Last week I wrote about what to me is the core absurdity in the Age of the Beclowned Presidency: that we are all at mercy of an utter buffoon who does not even rise to the level of a respectable villain. The corollary to that—and another aspect of the current situation that is surely central to many Americans’ angst—is the shock of realizing that millions of our countrymen see Trump so radically differently than we do…..which is to say, positively. That is a worldview that so vastly does not compute that it makes my head vibrate and emit sparks, and my heart despair for the future of our country.
That Russia meddled in our election is settled science. Only the extent of that interference is still being sorted out. (Unless you are a brain-dead Trump supporter, holding your breath and stamping your feet to avoid the steady stream of facts that daily emerge.) Even without actually tampering with the vote count, the Kremlin’s cyber-warfare, dissemination of so-called fake news (eagerly abetted by Trump himself), and other skullduggery had an undeniable effect. The whole of the US intelligence community has concluded as much. If the Trump campaign or others in the GOP colluded with that effort—and there is a hell of a lot of smoke suggesting just that—we are talking about the worst political scandal in American history. I pray Bob Mueller gets to the bottom of it, which is saying a lot because I am an atheist.
But appealing as it would be psychologically, it would be an enormous mistake to lay Trump’s victory on Moscow’s doorstep.
The fact of the matter is, folks: we did this to ourselves.
ADMITTING YOU HAVE A PROBLEM
Almost 63 million Americans voted for Trump, just about three million fewer than voted for Hillary. (Yes, let’s not forget that she did win the popular vote, which means that in a fair system—a democracy, for example—she would have been the victor. That’s an topic for another time.) To me, it is deeply unnerving that it was even that close. But the fact remains that 63 million of our countrymen thought Trump was the better choice, and that is a shockingly high number given that a rotten cheese rind would have been a more qualified candidate for the job.
Short of actual vote tampering, which seems unlikely, Russian interference amounted chiefly to a grander and more sophisticated version of the exact same thing Trump was engaged in as his electoral bread-and-butter. Disinformation. Lies. The spreading of false stories, rumors, and other acts of deception in order to get people to vote for him, or at least not vote for Hillary. That is what PSYOPS—psychological operations, in military parlance—is. And all evidence suggests that they did a hell of a good job.
But PSYOPS, like con artistry, or hypnosis, doesn’t force its victim to do anything. The victim inflicts the damage on himself. He willingly complies. It’s true that that compliance may be based on the gullible acceptance of outright lies, but it’s voluntary nonetheless. All those millions of people who voted for Trump—a minority of the US electorate, but a significant enough number that they swung the election—did so of their own free will. They were obviously convinced by what Trump said, even if much of it was shameless bullshit, bolstered by false narratives cooked up by the Kremlin and its co-conspirators. And that is a very hard thing to accept about our fellow Americans.
Trump’s was a campaign of wanton racism, misogyny, xenophobia, jingoism, empty promises, inflammatory rhetoric, and appeals to the worst angels of our nature and the basest instincts of humanity. It included promises to commit war crimes, gleeful ridicule of the disabled, disparagement of former POWs and veterans suffering from PTSD, scorn for grieving families of fallen warriors, petty feuds with former beauty queens, schoolyard-level ad hominem attacks on opponents and the press, brazen self-aggrandizement, refusal to honor longstanding norms about disclosure of personal finances and acknowledgement of potential conflicts of interest, tragicomic misstatements on policy, jawdropping demonstrations of ignorance and unfitness for office….I could go on.
And yet millions of our fellow Americans were totally cool with that, or cool enough that they preferred that guy to Hillary Clinton, at least in the way that her foes painted her. And now, after five months of Trump in office, those voters thus far show little inclination to abandon their monstrous champion, despite the accumulated evidence of the last 150 days, which amounts to the most gobsmacking shitshow in American political history.
