Becoming Donald Trump
So much has been written about the Trump administration now that it seems pointless to spend time and energy to deepen the ocean of outrage already in evidence. But I will do so, if only to organize my thoughts, and perhaps assist others in organizing theirs. Words have power, and increasingly, they are the only power left to ordinary citizens, who are slowly being deprived of their civic strength, their economic means, and the once and future country of their youth.
The institutions of Democracy have served us reasonably well, if imperfectly, for more than two centuries. Today, they are failing. It is perhaps too early to claim that they have failed entirely, but it is not too early to observe that they have already collapsed in several fundamental ways, and that they are staggering under the burden of precisely the civic evils that they were designed to thwart — demagoguery, fascism, and naked oligarchy.
First, it must be said that all politician are liars. This appears to be an essential feature of the job — the need to obfuscate, misdirect, oversimplify, and fictionalize the world within certain nebulous boundaries. Perhaps this is inevitable in any multicultural society. Civic decisions, no matter how well-intentioned, must inevitably produce winners and losers, and as a practical matter, the losers must be rhetorically marginalized in order to get anything done. As citizens, we expect this, even if we don’t much like it, and we accept it by hitching our wagon to the least offensive horse on offer, knowing that everything is not as it seems. Democracy, in this sense, is a lousy system of government, even though it still beats the hell out of whatever is in second place.
But lies as a function of the job are one thing; lies as a consequence of character are entirely another. It is this latter malady that we witness daily from the current occupant of the White House, who lies compulsively, egregiously, and — here’s the rub — unnecessarily. Donald Trump lies with such frequency, and with such ferocity, that it is reasonable to conclude that he doesn’t even know that he’s lying. If true, this would seem to contradict the very concept of mendacity, which by definition presumes malice aforethought — a capacity that Donald Trump does not possess in abundance. A better word, in his case, might be avarice, and on the basis of the evidence at hand, it is fair to conclude that Donald Trump is a wealthy man, if not an intelligent one — but not so wealthy as he wishes to be. Not nearly. His is a bottomless pit of greed, and need, and limitless self-regard.
Probably the best word to describe this behavior, however, is the colloquial chestnut bullshit. A liar departs from the truth with intent; a bullshitter does not care one way or the other. Truth is irrelevant, or in any case subordinate to other considerations. In Trump’s case, these other considerations always involve self-aggrandizement, the acquisition of wealth, or both. Trumpian psychology suggests that these are, in fact, synonymous, and this obvious fiction is nevertheless entirely consistent with the American system of capitalism, which conflates wealth and worth at the expense of — literally — everything else.
One need not be a psychologist to detect this. One need not be a monk to reject it. One need only be a merely decent human being. It turns out that many of us are not.
The disavowal of bullshit is essential to the acquisition of knowledge, and we human beings are equipped by Mother Nature with spectacularly capable bullshit detectors. This manifests in childhood as extraordinary resilience, and is refined in adolescence as our natural trust in the adults around us is repeatedly betrayed by the fictions of poor education, the impoverishment of social inequality, and the arbitrary assignment of “meaning” by power-possessing people with personal agendas. We learn suspicion early, and we learn it well.
Consider, then, the staggering level of suggestibility and self-deception that is necessary to switch off the bullshit detector in service to supporting Donald Trump. Remember that his lies are transparent, and obvious, and egregious, and cruel. Remember that his defections from the norms of governance are loud, and proud, and intentionally destructive. Consider that this pattern of behavior is both well-known and long-standing, stretching back decades and across continents. Consider, finally, that Donald Trump is a convicted criminal who has repeatedly violated the law not only throughout his career, but every single day since taking office.
No merely decent human being is properly equipped for such staggering levels of self-deception. It is instead necessary to become a bullshitter oneself, through and through — blind to what is obviously true, inured to what is obviously craven, and most importantly, untroubled about any of it. In the face of such overwhelming and egregious offenses; in the face of such obvious fiction, one can only endure a Donald Trump by becoming one.
One does not become a Trump so easily, however. It does not happen overnight, because it cannot; the forces of goodness and compassion run deep in the human breast, and require great efforts to displace. A burning cross does not simply appear out of thin air; seeds must be sown; trees must be grown; timber must be harvested.
The seeds of the Trumpian travesty, then, run deep. Institutionalized distrust in the government, for example, can be easily traced to the plausible deniability of Ronald Reagan. The economic bifurcation of society into the obscenely wealthy and the struggling poor is the inevitable consequence of supply-side economics, borne of Arthur Laffer and the sorry legacy of Voodoo Economics under Reagan and Sadomonitarism under Margaret Thatcher. The destruction of congressional comity and the subsequent degeneration of the world’s greatest deliberative body is the undeniable consequence of the illiberal scorched-earth tactics of Newt Gingrich. The rightward jerk of American jurisprudence toward corporate personhood and systemic voter disenfranchisement is the direct result of Antonin Scalia’s inconsistent, and often incoherent philosophy of Constitutional Originalism. The rise of fake-news propaganda in both broadcast and print media is the brainchild most recently of Roger Aisles, and before him, of yellow-press raconteur Rupert Murdoch. Most importantly, the veneration of greed and the myth of self-reliance can be traced from Paul Ryan back through Alan Greenspan and Ron Paul directly to the Objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand, who by most credible accounts was a textbook sociopath.
It is important here to note that not one of these fine citizens was a registered Democrat.
Consider that facism is newly ascendant in the United States of America. Neo-nazi white power groups have literally established a foothold in the White House. The NRA, which has become nothing more than a thinly-veiled terrorist organization, owns the Congress of the United States. Elections are now purchased by a small cabal of obscenely wealthy actors, and foreign interference in the democratic process has almost certainly succeeded in altering the outcome of our elections. The Electoral College — which has five times produced a president who lost the popular vote — has finally failed us in it’s most important, and only remaining useful function — as a safety valve against the rise of a fascist demagogue.
Donald Trump does not represent the majority of American citizens. Fewer than one in four actually cast a vote for Trump, and his brand of ignorant, hyper-nationalist sociopathic fascism is anathema to everything that America once stood for. The Republican Party, which has fully embraced Trump, is now indistinguishable from the rubber-stamp regimes of tin-pot totalitarians. The GOP has become a national disgrace worthy of Hitler’s Third Reich or Mussolini’s Republican Fascist Party. The Democratic Party is a little better, but only a little; they have neglected and forgotten the populist underclasses whom they once served in favor of neoliberalism and the venal acquisition of corporate cash. Neither party is home any longer to a merely decent human being.
This, I believe, is the essential point that has been missing from our national dialog. In the final analysis, Donald Trump is not the problem. He is the consequence. The outsize, naked greed that is promulgated and celebrated by American-style capitalism has poisoned our society, and we have lost our collective way. We have institutionalized propaganda, we have dispensed with scientific inquiry, and we have chosen to worship at the alter of greed. The bullshitters among us see this and acquiesce. The fascists among us see this and celebrate. The merely decent among us see this and weep.