What might have seemed like a fluke has become a serious danger. The new occupant of the White House will continue to astound a world that underestimated the risks: a daunting threat shaped not only by the reactionary, vindictive and aggressive discourse of the Republican candidate, but even more by the fervor of his voter base. What can be done? The author of this review of the implications of Trump’s victory contends that “now more than ever, reconquering reality is crucial”
After the shrillest, most non-conventional and obscene presidential campaign in the history of the United States, the country has woken up with a political and cultural hangover, as if it were coming off an 18-month bender and leaving behind a wake of shameful, humiliating and regretful episodes it wishes it could forget. Nothing seems harder than starting over with a clean slate after such appalling excess. The victors, on the other hand, are in ecstasy. Perceptions aside, what is left is a divided country—broken might not be too strong a word: bright red (Republican) in middle America, rural areas, the suburbs, the Deep South, and even the Rust Belt (the old industrial corridors that used to vote reliably Democrat); and blue (Democrat) in the big cities and the progressive bastions of the coasts. Hillary Clinton lost the Electoral College despite getting 3 million more popular votes than Trump. This would make a circumspect president moderate his policies due to the narrow margin of victory. Not Trump: he has stated on numerous occasions, with his proven capacity for self-deception, that his victory was overwhelming, unprecedented.
Now, the big question is how to deal with four or eight years of leadership that is beyond controversial, that lurches toward the grotesque, and that frankly is dangerous in almost every way imaginable. Some who oppose the man who loves putting his name on everything in huge, golden letters, have opted for “giving him a chance,” while others refuse to “normalize” him and accept the inevitable. This is irrelevant: the Trump presidency is already in place and it is better to face up to the possible implications for the country and the world, under the leadership of a man with no political experience or curiosity, but plenty of ambition, an outsized ego, and a clear vision of handing the reins of government over to a few successful (multimillionaire) men (and a couple of women) who see the world first and foremost through the lens of financial gain and economic benefits. This is a reactionary and repressive turn that will very likely give rise to a government that is fundamentally different from right-wing administrations like those of Reagan, Nixon, and the Bushes, because it has grown out of the accumulation of conservative discontent, the political indifference of the public, and the dumbing-down of the citizenry over the last few decades.
Trump launched his presidential campaign claiming that his business acumen would enable him to renegotiate international agreements and make the country a real winner again. He was an anti-politician who would dismantle the current corrupt bi-partisan system and “drain the swamp” that is Washington. As the leader of the “free world,” he loudly promised that he would punish the nation’s enemies relentlessly. This insult-charged and populist rhetoric got him into the Oval Office. It is too early to tell whether he will manage to deliver on these promises, but we do know that Trump is an impatient man, easily bored by policy details. He is incapable of focusing on topics that lack a high dose of drama, hence his obsession with sending out tweets filled with nonsense and provocations at any time of the day or night, aimed at lighting up the networks, setting the media agenda, and keeping journalists busy around the world. We also know that he is shallow, and fascinated by strident messages and mysteries that turn mundane matters into high intrigue, full of dark secrets. Conspiracies do exist, of course, but there is an important line to be drawn between such matters as Watergate, and the assertion that the moon landing was staged in a movie studio. Our present society has lost its bearings when it comes to conspiracies, and many would just as soon believe in aliens held captive in Area 51 as in neoconservatives faking evidence that Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons.
For years, Trump was obsessed with Barack Obama’s birth certificate; in fact, he became the de facto leader of the birther movement, which claimed that the president was illegitimate because he had been born in Kenya, a ridiculous and easily refutable lie that Trump kept pushing, claiming to have a bombshell that he would reveal at the right time. When pressure mounted, he admitted that Obama had indeed been born in Hawaii, but instead of owning up to his mistake, he bragged that he had finally settled the matter. During his campaign, Trump floated other conspiracy theories with varying degrees of media impact. There were claims that Ted Cruz’s father had been involved in Kennedy’s assassination, that Obama and Hillary Clinton had created the Islamic State, that if he lost, it would mean that the election was rigged (not if he won, though). After he was elected he stated, with no evidence whatsoever, that two million illegal immigrants had cast ballots for Hillary Clinton.