So it would certainly make a lot of us feel better to believe that this swinish presidential pretender was foisted on us from without, by mustache-twirling vodka-sipping Cold War-era villains sitting in Red Square. But laying all the blame on Putin (or even the lion’s share of it) is simply not an accurate depiction of what happened…..and it does further damage to our already reeling republic by refusing to take responsibility for what we have done to ourselves.
Like they say in AA, the first step to solving a problem is admitting you have one.
TRUMP BRAND™ KOOL-AID
There is a sickness in the American soul, and until we own that fact we aren’t going to be able to fix it. It didn’t start with Trump, but his election damn sure brought it to the surface, with a vengeance. We need to acknowledge our own collective culpability for Trump and all he represents, irrespective of Russian misbehavior.
Trump’s supporters and enablers—to include virtually the entire Republican Party—are not put off by any of our fake president’s many outrages, failures, or hypocrisies, at least not sufficiently to matter. In fact, many of those folks openly cheer those very things. To cite a rather petty but extremely emblematic example, these people were furious at the (relatively few) number of times Barack Obama played golf while in office, but are fine with Trump playing far more, and at exponentially greater cost to the American taxpayer. (Obama played once in his first hundred days; Trump played 19 times.) And this after Trump himself repeatedly howled over Obama’s fondness for the links and swore that if he were president he would be far too busy to ever play golf.
At the other end of the crimes-against-humanity spectrum, polls suggest that most Trump supporters a) don’t believe that Trump or his people actively collaborated with the Kremlin to rig the election, and b) even more astonishingly, many of them many of them would not be bothered if he had.
Think about that for a moment. This from Republicans, historically the most Russophobic segment of the US population, and the most sanctimoniously hawkish on national security. So that’s the level of mass psychosis at play in the American public right now.
It’s a popular canard that economics is at the root of Trump’s support, but the facts don’t support that. Retrograde attitudes on race and gender and a predilection for authoritarianism are the most significant markers of support for Trump. The backbone of his fanbase is middle and even upper middle class white people who are driven by the usual right/left culture war issues and—gasp!—identity politics of their own, even as they consistently accuse Democrats of exploiting the same.
These people are the Afrikaners of American life, desperately clinging by their fingernails to their position of privilege as they watch a tide of black, brown, and yellow enveloping them. Trump ascended in direct reaction to Obama, as the logical extension of the Tea Party movement which—despite its straight-faced claim—was less concerned with taxation than with the horror of a black guy in the Oval Office. Those tax issues had been around for years, but the Tea Party didn’t coalesce until January 2009—rather suspicious timing to say the least. There goes the neighborhood indeed.
On the heels of Barack, the prospect of a female president was more than the reactionary right could bear, and it didn’t even make any real effort to hide that fact. As NRA president and human colostomy bag Wayne LaPierre tellingly said, “Eight years of one demographically symbolic president is enough.”
I will not make the sweeping statement that all Trump voters are racists, to name just one thing about them that comes up on the Family Feud board. We progressives are told not to be so insulting toward such a big swath of the American electorate, people who we ostensibly we need to “win over.” Whenever I hear that, I am reminded of Zero Mostel telling Gene Wilder to be polite and not to offend the Nazi playwright who authored “Springtime for Germany” as they attempt to option his play.
I am not in the business of accommodating people who have sold their souls to the devil.
But by the same token, I genuinely do not believe that all Trump voters are racists….or fascists, or rapacious gangster kleptocrats. But to vote for Trump was to demonstrate a disturbing level of comfort with those aspects of the man and his campaign. It meant that none of that stuff bothered you enough to vote otherwise, or even just stay home. No one can seriously argue that Trump’s many personal sins, weaknesses, hypocrisies, and lack of qualifications could legitimately be ignored. Indeed, per above, many of his voters actively admired all those qualities. Those Americans who had reservations about Trump—reservations??!!—but “held their nose” and voted for him were engaged in a kind of willful denial (and still are, to the extent that they remain supportive). And if you’re comfortable enough with Trump’s racism to overlook it, at a certain point, yeah, you are a racist.
