Thirty one months have passed since the beginning of the Presidential campaign of Donald Trump, through his nomination and his inauguration and now just short of a year in office. For me, and many others, the actions he and the Republican Congress take on a daily and sometimes hourly basis register as crushing, enraging, and overwhelming in their capacity to inspire dread. The most recent action being the passage of a tax bill that should give new, 21st century American connotations to words like plunder and pirate.
But it is Trump’s style that I am trying to understand here, that chaotic, dominating, furious explosion of tweets, lies, insults to American and foreign leaders, seditious collusion with Russia to win the election, support for Nazis and pedophiles, disdain for the rule of law and his joy in cruelty.
There are so many strands of this chaos operating at one time, it is impossible to keep track of them. The very nature of his style is assaultive — as if it were a virus mutating before your eyes, Medusa-like, poisoning its host in apparent and invisible ways, copying itself in resurgent white power groups, in his die-hard 35 or 40 percent political supporters, and in many fundamentalist ‘Christian’ churches. One can witness some of the damage his ‘virus’ is doing — the reinforcement of tribal and racial divisions, the creation of enemies (Muslims, black and brown people, immigrants, refugees, reporters), the encouragement of worlds of belief that have nothing to do with factual reality, the fostering of anti-democratic norms of governance (witness the process by which this tax bill was written and passed).
But because this ‘virus’ makes so much ‘noise’, much of its damage can be intuited more so than seen: do you also wake sometimes at 3 in the morning, that most despairing hour, thinking nightmare thoughts about his* potential to so weaken American democracy that it ceases to function? Sometimes, lying there, wide-awake, I can feel a catastrophe coming — the way a body’s defenses suddenly crash under the assault of cascading organ and system breakdowns, his ‘virus’ rampant, his chaos surging toward the destruction of its host. For Trump’s ‘virus’ is inherently destructive of its body, this nation, which even now, only thirty-one months into the Trump faux-Imperium, reels before his terrifying ability to cause illness and wreckage every_ day.
We have never seen anything like this before. We have never had a media environment so filled with conduits for information and images, so replete with such varieties of sophisticated devices to access those conduits. Trump dominates those conduits. You either cut yourself off completely, or you live with him in your head in an ever shifting array of stories and analysis. Because so much of what he communicates is vile and a lie and watchable, as you watch you keep saying, among other things, “I cannot believe what I am seeing.”
He is creating a new kind of American political regime, not fascism, not even authoritarianism, too much a 20th century description to apply here, but a kind of dark, pagan festival, perhaps a hyper-speed auto-de-fe, that veers and bends at the quickness of a tweet, that like earlier, nativist American political movements, cultivates economic resentment, racism, paranoia and vast ignorance but presents them in a package of ludicrous bellicosity and wink-wink nudge-nudge outrageousness and does all of this faster than you can reflect upon its individual elements. Sometimes his style and message feels like Mussolini wrapped up in Monty Python. The fact of Trump’s power, of course, removes it from anything funny.
Trump is the culmination of his Party’s long hatred of the poor. They have turned Proudhon’s maxim of “Property is Theft” into “Taxes are Theft”. They and their supporters believe that they are autonomous agents of their own destiny, free from history, free from institutions, free from most constraints on their power to do as they please, and that the poor, those fallen on bad times, poor children and single mothers, the ones who clean the toilets, pick up the garbage, serve the burgers, are the ‘takers’, the parasites, the ones Senator Grassley spoke of today in describing those citizens who do not invest: “… they are just spending every darn penny they have, whether it’s on booze or women or movies.” Trump is the agent of a long standing Republican pathology, a demented, Puritan libertarianism raised up to the status of a sacrament. His style, his ‘virus’, has weaponized that pathology and found its near perfect expression in this tax bill.
The ruins he and his ilk will leave behind will take a generation of patient work to repair, that is, if we survive as a nation of 50 States and do not spin off into secession and hostile borders. A year ago such a scenario would have been wholly unimaginable. Now, I am not so sure.
However all of this ends, it will not do so because of Mueller’s investigation or even if the Senate and House go Democratic in 2018. Trump is remaking the Republicans into a white nationalist Party, into a plutocratic domain, into a group that will accept any corruption and any denial of reality as long as they are able to retain power. Some large percentage of the electorate will love that new Party, and therefore the broadest possible coalition will have to be constructed to defeat it. That takes time and leadership. The Democrats do not have that leadership right now. Pelosi and Schumer are too tied into the old elite of money and cozy politics. Sanders and Biden?? Please spare us the vanity of old men (such vanity would include Warren as well). The Democrats do not have an alternative message. They are thrashing about in the muck left by the workings of the ‘virus’. They too are prone to their own versions of purity and of heretic-hunting. Whomever finally leads them against the Republican death-cult will need his or her own personal Orwell whispering to them, “You do not have all the answers. You must not hate. You must resist hubris.”
A virus lives within a body’s cells. That makes it resistant to medicine, to cures introduced from outside the body. The body’s own immune system must fight it. What might we employ to fight Trump’s virus that we already possess, that already lives within the body politic — how about a coalition organized around these ideals: fairness; basic human decency; the rule of law; the preservation of life; the belief in facts and evidence. Those ideals give those appalled by Trump and the death-cult a place to begin. They counter Republican nihilism with ideas that affirm life and the worth of every human being. One might even call them, collectively, something whose kin is love.
*let his include the Republican Party, whose leadership and donors employ Trump, the useful idiot, to further their goal of the destruction of the New Deal model of government and replace it with rule by capital and corporations. To paraphrase Tacitus, they mean to make a wasteland and call it peace.
**In Janine di Giovanni’s great book Madness Visible, an 80 year old Yugoslav, a former guerilla commander who fought against the Nazi’s, watches the Serb paramilitaries under Milosevic celebrating their ethnic cleansing of parts of Kosovo. He says this: “Nationalism is poison. They hate everybody and everything.”