Edgar Maddison Welch turns himself to the police on December 4, 2016, after opening fire at a restaurant because he thought that Hillary Clinton operated a child pornography ring there. He had read this information in a fake news report on the internet. Photo: AP
The nation has splintered into hundreds or thousands of faith communities, groups that share visions, hatreds, defending beliefs that they are rarely willing or able to substantiate. Conspiracy theories are the foundation of their worldview, and one in particular seemed to capture the unhinged alternate reality that some Trump fans inhabit: pizzagate. This absurd conspiracy theory emerged from Wikileaks’ release of e-mails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign. On Internet chats and sites such as 4Chan and Reddit, some people began to speculate that John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, had used the initials CP (which stood for Cheese Pizza) to refer to Child Porn. This led to an insane story that had Hillary, Podesta, and other Democrats running a child trafficking ring out of Comet Ping Pong, a Washington D.C. restaurant, and that they used these children for orgies and satanic rituals. The story was absurd, most likely hatched by trolls with a twisted sense of humor, but many believed it, including Edgar Welch, a native of North Carolina who hopped into his pick-up, armed with an automatic rifle, and drove to the pizzeria to investigate the case for himself. Once there, Welch fired his rifle, terrorizing customers and personnel, to intimidate the alleged child traffickers. He demanded to see the dungeons where they kept their underage sex slaves. Fortunately, nobody was hurt, and the self-made avenger was arrested.
It is impossible to imagine a modern society, be it open and democratic, or tyrannical and paranoid, that does not resort to imaginative or deranged conspiracy theories to explain how the world “really” works. These alternative versions of reality owe their existence to the distrust that people feel toward authorities, and they are as inevitable as the common cold. However, when the president himself is the one pushing these conspiracy theories, the foundations and credibility of the State are shaken. Trump was not personally responsible for pizzagate, but the wave of agitation, fear and anti-elitist suspicion that greased the wheels of his campaign has created a breeding ground in which skepticism toward mainstream media can morph into morbid gullibility when it comes to conspiracy theories. Now, the conspiracy theorist in chief has surrounded himself with warmongering generals, apolitical millionaires and fanatics who share his worldview. This unnerving combination and the absence of rational grown-ups in the room could very well push the world off a cliff.
The cornered press
During his campaign, Trump kept pointing to the press as the enemy, as an even more dangerous rival than “crooked Hillary,” and promised to avenge their accusations and attacks. He said that he would change the libel laws, and even alter the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression, in order to sue the media and “make a lot of money.” Trump is obsessed with celebrity and the media. For decades, he seemed to dedicate his efforts to appearing on TV and radio programs and in tabloid headlines. For this man, nothing is more frustrating than being ignored. His entire campaign, in many ways, was an exercise of extreme megalomania, a colossal effort to become the most famous person in the universe. Winning the election was, for him, like winning a reality show. In fact, on The Apprentice, he already played a sort of “master of the universe,” setting tasks and rewarding or punishing contestants with a dismissive gesture from on high. But in this case, electoral victory is only the first step. He has turned the cabinet selection process into a media show, and taken every opportunity his new job gives him to expand his personal fortune. The script for his presidency? A succession of shows, all starring him.
Thus, this glorified landlord, who is used to surrounding himself with toadies and yes-men, does not take kindly to media questioning, not even from a press corps that has been house-trained through a regimen of celebrity bombshells and tweets. Shortly after his electoral victory, he invited a number of U.S. media luminaries to his tower for an off-the-record meeting. Journalists felt flattered, and accepted with no questions asked, thinking it would be an opportunity to congratulate the president-elect and start over after a particularly aggressive campaign. Instead, Trump used the occasion to scold them, complaining how unfair they had been to him, and accusing them of spreading prejudice and lies. Trump knew how to play to the ego and expectations of these distinguished members of the press, how to “put them in their place” and intimidate them. Shortly after that, he went to the New York Times building and operated in a completely different way. He was ingratiating and conciliatory, and said that the newspaper was the one of the nation’s crown jewels, apparently forgetting that he had said throughout his campaign that the newspaper was a disaster on the verge of bankruptcy; he also seemed to forget his lawsuits, real and threatened, against the institution and several of its employees. This schizophrenic game, devoid of the most elementary coherence, has the media in a state of unprecedented confusion.
