By Michael Brenner for VT
Donald Trump retains the support of about 40% of the American public – or so the surveys say. Favorable ratings have moved little over the past 24 months. How do we explain it?
The first thing to say is that the large majority of those positive views are preferences of lifetime Republicans who would sooner transfer their NFL team allegiance than ever vote for a Democrat. It is a matter of ingrained fidelity and identity reinforced by bonding among fellow tribals. Asking these people why they are dedicated Republicans is like asking a Green Bay fan why he roots for the Packers. Little else counts besides the name, the team colors, and visceral hatred of traditional rivals. For these true believers, it’s of no moment that Trump is gross, deranged, incompetent, etc., etc. Some of his doings might be a bit much (like discovering a star player threw his girlfriend through a hotel window) but that in itself is not enough to shake basic loyalties. Indeed, some of Trump’s vilest actions may actually excite a nerve even while they are too profane to actually approve of, e.g. expressions of sympathy for neo-Nazis, kidnapping migrant kids and stuffing them into holding pens to be sexually abused, making a bundle through shady dealing in New York real estate, grabbing women whenever he wanted. (This refers even to those Trumpites who are not vehement racists, bitter misogynists or just sadists).
Such a medley of feelings and attitudes can produce a degree of cognitive dissonance. It can be contained, though, due to two features of the American polity. First, there is devotion to public figures – like favored newscasters – whose calling is to provide justification for prejudice, to screen information, and to offer formulations that override logic. (“It was only a 2nd story window and there was a clump of bushes outside”). In contrast to the past, most people now seek reinforcement and validation of their biases rather than guidance from authoritative sources. The latter are rare, even were there an inclination to seek them out. Second, there is the consequent ignorance. The less one knows about unsavory, potentially disturbing actions, the easier it is to keep one’s loyalties intact.
Powerful reinforcement of this drive toward blind tribalism is provided by social media, especially Facebook and Google, that intentionally funnel people into parochial niches where prejudice is stoked and bias is celebrated. Thus, the destructive consequences of Trump’s dismantling or crippling of all federal agencies (except the Pentagon and Intelligence), his volte-face on American military involvements in the Middle East, his give-aways to the rich, his array of criminal activities don’t cross the threshold of awareness to undermine faith and hope among the devout Republicans. One reason for this is the 24 hour news cycle with its emphasis on the sensational and the personal. Responsible journalism involves follow-up and persistence – neither is evident in the MSM. So, we see nothing about the fact that the Trump administration continues to violate a federal court order to cease separating immigrant children from their parents and scattering them to the four winds like so much refuse. The upwelling of criticism from elements of the Republican press dies down, as do the protests by church groups and others.
Democratic leaders are extremely helpful in this process of political illiteracy by their utter inability to focus attention on these misdeeds – other than the highly dubious Russia fable, to weave them into a narrative, and to mount a vocal challenge to the Trump/Republican propaganda barrage. They often don’t as much as throw a decent punch even when the opponent has lowered his guard and sticks his chin out. Democrats have perfected the ”dry strike.” The term refers to a rattlesnake bite that doesn’t inject any venom. That’s a way of announcing its presence without doing any lasting harm. It then slithers back into the underbrush. Someone like Corey Booker would be mortified just to have venom discovered in his possession. This wins them commendation for ‘moderation’ from the status quo press and pundits. For some Establishment Democrats like John Podesta, Rahm Emmanuel or Debbie Wasserman-Schultz this offsets electoral losses. (At this moment of national crisis, here is Barack Obama’s garter snake nip: “Democracy Is A Garden That Has To Be Tended.”)
Another factor to take into consideration is the psychology of respondents faced with a pollster’s query. Veracity is not the main thing on their minds. They are not trying to answer questions on an SAT exam. Ask then how they rate Trump as President and the question they hear (and respond to) is: “are you ready to admit that you were such a fool/bigot/dupe actually to support this deranged phony?” The implication could be that Trump’s support is narrower and more friable than the poll numbers suggest. Even so, it will take a forceful and skilled operation to pry them loose come election day 2020.
