Monday, February 12, 2018

WHY TRUMP IS US







Much political analysis of the Trump candidacy and presidency to date is dedicated to the forensics of his political trajectory (a daily obsession unparalleled in presidential politics), as if it were a mystery in which we know who did it, but we’re all really baffled by how it was done.  How did he destroy a field of 16 Republican candidates, while breaking every single rule of campaign popular wisdom?  How did he overcome the Access Hollywood tape, when for decades other candidates had been forced to withdraw for lesser scandals?  How did the electoral map swing his way, when all the polling foretold a Clinton victory? How have mere accusations from the #MeToo movement taken down dozens of powerful men, while the multiply-accused and self-described pussy grabbing President remains unscathed?  How does a payoff to a porn star for an alleged extra-marital affair cause barely a blip on the political radar?  How can the working class Trump supporters have such blind loyalty to a billionaire with a history of stiffed workers and business partners, outsourced labor, bankruptcies, reflexive lying, even fraud (Trump University), while convincing a large chunk of the electorate that he is not an elitist pig they should despise, but rather a very rich and smart stand-in for them?

Of course it makes no sense that such a dubious past should inspire so much confidence in a campaign waged on behalf of the ‘forgotten people’. No more sense than saying Wall Street billionaires like Steve Minuchin are the best people to guide the economy, when they were among the unpunished culprits in the ’08 crash and housing crisis.  Or that a staunch opponent of the EPA should be chosen as its new director.  I could add whole paragraphs of logical contradictions that should be sufficient to convince anyone with a logical mind that Donald Trump is uniquely unqualified, even automatically disqualified, to run for, let alone be, our president.  That is one of the problems with the Twitter speed at which the Trump presidency has unfolded.  There is simply too much going on to wrap your head around.  Too many twitter wars to get worked up over.  Too many convoluted scandals and conflicts of interest, however doggedly pursued, to keep straight or explain to friends over coffee.  So many fibs and outright lies on matters large and small that they swallow each other up, like a succession of ever larger fish in some animated movie sequence.  So many White House staffers and cabinet appointees coming and going that revolving doors should be installed in the West Wing.  It is to negotiate the political life of the nation as if it were a vast ‘Concentration’ board.

Well, if you are not following this stuff closely (probably like a good percentage of Americans), you can remain blissfully ignorant of the growing compendium of lies, potentially illegal Russian entanglements, scary regulatory changes, the swirl of chaos and scandal at the White House, or the totalitarian style attacks on the free press and rampant conflicts of interest.  A casual glance at headlines and sound bites gathered from select news sources can make the Trump presidency sound pretty good if you are favorably disposed.  He’s standing up to North Korea, China and Iran; he’s a staunch friend of Israel; he’s growing the economy and the markets through deregulation; we’re all going to get a tax cut; unemployment is the lowest it’s been in decades.  If you have been paying attention, you can ignore all of the red flags as “fake news”, even video footage of the lies (which make for a pretty astounding montage), if you stay tuned to Fox News like the President.  Or, better yet, latch onto any one of a growing wish list of counter-conspiracies designed to distract from the Mueller investigation and goad the American public into an ever greater distrust of governmental institutions, so that when the facts do finally come out half the country will not believe them.  Never mind that these conspiracies ignore significant facts and rest on premises that can be undone with no more than placing events in their proper context within an accurate timeline (the Carter Page FISA warrant and the Uranium One deal for instance).  But, even when you hear someone in The Base acknowledge Trump’s deficiencies, it is usually limited to a critique of his use of Twitter, or accompanied by a rebuttal that all the other politicians are liars too.  Trump’s our liar, I guess, the logic follows.  Alternative Facts, a phrase presciently coined by Kellyanne Conway after the inaugural lie about Inauguration attendance, are now the SOP for congressional Republicans, Speaker Ryan no less, to fully endorse, reinforce and replicate the reality bubble Trump inhabits, wherein what he thinks and wishes to be true equals reality. Trump World keeps getting bigger.  The tax bill is a perfect example.  Most American’s know this is going to benefit the wealthy and in the long run, perhaps even the short run, hurt the middle class and poor, if by nothing more than funneling more wealth and resources to the top 1% in the form of massive corporate tax cuts, while under the pay-as-you-go rule triggering automatic Medicare cuts.  The Trump White House had already aired ads about how well the middle class tax cuts were working before the 1st paychecks under the new tax rates had even been cut.  I saw such an ad the day before I saw the extra $15.00 I had last pay period (about $7.50 a week).  With the market reacting to rising interest rates and fear of inflation, I’m sure that $360.00 extra I’ll get this year will barely cover costs incurred by the spikes in gasoline, heating fuel and groceries that always go hand in hand with inflationary trends.  Etc. Etc.  Blah. Blah. Blah.  It means nothing to The Base.