Some of these people rationalized their vote on the alleged grounds that “the alternative was worse”—which is to say, Hillary and the Democrats. Accepting that argument requires a degree of irrational intellectual acrobatics that beggars the imagination. Others—so-called single issue voters—said it was all about seats on the Supreme Court, or in the federal judiciary at large, or abortion, or Israel, or what have you. None of those arguments hold water either. Given the vast range and scope of the damage Trump can do as president, and is in fact doing, it’s difficult to credibly claim that any single issue was so paramount that it could justify putting this reckless, unfit cretin in the most powerful office in the free world.
But we did.
BUYERS’ REMORSE FOR BUNCO VICTIMS: A PRACTICAL GUIDE
There have been endless predictions that when Trump voters begin to feel the pain of the GOP policies for which they inexplicably voted, they will mutiny. They will wake up to the fact that they’ve been conned and turn on their orangutan-hued standard bearer, taking to the streets (or at least the polls) with torches and pitchforks.
It’s a rational argument, and certainly an appealing one. After all, a lot of these people are under-educated (“I love the poorly educated!”), many of them in dying industries that cannot be brought back to life no matter how much smoke is blown up their collective ass, and often dependent on government programs like Medicaid and others that Ryan & Company are positively giddy at the prospect of slashing (with Trump’s doltish approval, despite his transparent campaign promises that he would never do such a thing).
Yeah, those people may eventually turn on Trump. But millions of Americans have been voting against their own economic self-interest for decades, at least since the Southern Strategy brought them into the GOP in droves. Generally speaking, human beings are loath to admit they’ve been conned, especially when a huge chunk of their core self-image is invested in the scam. These otherwise decent people have been sold so much snake oil over the past fifty years that they practically hiss. They have been voting for policies that hurt them and benefit millionaires and billionaires for so long—taking food out of the mouths of their children to further line the pockets of the already obscenely rich—that it no longer even registers. In that regard, Trump is nothing new, just the latest and most extreme example of supply side trickle down economics taken to its most immeasurably cruel extreme. And there is less reason than ever to believe that the victims of that Robin Hood-in-reverse scheme will suddenly wake up now and challenge it.
The hypocrisy and patent cruelty of Trumpcare is a perfect example. Crafted in almost occult secrecy, not only without a single public hearing but without giving even Republican senators a fair chance to read and digest it, it represents not just an astonishingly naked effort to brutalize the most vulnerable among us in order to make the rich richer, but does so without even the fig leaf of public accountability. (And of course, that is after the GOP spent years howling that the Obamacare, which had months of open debate and hundreds of public hearings, had been “jammed down the throats of the American people.”)
Does Mitch McConnell not think we’ll eventually notice? Does he not think that sooner or later there will be blowback if and when Trumpcare goes into effect and the American people—those who voted for his party even more than most—begun to suffer from its horrors? Maybe the Republicans are gambling that by then it will be too late and they will have already gotten away with it, especially if they continue to control both houses of Congress and the Presidency. Maybe they’re betting they can weather the storm of outrage, or even—yes—somehow blame it on the Democrats. Do you doubt it? After draft-dodging George Bush succeeded in painting Silver Star-winning John Kerry as a coward and a traitor….after Donald Trump succeeded in portraying Hillary Clinton as the crooked one? We are in “Alice in Wonderland” territory, folks. Anything is possible.
IN MY TRIBE
Less than six months into Trump’s unique reign of terror by incompetence, tribalism in America remains shockingly powerful. I am beginning to wonder if it will ever crumble of its own accord, short of a total collapse of American democracy that might take decades to unfold and even longer to repair, if repair is even possible.
There have been four special Congressional elections since Trump took office and the Republicans have won all four. Clearly Trump’s toxicity has not yet reached the level where he is alienating enough right wing voters to make a difference. To switch metaphors to one popular on cable news, the seawall seems to be holding—for now.