Still, we should recognize that the Trump presidency did not emerge full-blown from the unfurrowed brow of Uncle Sam. It is the culmination of trends in the country’s public life that were first visible decades ago. Indeed, they have been carefully cultivated by the Republican Party mainstream since the 1970s. What is peculiar about the Trump capstone to this devolution (apart from his mental state and antic behavior) is a calculated, overt move to bring to the surface and to validate dark pools in the national consciousness. They are ones of racism, xenophobic paranoia, jingoism, and predatory greed. We over-simplify matters by stating that closet racists and aggressive misogynists suddenly feel free to come out. There are some pure types like that. Greater in number are those who have harbored, consciously or not, feelings of that sort in a more diluted form. Previously, they were inhibited about expressing them. That inhibition has been lifted. More important, they have acquired a relative saliency in many people’s minds – thereby, are more likely to determine how a person votes and to whom they give their allegiance.
The True Believers are the core of the Trump support. They make up his “base.” Probably no more than 10-15% of the electorate, they are the loudest, the hyper-active, the unforgiving who set the tone for Republicans generally and who bring out their worst impulses. Donald Trump vents for them. To hear a candidate shrilly harangue and castigate in language normally heard in the den or bar after downing a few too many is exhilarating.* The others sing only half the Mass; he sings the whole Mass – every time. He apologizes to them on those few occasions when he doesn’t do so for tactical reasons. That affirms and exalts his followers – writing his name, and theirs, on the wind forever. His subliminal message: Why strive to be a man when you can be a success – look at me.
Today, in America, conditions are exceptionally favorable to this phenomenon. All bounds on public discourse have been breached; common standards and points of reference are effaced; and the institutions that in past mediated between individual feeling and collective decision have melted away. Our two political parties are either formless and empty (the Democrats) or sounding boxes for the very same demagoguery that moves its militants (like the Republicans). Other intermediate groups of civil society have been eclipsed by the waves of popular culture and the orgiastic mass media. There are no shock absorbers, no ‘adults’ superintending the hyper-active juveniles, no recognized authority to say ‘No Mas!’ No political super-ego.
It is as if a dead hand has been laid on organized political life in the United States – except on the Far Right. In other Western democracies, the electoral monopoly of one ‘leftist’ and one ‘rightest’ party has been broken by the eruption of new political formations. That is true in France, in Germany, in Italy, the Netherlands and in Spain. In those countries alienation from unresponsive self-absorbed political elites combined with discontents over the neglect of legitimate grievances has prompted rebellion against the established parties. In France, the disaffected have taken to the streets. Nothing comparable is imaginable in America. Here, the characteristic responses are: 1) passive withdrawal into personal life; 2) scapegoating that is grist for the mill of demagogues; 3) devotion to issue causes through the writing of a check or signing a petition; or 4) engaging in political pantomime closer to home: appealing for a speed bump on your residential cul-de-sac, agitating for transgender bathrooms at your school, protesting the increase in local real estate taxes, networking to obtain an extension of your foundation grant.
This is a dispiriting picture of our political scene. Let’s be honest with ourselves – how could it be otherwise. Most of us inhabit the swamp of popular culture – whether on narcissistic social media that stultify emotional and mental development, the insistent juvenilia of TV, the general celebration of ignorance, or the degrading burlesque that is our celebrity politics. The casual belief that all this is just innocuous mass entertainment is belied by our current state of affairs. Our minds are like scatter grams; therefore, unable to think and do anything with deliberate purpose. Want to explain Trump’s 40 percent? Look at your screen.
