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Why Trumpism is Still in Us

Why even those of us who detest him were complicit in what produced him

White House/Flickr

I watched Donald Trump’s reality-TV show The Apprentice only twice, but many stories about him had circulated among New York journalists since the 1970s, depicting a brash, corrupt, tacky young real-estate operator. In The Closest of Strangers, I mention his full-page newspaper ads of 1989 that screamed, “Bring Back the Death Penalty! Bring Back our Police!” to capitalize on public rage at five black youths accused of raping and bludgeoning a white female jogger in Central Park. (They were later exonerated, although some aspects of their doings that fateful night are still murky and contested.)

Trump’s incendiary newspaper ads weren’t his first public resort to “alternative facts,” but they made him seem so unlikely a contender for high public office that when he soared through the Republican presidential primaries in 2016, demolishing the party’s established officeholders, consultants, pollsters, and other operatives, I became preoccupied not with Trump’s demagoguery but with what made it so alluring to so many. What had been done to the civic culture and to the tens of millions of Americans who fell hook, line, and sinker, for this walking piece of garbage?

It wasn’t only material dispossession, severe and gnawing though it is for many Americans. Nor is the collapse of civic culture due only to hatred of people of color and women, which has long been strong in America and in Trump and many of his enthusiasts. A broader, deeper cause of the big shift is a love-hate relation to cultural elites and to oneself that’s known as ressentiment in French (pronounced “ruh-sohn-tee-mohn”). In this public psychopathology, countless individual lives of quiet desperation, insecurities, envy, and hatreds converge in social eruptions that burst the public façade of comity and swagger. These eruptions come on as noble crusades, and sometimes they achieve a fleeting brilliance even as they diminish their participants by making them feel big and strong, until their herd-like bellowing implodes on its own brutality, cowardice, and lies.

Worrying about that public psychopathology more than about Trump himself, I wanted to know why so many demanded to be lied to by simplistic narratives telling them who to blame and who to follow to “fix it.” The columns below record my reckonings with this dilemma.

In March, 2016, in a column for AlterNet and Salon, I foresaw the growing possibility of a Trump victory and insisted that neoliberal Democrats as much as Republicans had set the stage for it.  In a discussion of my column on New York City’s NPR station, I insisted, as I still do, that Trump was only the most prominent carrier and accelerant of a disease that Trump himself didn’t cause, and that Trumpism is only that disease’s most-virulent symptom.

Trying to diagnose the disease and its etiology, I look back beyond its racism and sexism, and even beyond capitalism, to other, “foundational” ills in our divided human hearts. The American republic’s designers recognized that such depths can’t be navigated with only progressive economic, “arc of history” compasses or with conservative “throne-and-altar” mystifications and celebrations of the swift, dark undercurrents that run through human history and that surface so often, as they’re doing now.

The hard reality is that most Americans, liberal or conservative, will do almost anything but name and challenge the deeper current and their causes. “Humankind cannot bear very much reality,” T.S. Eliot decided. Trumpism caters to humankind’s reluctance to bear reality by offering “alternative” realities that direct its followers’ resentments against false targets, or scapegoats.

If liberals and conservatives can’t face and name hard truths about ourselves, and if they keep on resorting to “diversity” color-coding or to racist displacements of blame, a Tucker Carlson will keep on nattering about the dangers of racial “replacement” while Judy Woodruff, redoubtable anchor of the PBS News Hour, will keep on nattering about “the first black woman” or “the first gay” or trans person to break a ceiling. By hyping such shifts and “firsts” instead of just letting “diversity” happen by civic-republican standards that confirm the beneficiaries as humans instead of labeling them as this or that, both left and right have depleted the civic-republican ethos that a decent society needs to survive.

Reconfiguring what we know as corporate capitalism is also absolutely necessary yet insufficient to surviving and thriving. There is not now and never will be a lasting way to relieve the oppressions I’ve mentioned unless we can transcend both the left’s and the right’s fixations on racism and sexism and unless we can get away from the casino-like financializing and intrusive, degrading consumer messaging that imprison even prosperous Americans by pumping fear and mistrust into our private and public lives. We needn’t (and shouldn’t) be “class war” Marxists to recognize that economic justice rides on deeper cultural narratives that can inspire civic-republican resistance and affirmations. I said this on Bill Moyers’ website on November 9, 2016, just after Trump had won the election. I said it more strongly on that same website five months after Trump’s inauguration.