That is one of the greatest sources of anxiety for Trump opponents, conservative and liberal alike.  It is popular wisdom that The Base has fallen so far down the rabbit hole that they are beyond retrieval.  And when you are talking about roughly 35 to 40 percent of the American public that’s a real problem.  The fact is that the rabbit hole has become so vast we have all fallen into it against our wills, or, perhaps, because in observing the spectacle so closely and faithfully we got too close to the liquefied edge.  That’s not the sky we’re looking at but the bottom of a brave new sink hole, formerly known as Making America Great Again.  Just look closely at the evidence and, despite the paucity of legislation, Trump is doing or attempting to do everything he said he would, even if the results (as with the Tax Bill) subvert his populist rhetoric.

The intent of legislative and deregulatory efforts thus far has been aimed roughly at undoing Obama era laws and directives.  Most of this is being done via executive orders.  In this sense, The Base is correct in seeing his administration as a success.  Even where he has failed (healthcare) they believe that he is trying. Admittedly, his lack of willingness to tackle the complexities of the healthcare system either conceptually or in the form of a plan, his abdication to the legislature and subsequent laying of blame at the feet of Mitch McConnell seems more like incompetence, indifference and sheer laziness than trying to me, but I guess the demand for basic competence and presidential responsibility is more elitist noise to be ignored.  The latest government shutdown and immigration stalemate has been Trump’s big chance to make a show of fulfilling The Wall Promise, something that had barely been on the radar for most of the past year.  Nevermind that if it becomes part of the federal budget, the American taxpayer, and not Mexico, will be asked to pay for it.  Blah. Blah. Blah.  Fake news.  It means nothing.

Deregulating to help small businesses may be a favored talking point, but know that among the vast rollback of regulations, are those eroding worker safety protections, removal of emissions standards for coal burning power plants, removal of rules requiring chemical disclosure for frackers, power plant water pollution and dental mercury waste controls as well, plus others aimed at weakening consumer protections that will benefit drug companies and the financial services industry.  No doubt the removal of so many regulations has spurred market confidence and will make companies more profitable in the short term and more powerful in the long term, but only at the expense of Trump’s “forgotten people”. Clean air, clean water and safe workplaces have long term economic benefits.  Just as the now partially rescinded Fiduciary Rule put in place after the ’08 crash was aimed at protecting the economic security of those saving for retirement. So say goodbye to secure retirement as financial advisers are once more free to steer investors toward options with lower returns and higher fees.   Follow the link for The Brookings Institute’s complete interactive list of Trump’s deregulatory activity of the past year and glimpse the depth of the economic and environmental sink hole Trump has in store for us:  https://www.brookings.edu/interactives/tracking-deregulation-in-the-trump-era/. 

Deregulation under Trump, as part of Making America Great Again, indulges several American fantasies:   that we can revive the coal industry, that oil and natural gas are the present and future of energy, that climate change is a hoax and we don’t have to demand green technologies, alternative energy and an infrastructure that supports it, that unsustainable short term economic growth (the kind that gets politicians through a couple of election cycles) is all we have to worry about.  The result of sustaining old fantasies for even one more decade will likely deny America any real chance of remaining globally relevant, environmentally sustainable and economically viable through the coming century.  We will be left behind—just a giant sinkhole around Trump’s 1950’s reality bubble.