We live in a culture that shows unmistakable signs of nihilism (as discussed in an earlier essay). Anything goes. Can we really dispute the proposition that most of the country has become so scatter-brained that, when it comes to politics and government, the United States alone among established democracies could select as its leader a manifest psychopath (malignant narcissist and sociopath)who spends his time watching FOX news while devouring Big Macs and Diet Coke? Surrounded by fanatics, racists, swindlers and ignoramuses of the same ilk. Whose buffoonish antics make us the world’s laughing stock. Who is bent on a massive program of political destruction at home and abroad. Who, in the words of his long-time personal lawyer is “a con man, a cheat, a racist, and a liar” – an assertion that is documented not only by his exhibits but the very considerable record that has been available for years to anyone who might bother to look.
What mature polity other than America could endure all this while continuing to show a level of support that matches that of his predecessors at this point in their tenure. We treat it as a theatrical soap opera – a hustler’s game of the sort Trump himself used to revel in. Juvenile minds get so engrossed in the game that they view everything in simplistic terms of who’s up and who’s down as if the substance and consequence were insignificant. So we have The New York Times, within 48 hours of Cohen’s unprecedented, historic revelations reducing all to dubious electoral calculations in a long front page story: “Cohen’s Claims May Be a Wedge for Voters Just Right of Center.” What a puerile attitude – in its outdated, static conception of the political map, in its implicit denigration of what occurred, in its mindless pandering to an audience it has left untutored. The stake is the fate of the Republic that affects everyone – not some banal matter at the margins of our attention. For them, it’s little different from a tout sheet for the March Madness basketball tournament.
For the MSM, it is assumed that the modal ‘center’ of political life in the U.S. today has moved so far to the ‘Right’ that it lies somewhere between Steve Bannon and Michael Bloomberg. People like the NYT editors implicitly accept that as a given and calculate accordingly. This is wrong. Consider the numbers from the 2016 primaries: Bernie Sanders received nearly the same number of votes as Donald Trump (Trump – 14.016 million, Sanders – 13.305 million.) Yet Sanders is depicted by the MSM as a far-Left marginal figure whose unexpected success was an epi-phenomenon, while Trump has drastically reshaped our thinking about the potent forces of a predominant Right. In effect, the MSM have chosen to place Sanders on the road to oblivion.
A couple of days after the Cohen drama, the Times devoted its Sunday Magazine to adulatory stories about Sean Spicer (yes – that one), Mike Pompeo, and Lindsey Graham – as if to compensate for its coverage of the discomforting truths highlighted by Cohen. In 1972, John Dean’s Congressional Testimony that exposed Richard Nixon’s White House, was treated very differently by the same NYT. His confirmation that the President was a criminal, a cheat and a liar dominated all news for weeks. No one would have imagined a front-page follow-up report two days’ later on how the stunning event might win the Democrats a few more seats in elections two years down the road. Much less could one imagine the Sunday Magazine featuring ‘good guy’ stories on H.R. Haldeman, John Erlichman and Nixon loyalist Senator James Eastland.
So disengaged is this discourse from objective reality, so delusional, that our political class still hold to the belief that we have the authority and the duty to instruct the rest of world in democracy and ethical government. Indeed, we are becoming progressively more aggressive is using all our means to impose our will on dozens of peoples around the globe. This loss of contact with reality, the total absence of self-awareness and perspective, can be seen as a psychological disorder on a national scale.
Vaudeville and tragedy – the two ways of experiencing American presidential politics. Entertainment for sure. Tragedy in that the MSM, the pundits, the political “pros” and the solid citizenry talk earnestly of strategy, of policy positions, of political philosophy – as if the nation were engaged in sober discourse on the great issues of the times. As if the virtual were not the actual and the actual not the virtual. In a healthy polity, the populace would howl in mirth – and then discard them all. We are not a healthy polity.
Hence, the dilemma:
To grin, to chuckle so that the mind not suffer
An Escape to be wished
Yet, to awake, perchance to find it real; there’s the rub.
