Trump Will Never Be a Normal President

Last night’s State of the Union speech was a masterstroke of psychological warfare against the American public. Donald Trump lightened his bellicosity after forty days of unbridled and imperious madness, speaking in a notably softer tone remarked upon by nearly every media outlet. Even when he had little to do with their laudable triumphs, Trump pointed to the frail and the weak, including Megan Crowley, who was diagnosed with Pompe disease at the age of fifteen months, and used this as a way to assail the Food and Drug Administration for its “slow and burdensome approval process.” (Never mind that the FDA approved Lumizyme in 2014 for Pompe patients.)

Instead of taking responsibility for his brash and reckless handling of the botched Navy SEAL mission in Yemen, which resulted in the needless death of Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens, Trump manipulated the hoi polloi by having Owens’s widow stand up and weep before the crowd, exonerating himself by claiming that a raid currently being investigated by the Pentagon for malfeasance, had been a success because a general had declared it so. A cult leader typically earns trust from his followers by modulating his fiery bluster so that any subsequent quiet words appear sane by comparison. He offers testimonials rather than facts, phony comforts instead of genuinely inclusive commitment he can back up. Trump’s address before the joint session was the subtle and deadly act of a dangerous and incorrigible demagogue, a gesture that proved so emotionally potent that progressive commentator Van Jones committed an unfathomable act of spineless treachery on live television, stating, “That was one of the most extraordinary moments you have ever seen in American politics, period.”

That Jones bought so easily into the cheap lie of national unity with such an astonishing declaration of hyperbole says much about where we now are as a nation and why partisan hacks need to tell the truth right now or lose their jobs. The manic energy of Trump’s near bipolar tweets, his Islamophobia and his callous war on non-criminial immigrants, his crazed inventions about “illegal voters” and terrorist plots in Sweden, and his colossal diplomatic missteps, to say nothing of his criminal appointments and his Cabinet’s likely collusion with Russia, is enough for any sane human being to curl under the blanket for the next four years or, heaven forfend, the next eight. It has created a landscape of fatigue where normalcy is an elixir, an ideal whereby opposing parties can again, theoretically at least, reach across the aisle and broker compromises. It accounts for former President George W. Bush, hardly a paragon of liberalism, being lionized for his anti-Trump remarks in a television interview. And it also accounts for why the Democratic Party, which has become a gutless and ineffective husk that no longer represents its progressive origins, opted for softball chair Tom Perez instead of the restorative brimstone that might have been consummated under Keith Ellison.

Trump is not, and never will be, a normal President. And as such, it is our duty to continue resisting this poisonous cancer in all forms, even when the regular acts of protest exhaust us. A putative leader who speaks in dulcet tones, wherever he may come from, must ultimately be judged by his policies, his ideas, and the full range of facts, not how he appears on camera. Previous Presidents have lied to us, but Trump’s fuzzy relationship with the truth is an unprecedented pox upon the marketplace of ideas. Trump’s failure to countenance objective facts or other perspectives is, if anything, an approach which creates national division rather than unity. As Hannah Arendt once observed:

Seen from the viewpoint of politics, truth has a despotic character. It is therefore hated by tyrants, who rightly fear the competition of a coercive force they cannot monopolize, and it enjoys a rather precarious status in the eyes of governments that rest on consent and abhor coercion. Facts are beyond agreement and consent, and all talk about them — all exchanges of opinion based on correct information — will contribute nothing to their establishment. Unwelcome opinion can be argued with, rejected, or compromised upon, but unwelcome facts possess an infuriating stubbornness that nothing can move except plain lies. The trouble is that factual truth, like all other truth, peremptorily claims to be acknowledged and precludes debate, and debate constitutes the very essence of political life. The modes of thought and communication that deal with truth, if seen from the political perspective, are necessarily domineering: they don’t take into account other people’s opinions, and taking these into account is the hallmark of all strictly political thinking. Political thought is representative. I form an opinion by considering a given issue from different viewpoints, by making present to my mind the standpoints of those who are absent; that is, I represent them….The more people’s standpoints I have present in my mind while I am pondering a given issue, and the better I can imagine how I would feel and think if I were in their place, the stronger will be my capacity for representative thinking and the more valid my final conclusions, my opinion.