In Montana, the Republican candidate—a multimillionaire, naturally—physically beat the shit out of a reporter who dared ask him about Trumpcare on the eve of the election, in front of numerous other reporters no less, and still won the next day. Admittedly, a lot of early votes had already been cast, and Montana is a deep deep shade of crimson, practically ground zero for nutjob right wing libertarianism. Still, it wasn’t a result that made Republicans think they were under any obligation to begin behaving like decent human beings. Yes, Jon Ossoff came close in Georgia’s 6th district, though I’m not sure what that means, harbinger wise. Is it cause for progressive optimism, as that is a bright red district that Romney won by 23 points, yet last week the Republican candidate Karen Handel squeaked by with less than 10,000 votes? Or is it depressing to think that the sixth most highly educated district in the country still voted for a candidate tethered to the worst troglodyte ever to sit behind the Resolute desk? (See above re the fairy tale that Trumpkins are all dirt poor dumbass rednecks.) Or was the whole Georgia race irrelevant because of the obscene amount of money both sides poured in for the only fight on the card, a situation that won’t be duplicated during the regular midterms eighteen months from now?
Ultimately, “almost a victory” is pointless on the horseshoes-and-hand grenades scale. If Democrats “almost” win every race in 2018 they will still be on the outside of the Capitol building looking in. And this cannot be chalked to blithe ignorance or naiveté, like some of the Trump votes back in November. These voters have seen what Trump is about, and the shamefulness of the GOP in sticking by him, and yet they are still onboard.
But Georgia does speak to the vast ground the GOP has lost due to Trump, and perhaps the Democrats can further exploit that in the months to come. Maybe it’s simply too early for the aforementioned seawall—which is indisputably leaking—to completely collapse. Even tribalism has its limits. Trump has only been in office roughly 150 days, and already has record lows in approval ratings. He may yet drag his party down.
Or maybe not.
WAVE OF MUTILATION
We are not alone in this current wave of neo-fascism, of course. I don’t believe in American exceptionalism as it is usually defined, and since I won’t accept the hosannas that we are a nation chosen by God to rule the world, neither will I accept the condemnation that we are uniquely evil. Trump’s win was of course preceded by Brexit, which reflects a virulent right wing nationalism that has been at work in Europe for decades, even in the famously civilized Scandinavian countries, with their enviable cradle-to-the-grave social welfare systems, high cheekbones, and morose art films. Going further back in recent history, we’ve seen dictatorships triumphant in Italy and Spain and Greece, to say nothing of police states behind the Iron Curtain. During the war we saw appalling collaborationism from the Low Countries to the Balkans and everywhere in between. Few countries can claim never to have suffered from a brush with autocracy; many have dealt with it chronically. And just for the sake of completism, let’s repeat the old but still valid chestnut that Germany was the most civilized country in Europe when it succumbed to the worst incarnation of fascism in human history, the country of Goethe and Kant and Beethoven that is now permanently stained with the mark of the twisted cross and the poisonous legacy of the Wannsee Conference.
It’s a hopeful sign that since Trump that trend seems to have halted abroad, or at the very least slowed. In every national European election since November, the far right parties have been turned back—most notably, in Austria (!) and France. Maybe what happened in the US scared the piss out of the voters of the erstwhile EU. It certainly scared the piss out of me.
The United States’ own tradition of Know Nothing nativism speaks for itself, even if the extent and degree of its latest resurgence caught most of us off guard. But it shouldn’t have. Just confining ourselves to the last two centuries, the reactionary right in the USA has given us Joe McCarthy, John Birch, the Red Menace, Nixon, Bush 43, and now Trump. The Kremlin didn’t invent disinformation; long before it began meddling in the 2016 election the GOP—through its subsidiary, Fox News (or is it the other way around?—had been poisoning the American public with a non-stop stream of lies, fearmongering, and divisiveness.