We need something more potent than neoliberal bromides about diversity and market energy. The true and urgent claims of #MeToo or Black Lives Matter are weakened by the pretense or the naive assumption that breaking a structure’s glass ceilings strengthens its walls and foundations. Too often, it brings only glass-ceiling breakers such as Margaret Thatcher or Trump’s cabinet secretaries Betsy DeVos, Ben Carson, and Elaine Chao and other ceiling-smashing Silicon Valley malefactors such as Trump backer Peter Thiel and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. Meanwhile, our civic-republican, democratic “house” will continue to decay and collapse, as I was reminded when (as I recount in the opening paragraphs of “Cleansing Ourselves of Trumpism”) I wandered into that house and found a mildewed copy of Francis Hackett’s 1941 book What Mein Kampf Means for America, which anticipated our current crisis with chilling prescience. My “find” made this collapsing American house seem to stand (or fall) for our republic:

The house near the Massachusetts/New York state line where I found Francis Hackett’s 1941 book What Mein Kampf Means for America.

The powers that design the engines that distract us by draping us in a raiment of “diversity” aren’t malevolent or conspiratorial. They’re civically mindless as they grope us, goose us, surveil us, addict us, and indebt us, bypassing our brains and hearts on their way to our lower viscera and our wallets, making some of us mindless, too. Trump, the businessman, operated that way for decades until millions of Americans like those whom he disciplined and “fired” on The Apprentice elected him to operate that way from Washington. There is not now and never will be a way to stop this unless we can develop national story lines and wellsprings that sustain massive opposition to the casino-like financializing and consumer bamboozling that have made tens of millions of Trump followers too ill to bear the disease or its cures.

In 1941, Hackett’s book noted that people who are stressed, humiliated, and dispossessed are easy prey for demagogic orchestrations of “the casual fact, the creative imagination, the will to believe, and, out of these three elements, a counterfeit reality to which there was a violent, instinctive response. For it is clear enough that under certain conditions men respond as powerfully to fiction as they do to realities, and that in many cases they help to create the very fictions to which they respond. The fiction is taken for truth because the fiction is badly needed.”

Liberal virtue signaling and color-coding aren’t cures. They’re little better than the fictional challenges that Trumpism and authoritarianism make so alluring. Too many liberals who oppose Trump are doing well enough within present arrangements so that they’re reluctant to reconfigure them rigorously enough to achieve justice. Yet they don’t quite want to defend the present system’s growing inequities and perversions, either, so they resort to faux-compensatory, symbolic gestures, such as breaking glass ceilings without reconfiguring the walls and foundations. So doing, they’re perpetuating hypocrisies, palliatives, and resentments that may elevate Trumpism again in November, 2022 and 2024.

Here are some of columns about Trump and Trumpism from the time of his 2016 candidacy until now. Most of these were-posted and commented upon by other sites, as well.

Trump the candidate in 2016

How Both Political Party Establishments Set the Stage for Trump, Salon, March 2016

A Tyranny Years in the Making, DEMOCRACY, March, 2016

Trump the conqueror

How Trump ‘Won’ Against Political Correctness, Moyers & Co., January 3, 2016 Joining the ‘crusade’ against PC gave him what he needed to cover his own embarrassments.

The Die is Cast: Why He Can’t Help but Try Dictatorship  openDemocracy, January 21, 2017.

This Isn’t Only a Constitutional Crisis, It’s a Civic Implosion,   Moyers & Co., May, 2017

We Were All Complicit in Trump’s Victory: Getting rid of him wouldn’t prove that we’re no longer the country that elected him. Salon, May, 2017

Trump’s Phony Patriotism vs. the Real Thing,  Moyers & Co.

It Can Happen Here. (A moment in Berlin in 2018 that stirred my intuitions about Trump) The Washington Monthly, June 22, 2018. This was picked up by several other sites, including Diane Ravitch’s blog, where it drew many useful readers’ comments.

Trump and Putin

Trump’s breathtaking subservience to Putin in 2018 confused and embarrassed his followers as badly as Stalin’s cooperation with Nazi Germany in 1939 disoriented and shamed the Communist faithful. I drew that analogy in Salon.

Trump and the 2020 election

After Trump hopped onto the conservative campaign against ‘safe spaces,’ he ran for re-election to make America safe again.  openDemocracy, Salon, November 3, 2020. Unintentionally he bared the irony that the earliest, loudest demanders of “safety” and promoters of the “saftetyism” that conservatives now disparage were conservatives themselves.

Cleansing ourselves of Trumpism, DEMOCRACY, December 2020 My quiet but unnerving discovery of a very early warning about the disease.

Taming the new, Authoritarian American Beast, DEMOCRACY,  January 15, 2021. The hard reality behind the insurgency is that uprooting may require some dirty work.

Trump’s Impeachment Trial Showed How Far American Democracy Has Fallen, openDemocracy, 2021