Panoramic view of the Women’s March, held in Washington D.C. on January 21 of this year, one day after Trump’s inauguration as President of the United States.
Ever since the start of his campaign, Trump has attracted far-right groups with his denouncement of Mexicans as criminals and Muslims as terrorists. This was the type of message that militants of numerous nativist, racist, and neo-fascist organizations in the United States were waiting to hear. In this age of social networks and cyber-bullying, these organizations have been grouped under the umbrella heading of Alt-Right (Alternative Right), a wide tent with room for the Ku Klux Klan, neo-reactionary groups and conventional Nazis. It is too soon to know whether Trump is an outright fascist, but his certification or pedigree as a Nazi is immaterial and only concerns his followers on that far end of the political spectrum. We can assume that Trump will try to do what he promised during his campaign: to build a wall along the Mexican border, to ban Muslims from entering the country, to deport undocumented immigrants, to ban flag-burning, to wipe out terrorists along with their families, to reinstate torture (“much worse than before”), and to launch a new arms race, a topic he has broached recently.
For evidence that he will follow this same path one need look no further than the people he has surrounded himself with and his cabinet picks, some of whom are downright laughable. There is Rex Tillerson, ex-CEO of Exxon, with numerous oil-related interests around the world, for Secretary of State; Jeff Sessions, a Senator for Alabama with a long line of accusations of racism against him, and a full-throated enemy of immigration reform, for Attorney General; multimillionaire Betsy DeVos, who in essence wants to dismantle the public education system, for Secretary of Education; Ben Carson, an ex-neurosurgeon and Republican primary candidate who has argued that homosexuality is a choice, a vocal opponent of welfare for the most vulnerable, and a notorious anti-Muslim, for Secretary of Housing; Scott Pruitt, who served as Attorney General of Oklahoma and has strong ties to the oil industry, for head of the Environmental Protection Agency, a body he has repeatedly pledged to dismantle; Rick Perry, ex-Governor of Texas, for Secretary of Energy, one of the three departments that he proposed to eliminate during his primary campaign for president; Andrew Pudzer, who owns two fast-food chains, who has opposed labor protection laws as well as any increase to the minimum wage, for Secretary of Labor; General Michael Flynn, who believes that fear of Muslims is rational and has met with European Nazi party leaders (his son was partly responsible for spreading the pizzagate conspiracy theory, which led to his dismissal from the Trump campaign), for National Security Advisor; Steven Mnuchin, one of the Goldman Sachs multimillionaires who benefited from the 2007 financial crisis, for Secretary of the Treasury, in spite of numerous accusations of racial discrimination weighing against him and his utter lack of government experience; Steve Bannon, the former general manager of the far-right news website breitbart.com, as Trump’s chief political strategist; David Freedman, Trump’s bankruptcy lawyer and a commentator for Zionist publications, who is in favor of colonizing the West Bank and opposes any form of a Palestinian State, for ambassador of the United States to Israel.
Members of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet. Photo: Reuters
All of these picks are conservatives with extremist, anti-government worldviews, and many donated large sums to his campaign. They lack experience and a good number have strong ties to Wall Street and the financial sector. Trump seems oblivious to the paradox that during his entire campaign he attacked Hillary Clinton for being too cozy with this sector. Trump’s transition team is full of lobbyists who will make sure that what he calls “the swamp” of Washington will not be drained.
