Is President Trump a Tool of Tribal America?

How Trump reveals America’s structural problems

Donald Trump’s presidency is a gift not just to comedians but to intellectuals. You can learn ten times more about the world from his presidency than you could have learned from a Hillary Clinton one. It’s like figuring out how something works by taking the thing apart. What we’re seeing from Trump’s time in office is a broken political system, but Trump’s incompetence as a traditional politician reveals the system for what it really is, whereas a more typical American president would be more effective at neutralizing the narrative and hiding the inner workings of government.

We learn from Trump, the Gump-like outsider in Washington, not only about the White House but about American culture. That culture is tribal, as Amy Chua explains in Political Tribes. The commonplace about American tribalism is that Americans are more divided now than they’ve been since the 1960s. Trump’s unshakable base of support in the Republican Party seems to operate like a cult of personality, which means Trump’s style of management is closer to Putin’s or Kim Jong-un’s than to Justin Trudeau’s or Angela Merkel’s. President Obama was hailed as a messianic leader who was going to renew American politics after his predecessor’s “neoconservative” fiascos, but those lofty expectations dissipated after his handling of the market crash of 2008. By contrast, President Trump seems to be a genuine transformational figure; of course, a transformation can be for the better or the worse.

Less familiar in liberal circles is how Trump’s opponents invert the cult of Trump. Worshippers in a cult invest their idol with an array of perfections, whereas outsiders are liable to do the opposite, to attribute the worst qualities imaginable to a stranger that threatens everyone who’s not safe within the cult. However bad Donald Trump may be as the American president, he can’t be held solely responsible for anything he’s done in politics, if only because the zealotry of his supporters empowers him. But to avoid dealing with the tribal divisions in their culture, American liberals have demonized and scapegoated Trump.

Indeed, the Democrats’ take on Trump is incoherent. On the one hand, the President is supposed to be a masterful con artist who beat Hillary Clinton and took over the Republican Party with demagoguery. On the other, Trump is supposed to be “temperamentally unfit” to be president, as Hillary Clinton said; less euphemistically, in Brandy Lee’s The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, 27 psychiatrists and mental health experts diagnose him as mentally disordered. As is plain from the onslaught of daily news, Trump apparently fits the personality profile of a malignant narcissist. Indeed, Republicans call the inverse of their cult “Trump derangement syndrome,” and the psychiatric wording of that accusation makes for a familiar Trumpian projection that’s meant to insulate the President from the charge that’s he’s mentally incompetent.

There is, then, an explanation of Trumpism that runs counter to the conventional Democratic take. To be sure, Trump must be credited for seizing a political opportunity; in particular, he understood that an apparent radical outsider who’s prepared to destroy politics-as-usual would appeal to swaths of Americans who have lost faith in Democrats. Moreover, Trump’s experience in crafting his strongman persona, from the tabloids of the 1980s to his years in reality TV, enabled him to energize his supporters with tweets and rallies, which in turn locked in his party’s support.

But if Donald Trump is indeed mentally unwell, he may be as much an instrument as a responsible agent. Trump’s infamous malleability hints at that subordinate role. For example, Senator Schumer said that “negotiating with the President is like negotiating with Jell-O,” in that Trump tells everyone what they want to hear and he’s typically swayed by the last in the series of factions to speak to him, because he’s ignorant of the issues and blusters his way through problems. The press’s euphemism about Trump’s “transactional” approach to politics is consistent with this point, since the implication is that Trump has no ideological perspective to guide his decisions.

So Trump may have discerned a weakness in the two-party system that he could exploit, but those who would become his followers saw a chance to exploit his personality weaknesses, in turn, to embarrass the Democrats, rig the economy to work for them, stuff the judiciary with conservative judges, and uphold the confused, xenophobic ideology of “(White) America First!” Trump’s Evangelical supporters even had a theological rationale for such exploitation of him, since they could interpret Trump’s flagrant sinfulness as a sign that he’s one of God’s ironic agents who does (unfalsifiable) divine work in spite of himself. The miracle of Trump’s victory over Clinton only seemed to confirm their hope.

