Beware a Better Demagogue (Part 1)

Wax Donald with text

Let’s recap for a minute. We are in the midst of a political dumpster fire the likes of which no living American has ever experienced. Before the election, when I expressed to my conservative friends my concerns about the damage Donald Trump could do to this country as president, they dismissed those concerns as a gross overreaction, mere liberal alarmism. These people were not Trump supporters but they were vehemently anti-Hillary in that tedious Republican way, and when it came down to a race between the two, were not too bothered by Donald’s excesses and rather sanguine about the risks he posed. I’m very curious how they feel now, but I don’t know because last summer we stopped talking.

No serious person can now argue that we are living in normal times, but some have tried. In a recent Washington Post column, the conservative pundit and psychiatrist-turned-person-in-need-of-such-care Charles Krauthammer described Trump’s first hundred days as “well within the bounds of normalcy.” I would like some of whatever psychotropic drug Dr. K is clearly prescribing for himself. Ironically, that assessment came in a column mostly critical of Trump, a lamentation over his recent fortnight horribilis that nonetheless argued against invoking the 25th Amendment for fear of setting a terrible precedent. (Krauthammer’s WaPo colleague and fellow conservative Jennifer Rubin had actually made the same case a lot more cogently in those same pages the day before. Rubin has consistently been one of the sharpest and most astute critics of this administration…..and coming from the right as she does, one of the most credible.)

Krauthammer aside, as we survey the shitshow that comprises Trump’s administration thus far, it’s instructive to remember what quasi-normal politics in this country looked like just a few short months ago. Even if that feels like a lifetime….

* * * * *

Like the majority of Americans—even most Republicans—I was confident that Hillary Clinton would win the election. My chief fear in those days was that once Hillary was in office, the GOP would continue to engage in unconscionable McConnell-style obstructionism, refusing for example even to consider her nominee(s) for the Supreme Court. How innocent and naïve such worries now look.

My other big fear was that Donald Trump, despite being defeated, would have laid out a worrisome blueprint for the next Republican candidate to follow. For years—since Nixon’s Southern Strategy at the very least—the GOP had been dog-whistling to racists for the sake of electoral advantage. Shockingly, Trump showed there was no need to dog-whistle; a bullhorn worked even better. Who’da thunk that the party of Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms was actually being too timid in its cultivation of America’s racists and bigots?

Trump demonstrated very clearly that a right wing candidate could be very successful—vanquishing all his primary rivals, energizing the base, and winning the nomination—by trafficking in openly racist rhetoric and xenophobic fearmongering, spewing shameless lies and utter nonsense in lieu of actual policy, encouraging mob violence at his rallies and war crimes abroad, attacking the credibility of the press in ways heretofore unthinkable even in the most toxic times, and generally disregarding anything remotely resembling the truth. In other words, Trump pursued a textbook fascist program. (To say nothing of ridiculing the handicapped, bragging about sexual assault, and casting aspersions on American soldiers who had died for their country.) It scared me, but I remained confident that the American people would never reward such a man with the White House. What worried me was the idea that, after seeing Trump do so well—though of course falling short in the general election—a better Republican demagogue would emerge in the future: someone just as willing to mount a despicable campaign, but with more self-discipline, smarts, and political savvy. We would all be fucked then.

Um, needless to say, I was a bit off the mark. Turns out, the Republican electorate was fine with a demagogue who not only said and did the things Trump did, but exercised no self-discipline or intellectual rigor whatsoever, instead chaotically veering from crisis to crisis like a rabid weasel fleeing Animal Control. Indeed, that lack of discipline seemed to be precisely what Trump Nation liked. A more polished, controlled, and coherent candidate would likely have been of no interest to them.

When in July of 2015 Trump dismissed John McCain as not heroic for his actions in Vietnam (“I like people who weren’t captured”), I—like many observers—assumed Trump was done. Far lesser gaffes had decisively ended the runs of many a  presidential candidate. But I was wrong. As a seemingly endless series of similarly outrageous comments issued forth from Trump’s cakehole over the weeks and months that followed, it became clear that the normal rules were not in effect, at least not for Donny. It took me a long time to realize (and I was not alone) that Trump’s supporters actually liked those things….that every so-called “gaffe” only made them more enthusiastic. They wanted an openly bigoted demagogue who pandered to their resentments and fantasies and promised them the moon. The very thing that was so attractive to them—to paraphrase John Oliver—was watching an obnoxious drunk climb up on the table at a wedding banquet, drop his pants, and take a dump on the bride’s dinner plate.

* * * * *

Trump managed to get elected with his carnival barker-cum-snake oil salesman shtick. But that is the nature of elections: they are literally popularity contests. Governing, however, is a different matter altogether.

(Notwithstanding the fact—lest we ever forget—that Hillary beat Donald soundly in the popular vote. This is not liberal whining; it is a statement of fact about our democracy and the will of the people. For all the criticism of her as “unlikable” and a poor candidate, three million more Americans actually voted for Hillary Clinton than for Donald Trump. As has been widely noted, it took the entirety of the GOP machine, the unforgivable double standard of the American media, the stubbornness of unyielding Bernie bros, Susan Sarandon, the Russians, Jim Comey, and the anachronism of the Electoral College to defeat her. Thus did Trump manage to ooze into office under the rules of our woefully outdated anti-democratic system—a topic for a different time.)

So, yes, a con man can convince people to vote for him. But bullshit and bloviating will only carry a politician so far; once in office one is expected to actually do at least some of the things promised on the campaign trail. And this disconnect is exactly what we are seeing a mere 130 odd days into our so-called president‘s term.