Trump has demonstrated, more than any other President, that he does not possess this “enlarged mentality” of considering all standpoints. He bans media outlets that he does not agree with. He refuses to face the White House Correspondents at their yearly dinner. He fires acting Attorney General Sally Yates for acting upon the law. This is tyrannical fascism rather than the promise of a democratic republic. It is contrary to every known act of politics. Those who normalize this or who remain silent or who soft-peddle their stances and inquiries in this highly volatile time are a direct threat to the future of the United States. We must always remember that Trump is not normal and we must regularly protest him until we have some government that is close to normal.

Loser: A Report from the Trump Tower Protests

On Thursday, November 10, 2016, I attended the protests that had unfolded across the street from Trump Tower after Donald Trump had been elected the 45th President of the United States. I talked with anti-Trump activists, people who voted for Gary Johnson, people who voted for Trump, and people who didn’t vote at all in an attempt to understand how these unfathomable election results happened. (Running time: 32 minutes, 9 seconds)

Loser: A Report from the Trump Tower Protests (Download MP3)

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On the Rise of Trump, the Failure to Reach the American People, and the Importance of “Great”

It is all too easy to dismiss a Donald Trump voter as a mere xenophobic bigot or to assert that this flailing mass of supporters, which hangs upon the tyrant’s every terrible word, is little more than a blank uneducated slate with which to imprint the most sinister hatreds and sordid hypocrisies seen from an outsider presidential candidate since George Wallace. There are certainly polls which suggest that the Trump base is overwhelmingly white, with little more than high school education. But when you leave a person for dead, cut adrift without resources in a callous American wasteland, and when your answer to his unsavory entreaties is to leave him out of your Weltanschauung or to block him on Twitter, do not be surprised if he turns to a demagogue in anger. Do not be astonished when he turns furious when there are no jobs and his life is discounted and he is very much afraid and his griefs, which can be reckoned with if caught early enough, transform into a hateful cancer. Do not be shocked when a tyrant comes along who grants the illusion of inclusiveness and who plays into a voter’s fears with the most extraordinary and unthinkable statements imaginable. Because you, with your gluten-free meals and your yoga mats and your blinkered sunbeam privilege, were never there for him.

We have been here before with Ross Perot and the Tea Party and even John Anderson in 1980. But we have also been here with Occupy Wall Street and Ralph Nader and, presently on the Left, the promise of Bernie Sanders. Populism is an amorphous and intoxicating serpent, epitomized by the infamous 1829 inauguration of Andrew Jackson, in which a drunken mob stormed the White House shortly after this twisted Jeffersonian offshoot was sworn in as a “great” patriarchal protector, a throng that could only be coaxed from the inner sanctum by bowls of spiked punch stationed on the outside lawn. But like it or not, we must accept that the American people have been told repeatedly that their individual viewpoints matter, that an everyman’s perspective is just as valid as that of a statesman, and that the playing field, even after nearly every study has demonstrated that income inequality is worse now than it was during the Gilded Age, is level. It is a distressing mirage, an insurmountable dream that even our most level-headed politicians continue to prop up. But who can blame anyone for wanting to believe in it? If we didn’t have that promise, if we continued to accept doom and gloom and mass shootings as the new American normal, then we’d have no reason to participate in politics.