The corporate media, too, are using Trump’s idiosyncrasies for ratings. Conservative news outlets, including Fox News and talk radio shows exploit the cult of Trump by piling on against Trump’s enemies and congratulating themselves for being on the winning side of what they may see as a revolutionary insurgency against a corrupt deep state. The rest of the news media, which Trump calls “fake news,” including CNN, MSNBC, the NY Times and the Washington Post are profiting off of the novelty of a Trump administration and off of their conflict with what they see as a rogue, anti-American regime.

Moreover, consumers both inside and outside the United States, who are addicted to the daily reports of Trumpian outrages are using Trump’s presidency for infotainment, feeding his inflated self-image by boosting his ratings. What’s it like for a world-class narcissist to know he’s the biggest show in town? We’re all living through the answer.

If President Trump is being used as much as he’s using the system (for his financial gain and to flatter his ego), beating Trump in the 2020 election might require a more radical strategy than the Democratic favourite of offering various half-baked policy goodies. Half of Americans don’t even vote in the presidential elections, which speaks to their disenchantment with American politics. Millions of voters were eager for a transformational figure like Trump to come along, even as millions more initially cheered for Obama. Many Americans seem to understand that their government and economy aren’t working for the majority of their country, that they’ve been hijacked by a wealthy minority. The rhetorical advantage of Trump’s vulgarity, then, is that he comes across as a turncoat, as a villainous plutocrat who switched sides and pulls the levers of government to benefit all who flatter him and support his endeavours.

Theoretically, a Democratic challenger to Trump could oppose Trump’s narrative with an even more radical feat of truth-telling. Democrats would need to prove they understand not only where their party went wrong under Obama and the Clintons, but why the swing states prefer to troll Democrats, endure the shame of Trump’s presidency, and revel in the possibility of the U.S. becoming as autocratic as Russia or China. Does the blame for Trump’s presidency rest ultimately with flaws in the American Constitution, such as the Electoral College, or with liberal democracy’s uneasy relationship with late-modern capitalism? Why are Americans still so divided, that half the voters would rather inflict President Trump on the country and the world than vote for a competent female moderate Democrat in 2016?

Obviously, Fox News muddied the waters and demonized Hillary Clinton for decades, and it’s not surprising that right-wingers have operationalized the dynamics of demonization and scapegoating, since religions have done so for centuries and conservatives are much more single-mindedly religious than are liberals and progressives.

In any case, centrist Democrats are loath to engage in any such public philosophical reflection about American society. To do so would seem suicidal for the party that defends the idea that a functioning social democratic government is a good thing to have. Ronald Reagan said government is the problem, not the solution, and by standing behind Trump’s presidency, even though Trump is plainly at war with half the nation plus immigrants, the media, the environment, the intelligence community, and America’s allies, laws, and norms, Republicans have proved they’re more like anarchists than republicans.

But what truth could Democrats tell about the state of the country which spawned Trump’s presidency that wouldn’t simultaneously indict the Democrats as accomplices? Trump as the Republican’s transformational figure is likely to provoke similar radicalism on the left, a realignment of the Democratic Party. It took the Great Depression to inspire Roosevelt’s New Deal and it may take the fullness of a Trump “presidency” — including perhaps another four years of it — for opponents of Trumpism to blow past moderate platitudes, confront the tribal reality of American culture, and take the country back for the majority.

Or would a progressive version of Trumpism only deepen the cultural divide and fuel quasi-religious demonization and intransigence from conservatives? Truth-telling won’t unite Americans if the information is filtered through a tribal society. The reality beyond the echo chambers and the bluster and comforts of stage-managed infotainment is the only inescapable uniter. Under Trump, American politics looks more and more like a sideshow or a magic act that’s meant to distract the audience. The real-world implications of America’s transformation (decline?) will unfold and we’ll all have to live with them, regardless of our affiliations.

Knowledge condemns. Art redeems. I learned that as an artistic writer who did a doctorate in philosophy. We should try to see the dark comedy in all things.

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