For Trump’s cabinet, as well as for the Alt-Right in general, social struggles, the defense of human rights and minority rights represent obstacles for the progress and the greatness of America. So the next four years are sure to bring a series of programs designed to rewind the social, labor, and environmental gains of the last 40 years. Opponents of this administration will find themselves running great risks. Trump has expressed his intention to use existing hyper-surveillance and espionage methods and to authorize their expansion. The man who has made fun of the disabled, who brags about grabbing women’s genitals, and despises groups such as Black Lives Matter, is obsessed with knowing what everyone thinks and wants. In the brave new world that Trump has ushered in, those who show proper reverence and admiration for his authority and power will find success. In his imagination, everything will be fine as long as the entire nation behaves the way his hard-working and servile hotel employees do.
What to do next?
Now, more than ever before, reconquering reality is crucial, but it is by no means an easy task. We live in fictitious times, as Michael Moore said it when he accepted, in 2003, his Academy award for Bowling for Columbine. Even then, the situation was not even remotely as ominous as it is now, when we live in a post-factual era of “fake news.” In a highly polarized environment, even the most outrageous aberrations suddenly become credible. Nothing is more necessary in these times than skepticism, than distrusting alarmist reports that are too bad or too good to be true. Facebook’s promise of vigilance and oversight is not enough to eliminate propaganda, demeaning information, racist and misogynistic discourse, and other types of fraud. In fact, trusting the criteria used by Mark Zuckerberg’s company to determine what we can and cannot see does not seem like a very promising strategy. In the end, Trump and his commissars will take advantage of every available mechanism to censor critical opinions that they consider indecent, subversive, or unpatriotic. The last thing we need is to give him more resources of repression.
Trump has not concealed his desire to deregulate everything he can. Like other businessmen, he believes that environmental regulations are obstacles to production and trade. Trump’s position regarding global warming has been schizophrenic. On the one hand, he has claimed it is a Chinese conspiracy, and on the other, he has repeated over and over, “I’m not a scientist, but nobody really knows anything,” thus denying the numerous scientific studies that have proven the existence of this threat. The country will step back from the few environmental initiatives that are currently in place. Anticipating this, the Obama administration placed an indefinite ban on oil-drilling in parts of the Atlantic and the Arctic. Trump had yet to take office and oil industry magnates and their lawyers were already looking for ways around this restriction. One of the initiatives that were exposed was the creation of “enemies lists”, like those made famous by Nixon, which included, for instance, all government employees who had publicly stated the need to act responsibly toward the environment.
Among many other things, Trump wants to deregulate banks, financial institutions, and markets, to free them from burdensome commitments such as basic respect for consumers. Purges in public universities can also be expected. Academics linked to corporate interests will be installed in management and administrative positions at institutions of higher learning. Conservative think tanks will proliferate, as will smear campaigns against intellectuals and “political correctness.” Funding for public education and culture will be cut, which is why schools and universities must become front lines of resistance.
It is time to go back to the written press, to vindicate in-depth journalism, to put mechanisms back in place to defend democracy and denounce the strategies that Trump and his cabinet are eager to implement in order to benefit corporate America, the great fortunes, churches, and white-supremacy organizations. As Chris Hedges argues, committed and courageous media represent citizens’ most powerful weapon against militarized police repression, a justice system in the Executive branch’s pocket, the fanatical persecution of dissidents and opponents, and the systematic destruction of civil liberties.
In the midst this multi-front catastrophe, the Democratic Party must either reorganize or disappear, in order to give way to an institution that is committed to the interests of the working class and minorities, to the creation of sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants, to the protection of the environment, and to making this compulsive consumer society a civil society once again. This could be achieved with the influence of Vermont Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and Representative Keith Ellison. It is fundamental to break with Clinton’s version of the Democratic Party and its voracious appetite for economic and political support from the elites. It must also become a party again, not just a logo for passing the plate to rich and famous progressives. One thing is clear: if the Democratic Party does not fight to win back the working class and farmers it has betrayed, it might as well disappear, because its role as Republican Party lite is totally redundant. m.