Trump’s inability to implement any significant portion of his horrific agenda is entirely his own fault. Failure to fill vacant positions in the federal bureaucracy, sloppy staffing and rollout of policies like the Muslim ban, the ludicrous and venal charade that is Trumpcare, and on and on…. these are all wounds that Team Trump has inflicted on itself. We are fortunate that this administration—taking its cue from its leader—is not only monstrous in its ideology (such as it is) but incompetent in its execution.

But what if it wasn’t?

Throughout the campaign, hopeful conservatives kept predicting that Trump would “pivot,” which is to say, become more “presidential.” This is akin to hoping that the heroin user, alcoholic, or degenerate gambler that you inexplicably married is going to suddenly wake up one morning and change of their own accord. Maybe they will, but the odds don’t favor it. We continually kept hearing about this imminent, mythological pivot Trump was about to execute: in the primaries, after he won the nomination, following the inauguration, after a few weeks in office, zzzzzzzzz. But it never happened, and going forward there is no reason to believe it ever will. A 70-year-old megalomaniac who has been catered and kowtowed to his entire life is simply not going to change his spots at this point, especially when it’s worked for him thus far. Trump was a violently chaotic, wildly unprepared, stunningly ignorant presidential candidate. Did we really expect that his presidency would be any different? As the meme goes, “Elect a clown, expect a circus.” A malevolent John Wayne Gacy-style clown and a hellish circus that is more horrifying than entertaining, but a clown and a circus nonetheless.

So I still fear that a better organized, better disciplined demagogue than Trump might follow his same playbook to electoral victory, but once in office demonstrate the necessary discipline to carry out a hateful agenda more successfully. Even with the existing level of incompetence, the amount of damage Donald Trump and his enablers in the GOP have managed to do during his brief tenure is crushing to behold. Imagine if they’d had their ducks in a row! And that doesn’t even include the numerous grotesque things he’s proposed—Trumpcare, a Robin Hood–in-reverse tax policy, an unimaginably cruel budget that wouldn’t pass muster in a basic economics class—that haven’t yet passed and with any luck never will.

But the way that Trump has most damaged American democracy, and the one that worries me most in terms of candidates to come, is by obliterating the common language that liberals and conservatives alike once used to carry out political discourse. That is to say, he has savagely devalued the currency of truth.

Until now, politicians have traditionally had to hide their malfeasance, corruption, and deceit. Trump—spoiled manchild that he is—has no time for that. He simply breaks the rules, spews lies as naturally as he draws breath, slanders the spoilsport goody-two-shoes who have the temerity to point out his perfidy, and goes on his merry way. Ultimately there is no sense in pointing out his infinite hypocrisies, self-contradictions, and outright Pinocchio-isms because he simply leapfrogs over the facts by claiming that that they aren’t really facts, or that you can’t trust the people in possession of the facts, or that they’re fat losers anyway. This dynamic makes political discourse and debate—democracy, in other words—impossible. You can’t discuss mathematics with someone who insists that two plus two is five. (And who, even if you agree for the sake of argument, will then turn around and insist that it actually equals three.)

Sure, politics by its very nature is rife with falsehoods, half-truths, and distortions. But Trump has taken that routine kind of dishonesty to new and heretofore unthinkable levels. Let us not forget that Trump’s entire political career was launched on the back of one of the biggest lies of them all, birtherism. As some have pointed out, Trump lies as a matter of course, naturally and instinctively, and what’s worse, to no logical end. He lies about things that are demonstrably false. He lies about things that can be easily exposed with a simple Google search. He lies about things he just said, on camera, only moments before. He lies about tiny little things that don’t benefit him in any way, and about gigantic things that call his very fitness to lead into question, to the point of opening up impeachment and/or removal under the 25th Amendment as legitimate topics of discussion. (Ask Dr. Krauthammer.) He lies so readily—and apparently without even the slightest consideration of the consequences—that some have speculated that what he does can’t really be called lying at all, but is better described as simple bullshitting. (News flash: That’s not really any better for the republic.)

Some informed parties have speculated that Trump has a pathological compulsion to bend reality to whatever shape fits the needs of his ego at any given moment, regardless of its disprovability, or how it might contradict readily observable and verifiable facts. Whether or not this pattern supports the theory that Donald Trump is mentally ill according to the clinical definition is a question best left to the shrinks. (Not Chuck Krauthammer, though. Did I mention how much I dislike him?) But Trump has been able to get away with this behavior throughout his whole absurdly privileged life, providing little incentive for him to change at this late date…..especially when he rode that psychopathic behavior all the way into the White House, where he is now surrounded by bootlicking sycophants and craven opportunists who are terrified to tell him he’s naked.

Trump’s relationship with the truth—which strongly resembles a baby’s relationship with a diaper—has not gone unnoticed. The Oxford English Dictionary declared its 2016 Word of the Year to be “post-truth” (adj., “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”) This comically peeved Stephen Colbert, who more than twelve years ago, in his mock right wing bloviator persona, coined the term “truthiness,” which he defined as “something that seems like truth; the truth we want to exist.” (Or at least that some people want to exist.) Truthiness itself earned “word of the year” honors as far back as 2005 and 2006, from the American Dialect Society and Merriam-Webster respectively. But both of these terms give a man like Trump more credit that he deserves. The stream of self-serving nonsense that issues forth from his face bears no relationship to truth in any form. One might just as well argue that Trump is engaged in a post-modern Foucaultian deconstruction of the very concept of objective reality. He may be, but only in some future PhD thesis. I suspect Donny is as blissfully unaware of critical theory as he is of the components of the nuclear triad or the laws against sexual assault.

So apart from his mother and father, who is to blame for Trump’s wanton desecration of the common standard of “truth” as we once knew it?

Three guesses.

Next time: The Republican Party’s complicity in the war on truth….

4 thoughts on “Beware a Better Demagogue (Part 1)

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