The tribal interpretations of Trump’s presidency are plastered on the four corners of social media. For the left, Trump is the enemy not just of Democrats but of American values and of civilization in general. For the right, Trump is the saviour from the neoliberal deep state’s double-crossing of Middle America.
Here, though, is an analysis of America’s political situation with which you may be less familiar.
Trumpian Vengeance against the Establishment
To begin with, only 54.7% of eligible voters participated in the 2016 presidential election. Trump got around 63 million votes and Clinton got 3 million more than that.
Whether they admit it or not, those who voted for Trump did so mainly as a way of taking vengeance against the American political and economic establishments. Trump campaigned as an outsider who denounced the status quo as apocalyptic. He alone could make the nation great again for the forgotten lower-middle class who were tired of being overlooked by elitist liberal culture and by Democrats such as Hillary Clinton who evidently hadn’t reckoned with the fallout of NAFTA and of the other policies of globalization.
Minorities were thriving in big liberal cities, while the heartland was being hollowed out by America’s “knowledge economy.” Instead of fighting for American supremacy, the cosmopolitan liberals were busy strengthening the international order, helping companies outsource American jobs to Mexico, India, and China.
Of course, to credit the Trump voters with having a rational solution to these economic problems would require a condescending superabundance of charity. No, that candidate was never going to solve the economic crisis for Middle America by “draining the swamp” or by throwing the US back into the Stone Age. Unconsciously, at least, the plan was only ever to retaliate and to troll. That’s why Trump managed to turn the Republican Party into a cult of personality, because instead of pretending that neoliberalism is a tide that lifts all boats, Trump the reality star and showman par excellence did his followers the courtesy of entertaining them on their way down into have-not status.
And he can be counted on to hit the establishment where it hurts, because Trump, the con man from Queens was shut out of that establishment due to his vulgarity and his epic business failures. He entered politics in part to avenge himself against Barack Obama, who’d publicly mocked Trump with the performer, Seth Myers, at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
To be sure, this isn’t to say he felt humiliated by Obama and Myers, since there’s no evidence Donald Trump is capable of feeling shame. But Trump used Obama as a symbol to galvanize the lower-middle class whites. Trump flattered and entertained those who became his most fervent supporters, by dredging up the conspiracy theory that Obama wasn’t born in the US, and once elected, he prioritized the systematic dismantling of Obama’s legacy, beginning with ignoring the transition team Obama had assembled, as Michael Lewis shows in The Fifth Risk. Thanks to Trump’s shameless pandering to American white supremacists, his supporters got to teach Obama why it’s called “the White House.”
Trump humiliates the American establishment just by being himself. Since at least the 1980s, Republicans have had some of the easiest jobs in the world, to be the foxes guarding the henhouse, to call for a smaller and more dysfunctional government while serving as officials of that same government. But Trump put that anti-government agenda into overdrive, turning the White House into an extension of his amoral business empire, using the norms and traditions of the American ruling class as toilet paper, and pushing authoritarian conspiracy theories such as that the mass media produce “fake news,” which further radicalize his base and divide the country.
What his supporters seem to like best about their mole in the Oval Office is that Trump’s venality is transparent, whereas the normal American politician is a more effective purveyor of the pablum that distracts from his or her self-dealing. Trump’s obvious criminality, unprofessionalism, and incompetence are the sharp edges of the reactionary’s sword that is the Trump presidency.
Perhaps the sharpest part of their weapon against the establishment, though, is the President’s battery of flagrant personality disorders. Again, Trump’s floundering on the world stage can’t embarrass him, because he’s a malignant narcissist, but his manifest unfitness for high office has weakened the United States, strengthened America’s rivals, and humiliated America’s ruling class (the top ten percent of the population that has 60% of the country’s wealth).
Regardless of what happens to Trump or whether the situation worsens for his supporters during his tenure, those supporters will be able to look back fondly at that time they gave the middle finger to the rigged American system by voting in the equivalent of Daffy Duck as president.
Setting the Stage for President Trump
If you want to tribalize the problem and heap all the blame on those anarchic, white-supremacist cultists, I think you’re missing something. Trump’s supporters voted him into office, but so did the Democrats: by not taking control of their party, by not defending their socialist values, by not responding sooner to the rising American plutocracy, by going along with the cynical triangulations of “centrist,” “moderate” Clintonians, Democratic supporters voted for the status quo by voting for Bill and Hillary Clinton and for Obama’s second term, which would sooner or later give way to a populist like Trump. Democrats helped lay the groundwork for the rise of such a destructive outsider. Likewise, the 45% of Americans who regularly don’t vote at all, because they’ve lost faith in American institutions and can’t be bothered on voting day leave the system to be run by the worst factions.