But this nostalgia for getting things back to the way they were is not just about denying painful economic and environmental change, but about escaping the most painful of all changes:  demographic and social change.  The uneasiness of a country with an identity and power structure based on whiteness coming to grips with its inevitable browning is one of the drivers behind anti-immigration sentiment and policy. It is also behind the deeply undemocratic congressional redistricting and waves of restrictive voter laws.  Both are being exposed increasingly, in the media and recent court rulings, as unconstitutional, racially biased efforts to limit the effect of these unstoppable demographic changes.   Americans, especially older white Americans, are having an existential crisis.

This gets back to the unquestioning loyalty of The Base to this president.  While there are a hundred reasons they should see Trump as the antithesis of the populist champion, there is an even deeper level of identification with Trump that transcends the facts of his life.  Trump the presidential candidate, talked the way they talked, said all things they felt but were too afraid to say.  It is not new to point out that The Base elected him because of the things he said, not despite them.  The pundits had it wrong because they kept thinking he was going to go too far one time, when in fact The Base was saying ‘Right On!’ every time Trump pushed the envelope of anti-immigrant sentiment or racial animus.  When Trump said Judge Curiel could not rule without bias in the Trump University case because he was Mexican (even though he was born in the USA and is as much a citizen as Donald J himself), you know if Trump said it, there were millions like him in America who felt the same way.  American means white.  The identification with Trump on this level is as gut deep and contagious as C. difficile in an infected hospital wing.  It is very personal.  When they defend him it is as if they are defending themselves. Are they not?  When somebody tells you again and again who they are, why would you not believe them? They are Trump and Trump is them. 

Deepak Chopra is one of the few voices suggesting that Trump is not an anomaly at all, but a typical representation of the “shadow”, the unconscious impulses in society that once freed can wreak havoc:

The shadow compounds all the dark impulses--hatred, aggression, sadism, selfishness, jealousy, resentment, sexual transgression--that are hidden out of sight. The name originated with Carl Jung, but its basic origin came from Freud's insight that our psyches are dualistic, sharply divided between the conscious and unconscious. The rise of civilization is a tribute to how well we obey our conscious mind and suppress our unconscious side. But what hides in the shadows will out.

 

When it does, societies that look well-ordered and rational, fair and just, cultured and refined, suddenly erupt in horrible displays of everything they are not about: violence, prejudice, chaos, and ungovernable irrationality. In fact, the tragic irony is that the worst eruptions of the shadow occur in societies that on the surface have the least to worry about. This explains why all of Europe, at the height of settled, civilized behavior, threw itself into the inferno of World War I.

 

If Trump is the latest expression of the shadow, he isn't a bizarre anomaly, which would be true if normal, rational values are your only standard of measure. Turn the coin over, making the unconscious your standard of measure, and he is absolutely typical. When the shadow breaks out, what's wrong is right. Being transgressive feels like a relief, because suddenly the collective psyche can gambol in forbidden fields. When Trump indulges in rampant bad behavior and at the same time says to his riotous audiences, "This is fun, isn't it?" he's expressing in public our ashamed impulse to stop obeying the rules.

 


The problem with the United States is that all the while it has aspired to justice, equality and freedom and clung to a mythology of exceptionalism, it also has been about “…violence, prejudice, chaos and ungovernable irrationality”, from the peculiar institution of American slavery and another century of Jim Crow after emancipation, the extermination of Native American peoples, the ill treatment of Irish and Italian immigrants (who were also racialized during their initiation to the “melting pot”), the internment of Japanese Americans in WWII,  McCarthyism in the 1950’s, to today’s biased criminal justice system with its mass incarceration and for profit prison industry, and a political system corrupted by dark money, unconstitutional redistricting and racially motivated voter laws (what better way to erase a people than by eliminating them from the voter roles).  Add to this over two centuries of aggressive foreign policy and empire building, which means that we have been almost always at war somewhere in the world.  