In the The New Yorker, Stephen Metcalf opined that the recently departed Roger Ailes, Fox’s founder and Trump’s good friend, did more to damage American society than anyone since McCarthy, and it’s hard to argue with that (at least until Trump gets done shitting the bed). Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone called Ailes “one of the worst Americans ever.” With his death and the attendant retrospectives of his career, it’s been widely reported that Ailes designed Fox deliberately as a money-making machine predicated on scaring old white people with the usual bogeymen, and feeding them a toxic stew of resentment, racism, and other reactionary bullshit. Uh, it worked. That Ailes himself genuinely subscribed to that loathsome ideology seemed just a bonus, and distinct from his cynicism. But his greed and his politics were perfect companions. Oh yeah—and he was a sexual predator, the Fox trifecta.
There are lots of guilty parties complicit in the destruction of journalistic credibility in America, but by sheer virtue of its size and reach Fox is first among equals. Despite its fierce protests to the contrary, it indisputably functions as a propaganda department for the right wing, specializing in distortions, half-truths, and outright falsehoods in order to attack opponents of the plutocratic agenda. In a bitter irony, Fox itself claims of course to be the only reliable source of TV news in America, making an article of faith of the idea that it is the rest of the “mainstream media” that is biased. Joe Goebbels would be proud.
NOW IS OUR TIME
Apropos of last week’s essay, I would argue that Trump is not worthy of all this attention, but it’s not about him. He’s merely a macguffin. What is worthy of our attention, epically so, is this moment of crisis that he is accidentally central to, like a pigeon sucked into the jet engine of a 747 and threatening to bring it down. (Metaphor alert: in this analogy, the 747 is democracy. That was clear, right? The part of Sully Sullenberger will be played by Robert Mueller.)
So what do we do? Once we have accepted the hard truth that we brought this plague upon ourselves, how do we find a way forward?
I don’t know. I can’t do everything, people. Isn’t it enough that I spew all this vitriol every week? Someone smarter than me is gonna have to figure that one out. But this is surely a pivotal moment in American history, the kind we will all have to look back on one day and answer to the question: “Gramps, what did you do during that dark night of the soul?”
The challenges of the present political moment are self-evident, but they also offer a rare opportunity for we the people to stand up and make a decisive change for the good. I will not go so far as to hope there will be a silver lining to the Trump presidency, and I remain skeptical of the hardcore left-wing that—as a kind of consolation prize for Bernie’s defeat—openly preferred Trump to Hillary, imagining that he would hasten la revolucion. But I do think that out of this current madness there is a chance to truly build a real progressive movement for America, one that has teeth.
To that end, one of the most defiantly optimistic—yet pragmatic—viewpoints I’ve recently heard was this one from the Rev. Dr. William Barber II, chairman of the NAACP’s Legislative Political Action Committee and president of its North Carolina chapter. I’ll quote him below, but please click on this link. You really have to hear him say it:
Sometimes you have to look at what your enemy did to defeat you to find your strength….
(If) in order to win they had to lie almost every other ten minutes; they had to find a way to put pornographic sums of money into the electoral pot; they had to spend years pushing voter suppression; they had to use fear against Muslims, against immigrants; they had to be helped by the media that played too long with Trump and gave him too much free press; and then they had to go all the way over to Russia and get help.
If somebody cheats you, they don’t cheat you because you’re weak. People only cheat you when they can’t beat you in a fair fight. Then that says that we are stronger than we realize. And this is not the worst thing we’ve ever faced! People made it through slavery; people made it through the denial of women’s rights; people made it through the Depression in this country; people made it through apartheid and Jim Crow. It‘s our time to stand up and be the moral dissenters, the moral defibrillators, and the moral dreamers and to make it through this moment and use it to change the course of history, to change America, and—in some ways, if we work together—to change the world.
THE KING’S NECKTIE will be on hiatus next week for the Fourth of July. Happy birthday America. When we return on July 13th, a sobering assessment of the even broader evil currently in play….
Photo at top, in tribute to NEA martyr Andres Serrano