.To laugh, or to cry, that is the question:
Whether it is nobler to suffer the burdens of good citizenship
Or to laugh if all off. And by scorning it as ill-born humor
To risk heartache and a thousand unnatural shocks.
Prejudice is a multi-hued thread woven through the fabric of the American Republic. That was inevitable. The entire continent – land, resources, flora & fauna – was stolen from its indigenous inhabitants. An alien race and culture. Large chunks also were confiscated from Mexico by coercion, by outright theft, by legal machinations. Then, of course, there was slavery. The enslavement of millions of Africans who had no standing as anything more than chattel – an economic commodity – belied everything the new-found democracy supposedly stood for. No people, no state, no government so situated could avoid being steeped in racialism.
Three features of the situation were unique to the United States. First, there was an absolute minimal of interbreeding; and that which occurred was either hidden or carried no social status. Contrast with Mexico and most of Latin America. Second, the founding fathers were intellectual heirs of the Enlightenment. Most did indeed believe in the principles that are the foundation stones of the Constitution. Almost everyone felt obliged to pay them lip service. The great anomaly was the denial of even minimal human rights to slaves of African origin. There were no white slaves. Native Americans preferred to die rather than be slaves. Latinos occupied a twilight zone whose treatment depended on skin color, economic status, cultural identity and gender. There was pronounced discrimination against Latinos as a community. San Diego ran a segregated school system that separated Latinos from whites into the 20th century.
In Austin, the capital of Texas, many streets in the poor Mexican section of town were unpaved until about 1970 – the same year that the University of Texas Longhorns’ football team fielded its first black player. The mother of the baseball great Ted Williams 70 years ago, a San Diego native, was a Mexican-American whose existence was almost never mentioned even though he personally maintained close personal ties with that side of his family. (Inter-marriage with non-negro Mexicans was fairly common in the Southwest). Today, close to 1/3 of major leaguers are Latinos – overwhelmingly from abroad.
The strains generated by the glaring discrepancy between the holy precept that “all men are created equal” and their grossly unfair treatment in actuality have cast a shadow over the great American experiment that the bloody civil war itself did not resolve. Those strains were exacerbated by the manifest success of the country in integrating an immigrant population of unmatched diversity – of religion, nationality, ethnicity, cultural background. The civic union, sanctified by the secular religion of ‘Americanism,’ forged a nation with as distinct a sense of collective identity as any other – albeit more than a bit self-conscious about its exceptionalism and superiority. Not that relations among various Caucasian groups have always been just sweetness and light. The ‘melting pot’ formulation is overstated. Still, by global standards the political contract that formalizes adherence to the United States has a strong emotional underlay.
Three factors were most influential in crystallizing that identity. The country’s laws and public institutions reified the principle of non-sectarianism – even if unevenly enforced. That is one. Communal identity and ties to the mother country were superseded by loyalty to the United States. Some Irish-Americans and German-Americans felt twinges of uneasiness about fighting alongside the English in World War I. Yet there was no noteworthy draft-dodging. (Let’s recall the violent ant-draft riots that broke out in Northern cities during the Civil War). That is two. The physical intermingling of persons in a highly mobile society militated against the formation of exclusive communities defined by nationality or religion. People of all backgrounds (whites, anyway) mixed on the streets, in the workplace, in stores, in omnipresent sports venues and – especially – in public schools. The United States had what amounted to universal elementary education by the 1840s. Public schools are the one institution, above all others, that made Americans out of the motley waves of immigrants.
The current campaign to erode that system of public schools in the name of ‘choice’ is a clear and present danger to the United States as a unitary society. The project’s remarkable success owes to an odd alliance of parochial interests – religious, sectarian, ideological, and – not least – commercial. The phenomenon is at once a reflection of and a major contributor to the unravelling of American society as we have known it. Bigotry and prejudice of all kinds inevitably follow in train.
This is a suicidal exercise in monumental stupidity.