It is hardly an exhaustive list of our shadowy unconscious at work, but it seems important to expose this continuous strain in our history at a time when both our President and many of our citizens have no grounding in our basic history.  A recent study concluded that only 8 percent of American students could name slavery as a central cause of the civil war. 
https://www.stamfordadvocate.com/news/article/A-disturbing-new-report-on-how-poorly-schools-12562060.php .  It would surprise me little if in some quarters of the internet slavery is considered a hoax made up by the liberal elite or maybe even the Chinese.  Such a list is instructive however if you happen to find yourself excluded from those who lived under those particular shadows.   The common thread in the list is that being the right shade of white would have kept you out of harms way and thus at given times and places made you unaware and out of sympathy with those who lived in America’s shadowland.  It would seem these so-called “unconscious impulses” are virtually free-ranging in American history and life, in inverse proportion to its stated ideals and global professions of exceptionalism.  That is US.  Trump is US.

Compare the character and personal conduct of Donald Trump with the general features of American life, and they present mirror images of each other.  Donald Trump is a rich celebrity in a culture that is obsessed with rich celebrities; he’s a reality T.V. star in a genre that has so oversaturated the market it is a wonder there is any genuine storytelling left on television.  The Trump campaign brought together the overarching desires of Americans to be famous and rub elbows with the rich.  After all being at a Trump rally was like starring in a rolling reality T.V. show.   When he told his crowds how much he loved them, it was like hearing ‘You’re hired!” on an episode of The Apprentice.  It was real; it was live; it was entertaining and most of all it was emotionally satisfying for people more let down than fulfilled by social media, or feeling squeezed out by immigrants, left behind by job outsourcing and wage stagnation, and generally ignored by a dysfunctional and out of touch government. The ratings driven news media was no less influenced by Trump’s celebrity and played no small part in bringing the Trump campaign to national prominence by covering his rallies, while his Republican opponents, all colorless and staid in comparison, languished off camera.  Then there’s Trump’s long history of outsourcing jobs for his product lines, and mistreating workers as a real estate developer.  A great many of the 3,500 lawsuits Trump has been involved in were brought by workers Trump failed to pay, including dishwashers, painters, cooks and waiters.  But it also included real estate brokers who’d sold millions of dollars worth of property for him and lawyers who’d defended him in court. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/elections/2016/06/09/donald-trump-unpaid-bills-republican-president-laswuits/85297274/Non-disclosure agreements as part of a multitude of settlements are the main reason we did not hear a chorus of voices against Trump during his presidential campaign. Trump is a good example of the general stiffing of American workers in the past 40 years through outsourcing, union busting, suppressed wages, and poor compensation, including lack of sick time and family leave for entire segments of the work force, like restaurant workers.

Moreover, Trump has been dogged by sexual harassment complaints and accusations of assault in a culture that has a major problem with sexual harassment and even rape in our workplaces.  From our hospitality industry to Hollywood, from college campuses to our military, from Silicone Valley to Washington D.C. we are waking up to the knowledge that Trump is US.  Trump’s shady dealings with foreign banks and Russian oligarchs mirror our own dubious dealings past and present with dictators and totalitarian regimes, our secret wars and arms deals.   We are a country drowning in debt, with a newly signed tax bill and two year budget deal that will raise the debt by trillions. Donald Trump’s entire financial empire has been built largely on leveraging debt.  The other part of Trump is branding, name recognition and reputation.  In that he shares a lot in common with the United States.  We market ourselves as the bastion of freedom and democracy, and as the champion of human rights around the world, but when you look at the human and environmental cost of our foreign meddling just since World War II it’s not that hard to see the face of not only a narcissist, but a hypocrite also in the mirror.  We may as well be Trump on the campaign trail yelling "Lock her Up!" In that we have failed to make it a priority to rebuild our infrastructure and transportation system and are falling behind many nations in healthcare, education and quality of life and yet continue to unabashedly think of ourselves as No. 1, we are drinking from the same river of narcissistic Lethe as Donald Trump, a man who kept touting Celebrity Apprentice as the No. 1 show, long after the ratings had slipped.  Those of us outside of Trump’s ideological bubble see the truth, just as those outside of the US, especially those who have managed to survive some of our foreign policy objectives, have a clearer vision of who we are.  Pretty much since our founding we have needed to promote our brand with Alternative Facts.  When we hold up our blinkered self-concept, mere wishes as reality, we are Trump.  When we are incapable of taking a hard look at ourselves, take responsibility and self-correct our dysfunction (such as our present course on climate change and the shamelessly treacherous and self-interested actions of today’s Congress) we are Trump.