Trump understands all this. And he is willing to spout forth any prevarication if it will carry the public through the murk and into his manipulative hands. Trump has endured, despite his shocking proposal to block all Muslims from entering the United States, and has maintained a 20 point lead in the polls not so much because of his beliefs, but because no other politician, with the possible exception of Sanders, has sustained the image of a formidable leader who is well outside the tentacles of a broken establishment and who will fix every problem through the sheer force of his inflexible (if deeply problematic) will. That it has come down to some sordid and superficial yahoo who boasts of possessing “the world’s greatest memory” speaks to the ravenous American hunger for something great.

makeamericagreatagainWhen populism has excelled in our nation, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats and his many personal visits to workers employed through the Civilian Conservation Corps or the WPA (even if this came with the double-edged sword of internment camps), it was established on an intimacy between leader and follower, but one in which the follower had some real sense that his views were being considered. This was a relatively benign relationship predicated on national pride, of a belief in America as a nation of greatness. And if we listen to why voters are gravitating towards Trump, it becomes very clear that all they want is someone, anyone, who is aware of their existence and who will do something about it. They want someone who will “make America great again” or to make “America the way we once were.” The first sentiment is taken directly from a Trump supporter who is parroting the slogan on Trump’s website, that is indeed purchasable as a baseball cap, and that is inherently no different from Obama’s “Hope” campaign in 2008. And while it’s tempting to view this notion of “greatness” as something that is a regressive throwback due the “way we once were” qualifier, what voters are really communicating is that they want to be part of something great, which need not be rooted in recycling the past but in ensuring that greatness, previously experienced, is a palpable quality of our future. The promise of hope and change is simply not enough anymore. The American people rightfully demand a leader who will create results, even if this ideal is completely at odds with the realities of political compromise and brokering deals.

It is clear that Trump cannot be stopped through reasonable denouncements or a rhetorical standoff or pundits repeatedly limning his lies. What’s needed to sustain the American faith and reach the people is a voice that can speak stronger and with greater empathy and inclusion: a principled leader who won’t leave a single person behind (including Muslims) and whose very power will deflate all the air out of Trump’s balloon, exposing him for the hollow carnival act he really is. The Democrats have not had any presidential frontrunner willing to substantially include a voting bloc outside its centrist, middle-class demographic (that is, “working class,” blue-collar, the unemployed, or the homeless) since Mario Cuomo’s famous 1984 speech at the National Democratic Convention. This has been a serious mistake, especially given the nimble methods that Republicans have employed to scoop up this abandoned group of people. What made Cuomo’s speech so stirring was not just its remarkable truth-telling, but Cuomo’s insistence that he was not afraid to stand up to Reagan’s myth of America as “a shining city on a hill.” It was very much the principled outsider responding with a sense of history and a sense of honesty and a sense of profound need that would, in turn, create a great nation. Indeed, the word “great” is mentioned many times in Cuomo’s speech: “on behalf of the great Empire state,” “thank you for the great privilege,” “Today our great Democratic party,” “We would rather have laws written by the patron of this great city,” “to occupy the highest state, in the greatest State, in the greatest nation,” and, perhaps most importantly, “for love of this great nation.”

I illustrate Cuomo’s use of the word “great” to demonstrate that using “great” need not be a reductionist Faustian bargain or a capitulation to sloganeering if it is used reasonably. Cuomo believed, in ways that many Democrats have not since, that our nation was capable of being truly great. His sense of greatness was convincing not only because of the nimble way he weaved it into eloquent rhetoric, but because the modifier actually stands as a reliable measure for American opportunity. Stacked next to Cuomo, Trump’s ideas about “great” are little more than cheap fizz skimming off the beer keg.

Anyone who wishes to defeat Trump, whether as a Republican contender or the leading Democratic candidate, might wish to observe how the word “great” has struck a chord with his supporters. “Great,” which is tied in our notions of the “Great American Dream,” the “Great American Novel,” and even Great American Cookies, clearly has enough life left in it to change the course of the next eleven months. The time has come to reappropriate “great” from Trump and use it with a more meaningful greatness that wins back voters. America is too important a nation to have its notions of “greatness” be defined by a man hawking snake oil and hate. And failing that, for the cynics and the skeptics understandably tired of all these platitudes, there’s always the giddy nihilistic prospect of “great” becoming meaningless through overuse. Which would reveal Trump’s notion of “making America great again” for the shallow mantra it truly is.