Even as they impeach Trump, Democrats win the battle and lose the war, by failing to elevate their rhetoric to encompass the gravity of their situation. Trump equates Democrats with “witch hunters”; he had supporters chant “Lock her up!” against Hillary Clinton; he says the “deep state” is waging a “coup” against him; and he calls the press the “enemy of the people.” Where is the comparable Democratic response that tells the shocking truth about the state of the Republican Party in 2019? Why aren’t the Democrats framing the GOP as a Trumpian cult, by repeating that message a million times in public?
In early December I listened to some of the House judiciary committee’s questioning of the legal experts on impeachment, and was appalled by the Democrats’ timidity. Rather than cross-examine and impeach the testimony of the lone conservative expert, the Democrats focused on lobbing softball questions to their panel of three experts who agree Trump should be impeached. Democratic Representative Lucy McBath said she found Trump’s witness intimidation of Ambassador Yovanovitch “truly disturbing and very devastating” and also “deeply upsetting,” because the ambassador had testified she felt threatened by Trump’s tweets.
Alas, McBath’s understatements come across as displays of weakness. When you’re facing a full-blown monster, you don’t feign outrage when the monster does something monstrous, and you don’t talk about your feelings. If you have any courage, you take up your sword and you destroy the abomination, metaphorically speaking of course.
Democrats should be denigrating the Republican Party and the broken system that brought Trump to power, including the Electoral College and gerrymandering, the plutocracy, the Citizens United decision that allows corporations to corrupt political campaigns, and the infantilization of televised news. That means Democrats should be telling the ugly truth to defeat Trumpism and win back public trust in democracy, capitalism, and the American way of life. Otherwise when Trump is gone, other trolls will leave their caves, weaponize mass resentment, and ride roughshod over the fragile, cowardly Democrats.
You may have heard of the Democrats’ handwringing about the potential political backlash against them for impeaching Trump in the House when he’s unlikely to be convicted in the Republican-controlled Senate. But I’ve yet to hear that point be put in its proper context. If Democrats face some public wrath, perhaps even losing in 2020 as a result, that won’t be just because of the impeachment. No, it will be because Democrats went ahead with the impeachment without simultaneously waging rhetorical war to paint Trump and the Republicans as sinister and wildly anti-American. And it will be because Trump is a hundred times more captivating a messenger than all of the Democrats put together. It will be because the Democrats play softball with Republicans who might as well be psychopathic killers, by comparison.
Even foreigners like me who’ve been riveted by Trump’s infotainment are partly to blame for the catastrophe of Trump’s presidency, because our consumption of that news empowers Trump and enables his disorders. Can you imagine a more coveted and dangerous place for a narcissist to be than at the center of the world’s attention? Trump tweets and the corporate media broadcast and scrutinize his brain farts. This is the same media — including CNN and MSNBC — that wag their finger at Trump for his unstatesmanlike behaviour, as though the corporate media on TV hadn’t surrendered their journalistic principles decades ago when they sought greater profits by sensationalizing conflicts to entertain the masses — just like Trump does.
The Greater Monstrosity of Humankind
What, then, is the meaning of this American monstrosity? Trump represents a glitch in the matrix, a shocking moment of self-awareness when we realize we don’t really believe in our liberal, Enlightenment values anymore. Individualism, consumerism, and the democratic, capitalistic system that degenerates into a rigged oligarchy — these were supposed to be the makings of a viable secular culture, one that could endure the death of God and the implosion of the ancient and medieval world orders.
For thousands of years, people took comfort in knowing that their societies really matter because they’re ordained by the gods or are otherwise ontologically secure. The Scientific Revolution and the Protestant Reformation alienated the Western mind from the indifferent natural universe, consoling us with material gains and self-serving ideologies that distract us from the gnawing horror: none of our victories or failures in life really matters, and the world is unfair to us because human nature — our intelligence, self-awareness, and empathy — is itself an abomination that puts us at odds with the real world.
If Trump is a monstrosity, so is humanity. The Anthropocene is characterized largely by our short-sighted, ongoing destruction of the biosphere. We’re primates that have been jury-rigged with godlike powers by evolution, so we blow up nature, other species, weaker societies, and ourselves, and with Steven Pinker, we often have the neoliberal gall to define such narrow, anomalous and tenuous advancements as progress. In the limit case, progress for our kind means death to the rest of the universe, because we transform the natural into the artificial, replacing nature’s indifference with a world that’s at our beck and call.
What’s more narcissistic, then, Trump’s infantile pettiness or the human race’s fear to look squarely at nature’s inhumanity, which drove us to build artificial worlds — languages, worldviews, cities, cultures, nations — that embody our interests and reflect them back at us? This is the clarifying existential truth beneath the tribal bickering. We should look in the mirror and see the Trump-like disgrace looking back at us. Only then might we begin to respond with some measure of heroism.