Trump is our president today because the chickens have finally come home to roost.  We are so full of him, that he became, not an anomalous event, but the karma we deserved.  He is the embodiment of the way we live, or, at least, an unconscious wish of how we want to live:  spend without accountability; go anywhere in the world on a whim; live a life of lavish consumption; grab and harass anybody you want for your sexual fulfillment without consequence, exploit workers without oversight and reap fame and adulation while doing all of that in a system that rewards you with ever-accruing wealth.  That is the American Dream written by a narcissist. Trump is US.

Many white liberals were exasperated to hear African American voters express indifference as to whether we got Trump or Hillary in the White House.   Or, like comedian Dave Chappell, express little surprise that America had gone for Trump, while white’s were in disbelief that the vote went the way it did. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SHG0ezLiVGc .   Blacks would likely tell you that when they look at US, they have always seen the face of Donald Trump.  They are already living in the country whites are now afraid of living in under Trump.  Welcome to reality.  Trump is US.

But, we have self-corrected before at various points in our history, often after much blood-shed, when internal and external pressures have demanded a more perfect union.  The movement underfoot aims at nothing less than undoing those hard fought corrections.  In that the demographic shift in progress seems inevitable, it is possible to see Trump’s rise and the capitulation of Congress to him as a desperate last stand for cultural and ideological control of the country, to delay, at best, the inevitable social shift for as long as possible.  Yet, I suspect, (and this is a very real danger) if supporting a Trump autocracy were the only means of halting the browning of America and they could remain the ruling party in the deal, this Republican controlled Congress would flush our constitution, lofty ideals and exceptionalism right down the toilet of failed democracies.  They have already chosen.

For about two decades I’ve had a theory that the cultural and ideological split in the country would eventually lead to a splintering of America into autonomous and strategically allied nation states, and I’ve wondered if we would not be much better off to shed our superpower mantle. There is life after empire. Without our central government there would be no Washington gridlock, no US foreign policy as a target for world-wide terror, no need for US to be the world’s policeman, or for the endless, expensive, bloody conflicts associated with it.  In this particular moment, however, it would be na├»ve to think that such a fracture would provide anything but an opportunity for a totalitarian presence to assert control to keep the whole thing together, and in the event of such a split, a military coup could easily result to secure that end.  It’s not far-fetched.  The ideological fracture in the country is already set, and the New California movement suggests that geographic splits are next.  With endless legislative gridlock and dysfunction on the horizon, mounting problems with no movement toward solutions, not a few (including a gleeful Putin) believe that our democracy has already failed and needs a single will to rule and make things happen.  Don’t look now, the administrative coup is almost complete: Congress is in lock step with Trump in his purge of federal law enforcement, the President’s hurry-up on court appointments has the Judiciary is in his sights as well https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/11/us/politics/trump-judiciary-appeals-courts-conservatives.html, a host of government agencies, including the State Department, are being gutted, and with the echo “massive voter fraud” ringing in right wing ears, a purge of voter rolls is ramping up; and let's not forget that relentless campaign to discredit the free press.  The dominos are falling.  Every day, all day, as never before, the news and opinion is ever Trump.  He has already made the conditions of the totalitarian state a reality, and we have obliged him by granting him the totality his ego craves.  Trump is us.  If it were not so, we would have stopped him long before it came to this.