign and Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has been forced to step down from Trump’s economic advisory council after taking heated criticism over his company’s attempt to profit from the protests of the Trump Administration’s travel ban.
The brand war just keeps escalating. Trump supporters are calling for a boycott of Starbucks because of CEO Harold Schulz’ promise to hire 10,000 refugees. A Neo-Nazi blogger declared New Balance the “official shoes of white people” and while New Balance founder and chairman, Jim Davis, donated $400, 000 to the Trump campaign, the company was forced to issue a statement distinguishing Davis’ personal support for Trump from a company endorsement. Enter, center-left—albeit somewhat late–the requisite ritual celebrity burning of Voldemort’s horcrux.
Partisan allegiance, activism, and social justice might be bigger sells today than sex. But what are the larger implications of this shopping for justice? How much damage can Samantha Bee’s ‘Nasty Woman’ tees and the ‘Future is Female’ haute couture really do to the systems of patriarchy in a society in which a hereto anonymous single mother can die in her car due to overwork and Muslim women who wear the veil are among the most vulnerable to physical violence in our brave new brand world? Although it has been dogged for decades by activists for its reliance upon highly feminized sweatshop labor, Reebok has begun selling prepackaged feminist rage at the current political situation.
What does justice mean when a celebrity shopping binge is legitimated as a form of protest? What becomes of democracy’s possibilities when multi-million dollar Super Bowl Sunday advertisements are the most talked about forms of social commentary and criticism? Certainly, as Lizbeth Cohen and others have discussed, the blending of consumption and politics (consumer and citizen) is not in of itself new. Nor are the structural inequalities exacerbated by consumption altogether new. What might be worth noting, however, are the ways in which Trumpism and many of its discontents have left behind the ethical niceties of republican virtues and the institutional autonomy of grassroots activism for the conveniences of corporate politics, which seem to be an all-time high. Harvard Business School professor Nancy Koehn, understanding Trump as a brand, wonders if “we’re not going to see a kind of consumer activism, identity politics, potentially a cohesion of the resistance or the opposition to Mr. Trump that actually has to do with an emerging patriotism?”
Walter Benjamin, the Frankfurt School philosopher, argued that Capitalism is “…a pure religious cult, perhaps the most extreme there ever was. Within it everything only has meaning in direct relation to the cult: it knows no special dogma, no theology…Capitalism is the celebration of the cult sans rêve et sans merci.” There is no pretense of salvation from the cult; there is only further immersion within the cult. The cult makes room for competing accounts of the good so long as the ontological permanence of the cult itself is accepted. As we put our wallets where our mouths are, it also becomes imperative to speak in tongues. We ought to, as it were, consult foreign oracles. Not Putin, no. We need to conjure forth repressed, forgotten and oppressed ways of knowing and being that they might illuminate paths beyond the consumer activism and social justice as commodity.
I recently attended a performance in Brooklyn of Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping. The ritual—a kind of performance of secular church—was replete with song, costume and fiery oratory. In one of the homilies, a meditation on earth justice, the good preacher implored us to be in air….to be the air. I thought about a conversation I had with my students about Native American lifeways and the Hopi people, in particular, for whom the rain clouds are the ancestors. What a difference it would make if we understood the natural world as ancestors to whom we have special obligations and responsibilities rather than inert crude resources from which profit might be excised!
In the end, simply shopping for salvation will only intensify the historical conditions of Capitalism and the inequalities it reflects back to us as natural fact. Shopping always increases our systemic guilt because it reinforces a form of justice shorn of any transcendent ideal—a form of justice that has made practical peace with many of consumer Capitalism’s obligatory sins. There is no doubt that consumer society can also affect positive social change through its storytelling and ritualizing function but it always does so in ways that reproduce exclusions and inequality with the other hand. Shopping is never sufficient to settle accounts by the lights of Justice. This is why even ‘spiritual’, New Age brands can only but be the mignons of the demiurge.
Like Martin Luther King Jr., we can accept the power of consumer boycotts but dare, too, to dream from the mountainside. As Luis León argues turning to the life’s work of César Chávez as a case study, religious poetics can serve the needs of a critical political spirituality and a critique of consumption and the cause of social justice, more broadly. To do battle with the specters of consumer Capitalism (which is itself quite ‘spiritual’ and magical), we need to call on as much collective wisdom (sabiduría) and as many ancestors as possible. In doing so, the negative space of an unmet and unimagined Justice must be preserved. The past has always been one of Capitalism’s most compelling and lucrative obsessions. As far as spirituality and history are concerned, the line between fetish and criticism is a tightrope which must be trod with an abundance of caution.
Reverend Billy told the gathered congregation of secular church that the choir’s aim is to render the “military consumer complex strange”. Shopping to deliver us from the tyrannies of a salesman? At a time when the culture industry seems to effortlessly alchemize his horror into monetized entertainment? At a historical moment when the health of the consumer marketplace for ‘good’ journalism depends on a full-throated assault on the very same thing, as the Executive Editor of the New York Times seemed to admit? Shopping for our salvation? Now that’s strange!
 Interestingly, some on the ‘left’ are calling for a serious consideration of Oprah Winfrey as a Presidential candidate, given her devoted following and patent markers of wealth and success. We might recall Kathryn Lofton’s prophetic Oprah—The Gospel of an Icon when attempting to make sense of this turn of events.
 Indeed, consumer markets in journalism being what they are, the same company might pitch and sell both ‘left’ and ‘right’ outrage via different URLs. The brand form can sometimes harbor competing ideological sympathies at once.
 For example, a colleague’s recent mural re-presents my university’s institutional history and, in doing so, has ignited a more robust conversation on campus about the goals of social justice and the role of higher education in its pursuit.
George González is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Monmouth University. His research interests lay in the sociocultural legislation of Western metaphysics and the concrete and specific form of power that has attached to liberalism, as a historically specific kind of cosmology. He remains especially interested in approaching the study and criticism of postsecular, neoliberalism through the framework of religious social change. He is the author of Shape-Shifting Capital—Spiritual Management, Critical Theory, and the Ethnographic Project and is currently working on a multi-site ethnography and historiography of the ritualization of consumer capitalism and is set to begin fieldwork with the famed radical performance troupe, Rev. Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping in early 2017.
Published with support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion in International Affairs.